Jun 18, 2020 - World

The story behind the deadly border brawl between India and China

Indian troops man the border. Photo: Faisal Khan/Anadolu Agency via Getty

On a mountain ridge, in darkness, with improvised weapons that appear almost medieval, Indian and Chinese soldiers fought to the death.

Driving the news: They slung stones but not bullets. Many of the casualties — 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese — fell to their deaths. They were the first fatalities from combat between India and China in at least 45 years.

  • On one side: India's troops were patrolling an area of the Galwan Valley from which China had agreed to withdraw when they walked into a carefully orchestrated ambush, a senior Indian official claims to The Hindu newspaper.
  • On the other: China claims the Indian soldiers crossed the border and “provoked” its troops.

The history

  • China never accepted its colonial-era border with India, and those tensions turned to war in 1962. China prevailed, and the new status quo became the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
  • While there have been repeated clashes near the LAC since, both sides have agreed not to use guns to help avoid another war.
  • But competition between the Asian giants has been increasing as China flexes its muscles in the region, including with its Belt and Road initiative, and as India moves closer to the U.S.

What’s next

  • Indian media and public opinion are in an uproar, but while Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed the soldiers did not die “in vain,” the government's messaging has been restrained.
  • China, meanwhile, has said little through officials or state media. The instinct on both sides seems to be de-escalation.

What to watch: After the biggest crisis in decades, though, “Sini-Indian relations can never go back to the old normal,”says Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment. “They will reset with greater competitiveness and in ways that neither country had actually intended at the beginning of this crisis.”

Go deeper