Q&A: Growing mistrust and tensions between India and China

1. WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND TO THIS LATEST VIOLENCE?

Over the past several weeks, India claimed there have been a number of Chinese incursions into its territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) - a poorly demarcated border region between the two countries that stretches over more than 3,440km. The Chinese too have accused Indian forces of crossing into its territory.

Complicating the issue are rivers, lakes and snowcaps, which means that borderlines can shift with seasonal variations. Clashes have taken place on both the eastern and western sections of the LAC. But the focus of late has been on developments in Ladakh, particularly Galwan Valley, where troops from both countries fought.

Some analysts have linked China's aggressive posturing here to India's bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir last year into two federally administered territories - Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir.

Beijing reacted by accusing New Delhi of undermining its "territorial sovereignty by unilaterally changing its domestic law". This region includes around 38,000 sq km of territory that India says is illegally occupied by China.

2. WHAT IS THE DISPUTE IN GALWAN VALLEY ABOUT?

According to reports early last month, the latest row began there when Chinese soldiers entered territory claimed by India, erecting tents and guard posts. India too has been carrying out construction in this area to boost strategic infrastructure, including work on a bridge that is part of a network of roads that connects the region to Daulat Beg Oldi, site of an Indian airbase reactivated in 2008.

India has maintained all its activities are within the Indian side of the LAC. China has opposed these activities, accusing Indian forces of entering its territory, building defence fortifications and creating obstacles for Chinese patrol.

3. WHAT SPECIFICALLY LED TO THE FATAL CLASH?

According to Indian media reports, a patrol of Indian soldiers encountered Chinese troops in a steep section of Galwan Valley on Monday. China had reportedly agreed to remove a tent and retreat from there, in line with a June 6 disengagement agreement.

Events, however, took an unexpected turn when a physical fight broke out. An Indian colonel was pushed, and fell to his death in a gorge below. Reinforcements were soon called in, resulting in a wider clash involving fists, stones, iron rods and wooden clubs. Many of the deaths were due to soldiers falling into the Galwan river.

India's Ministry of External Affairs has blamed the violent face-off on "an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo" here. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, blamed Indian troops for illegally crossing the border twice on Monday and attacking Chinese soldiers.

4. WHY WAS THE CLASH LIMITED TO A NO-FIREARMS COMBAT?

Border patrols along the LAC have avoided the use of firearms to prevent an escalation of violence. This is reinforced by a 1996 bilateral agreement that states "neither side shall open fire... conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within 2km of the LAC".

5. WHAT IS THE POTENTIAL FOR DE-ESCALATION?

While both India and China agreed yesterday to maintain "peace and tranquillity", many feel this latest outbreak of violence will cast a long shadow on Indo-China relations. Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University in Canberra, tweeted yesterday: "The 1962 war destroyed for decades any prospect that India would trust China. We're now (seeing) that mistrust extended and compounded for another generation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2020, with the headline 'Growing mistrust and tensions'. Subscribe