Beijing and Delhi look to ease tensions despite border bloodshed | World News

For the best part of five decades China and India successfully managed to avoid bloodshed along their shared border high up in the Himalayas, until Monday night.

Twenty Indian soldiers were killed and an unknown number of Chinese – Beijing hasn’t yet revealed its losses and probably never will.

Indian officials estimate 45 Chinese soldiers were either killed or injured – if true, these would be the PLA’s first military deaths outside of China since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war and the first loss of life along the disputed border since 1975.

Although sides predictably blame the other for causing the violence, we only have India’s version of events to go on – other than claiming Indian soldiers “crossed the line”, China has remained silent on detail.

Getting accurate, independent reporting from such a remote region is consistently hard and it wouldn’t be a great surprise if news of more grim detail or further deaths emerges in coming weeks.

The Indian military says it intervened to stop Chinese forces building a post on the Indian side of the line in the Galwan Valley.

Clashes followed and soldiers used studded sticks, rocks and clubs wrapped in barbed wire to brutalise each other.

Weapons were available but none were fired, in keeping with an old agreement between the two Asian giants.

Incidents of fist-fights and rock-throwing have occurred over the past 45 years, but events this week suddenly put the two nuclear powers in direct conflict.

But rather than retaliate, Beijing and Delhi appear to be dialling the tension down. Indian PM Modi hasn’t taken a nationalistic tone, as it was feared he might, although he has warned China his country is “capable of giving a fitting reply be it any kind of situation”.

Modi met his military chiefs late into Tuesday night but has shown no signs of urgency or panic by arranging an all-party meeting to discuss the situation on Friday afternoon, two days away.

So what now?

A high level de-escalation process was already under way after weeks of rising tensions along the border. Those channels of communication have remained open and thankfully appear to be working.

China’s motives are unclear. If India is right, and PLA troops were to blame, it would fit a recent pattern of assertiveness by Beijing, perhaps taking advantage of a COVID-distracted world to accelerate its ambitions in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Taiwan and now along the Indian border.

Indian army trucks move along a route leading to Ladakh at Gagangeer in Kashmir's Ganderbal district. Pic: Reuters/Danish Ismail
Indian army trucks move along a route leading to Ladakh at Gagangeer

Neither side appears to want all-out conflict and India, with the far smaller military, would likely have most to fear from that.

Trade has grown rapidly between the two countries since the late 1990s and any consequence to that would be detrimental to both sides.

Politically PM Modi and Chinese Premier Xi have held summits in recent years and China even helped Modi in his last re-election by voting at the UN in favour of designating Masood Azhar, a Pakistan militant, a global terrorist. It was a diplomatic victory for Modi at an opportune time.

After cordial relations in recent years, it is likely both sides will now be more wary of each other, particularly India which eyes nervously Chinese involvement in Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the latter once Indian allies now tilting towards the lure of Chinese riches.

It might be that after weeks of growing acrimony, a blow-out like this was inevitable and both capitals will work to calm tensions in the short term at the same time saving face internally.

But China and India are both growing their militaries and they both have grand ambitions – the bigger they get, the more likely they are to bump up against each other.

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