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What is next in the China-India border conflict?

Aditya Sharma New Delhi
January 28, 2022

India and China started the year with a round of inconclusive talks on an ongoing border dispute in the Himalayas. The disagreement is a potentially dangerous flashpoint between Asia's two biggest powers.

A soldier stands in the mountains
An Indian solider stands guard along a highway in the HimalayasImage: Sajad Hameed/Pacific Press/picture alliance

The disputed Himalayan border between India and China sees little activity this time of the year.

Large swaths of the area are snowed in, and troops patrolling the border endure sub-zero conditions, which also accurately describes the current state of dialogue.

India and China have held 14 rounds of military and diplomatic talks since a clash in June 2020 between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan river valley, which left at least 20 Indian troops dead. The Chinese military later said four of its troops had been killed

Galwan valley, in the eastern Ladakh region, is one of the many flashpoints between the two sides along the de-facto border known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The latest round of talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders earlier in January ended without progress, much like the previous meeting, held three months earlier.

"Obstructions in talks are inevitable," said Geeta Kochhar, a Chinese studies professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Kochhar told DW that India and China have different perceptions as to where exactly the ill-defined 3,500-kilometer-long border should be demarcated. Several sectors are claimed by both New Delhi and Beijing.

Both sides are dealing with "deep-rooted and long-pending issues, especially when the understanding of border differs so greatly," she said. 

Map of India-China border region

India and China's stalemate in the Himalayas 

"There is no way the Chinese are going to vacate what they have occupied now," said Alka Acharya, former director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.

"They've never done it and there is no reason to assume that they are going to rewrite history," she told DW.

India and China each control certain parts of the border that are claimed by the other side, and New Delhi has repeatedly accused Chinese forces of incursions.

The Indian government is also under pressure to act against reported Chinese construction activities along the border. 

With regional elections in the coming months, New Delhi is "not going to take any decision that is going to be interpreted as having capitulated to the Chinese," Acharya said. 

All this means that the border talks are likely going to be a long-drawn process, she added.

"In 2022, I do see a step toward deeper engagement," said Kochhar, adding, however, that a proper delineation of the border is not likely to come anytime soon. 

"Some new mechanisms will be designed and established to defuse tensions as and when they arise. Yet, the root problem will remain," Kochhar said.

"One thing we must acknowledge is that both India and China have different ways of dealing with issues, partly due to their political structure, but also due to their global positions," Kochhar explained. 

"Everything will and should move in a step-by-step manner, considering the overall benefit and interests of both sides, which means an uninterrupted discussion is the only way forward," she said.

Can fatal confrontations be avoided?

Since the Galwan incident, there have been isolated skirmishes, and even reports of shots fired at the border for the first time in 45 years, although no casualties have been reported. The deadly clash in June 2020 involved a brawl between soldiers on both sides.

Despite the multiple rounds of talks, there are no signs of tensions easing between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Both sides have stationed tens of thousands of troops, backed by massive military hardware, including tanks and fighter jets in the region. 

Moreover, Indian and Chinese soldiers reportedly rang in the new year by hoisting their respective national flags in Galwan valley.

"The situation is fraught with a certain amount of apprehension and anything can be a trigger," Acharya said.

"Given the presence of a large number of troops and equipment, I think the overall situation is characterized by a high degree of uncertainty and tension," she added.

"On the other hand, part of the ongoing talks is devoted to ensuring that another clash doesn't take place," she noted.

Kochhar is optimistic that both sides will do all they can to avoid another clash.

"It is unlikely that the Galwan incident will be repeated at any part of the border, although the likelihood of advancing disengagement will be slow in the first half of the year," she said, adding she expected "progress and outcomes" later in 2022.  

Border dispute weighs on India-China economic ties

The border dispute has also impacted other aspects of India-China relations, notably trade and investment. 

In the aftermath of the Galwan incident, New Delhi banned dozens of Chinese apps in India, seeking to limit Chinese investment in sensitive companies and sectors. 

It also subjected Chinese imports to extra scrutiny. 

But in 2021, bilateral trade between the two countries crossed $125 billion (€112 billion), with imports from China nearing a record $100 billion, The Hindu newspaper reported.

"The whole question of China's role in India's development story at this point is a very important one," Acharya said. 

"It is quite pointless to chop the branch on which one is sitting and that branch happens to be India's economic relations with China," she added.

"India has some leverage, because where else will the Chinese get as big a market in Asia?" she said.

Kochhar disagrees. "The whole notion that good economic ties will dilute border issues is a farce," she said, adding that despite the growth in trade volume, the overall momentum of strategic issues has had an impact on relations.

"We cannot deny the fact that the border issue remains critical to overall ties," Kochhar said. 

Edited by: Wesley Rahn