Understanding the China-India Border Skirmish
The deadly clash between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh spotlights an underappreciated aspect of China’s competitive behavior. China’s agreement with India prohibiting border patrols’ use of firepower aligns with the Middle Kingdom’s long-time preference for static defense over engaging its soldiers in active defense – a product of the internal distrust that has plagued its military. The agreement with India, as a result, provides China benefits unrelated to bilateral de-escalation.
The Galwan Valley incident illuminates a broader pattern: Beijing frequently and subtly shapes competition to avoid areas that China considers its own weaknesses. The result: other countries find themselves operating within frameworks that benefit China in opaque but potentially powerful ways. Succeeding in competition with China will require that the United States and its allies detect, counter, and deter such behavior.
The confrontation along China’s disputed border with India on the evening of Monday, June 15 resulted in the first deaths from tensions between the two countries since 1975. The governments have traded accusations of responsibility for the violence, with China alleging that Indian troops had unlawfully entered into Chinese territory, and India claiming that the Chinese had been caught constructing unauthorized infrastructure on the Indian side of the border.1
The Indian military confirmed that at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the conflict, while China acknowledged suffering an unspecified number of wounded and killed. Media reports indicate that, according to intelligence from India, the Chinese incurred 43 casualties.2 Notably, the fighting did not involve firearms or explosives, which a 1996 agreement intended to deter escalation between the countries prohibits both militaries from using along the border.3 Although soldiers are allowed to carry arms, the agreement’s restrictions on their use led combatants to rely on primitive weapons: Chinese soldiers threw stones and wielded wooden sticks wrapped with barbed wire, while Indian forces employed iron batons.4
China’s use of rudimentary weapons appears at odds with the country’s status as a sophisticated, rising great power. Among Western opinion leaders, China has achieved a lofty reputation as a formidable competitor boasting a growing economy and world-leading technology innovation. Understood through this common framework, China’s use of 18th-century arms seems inexplicable. The basis for the decision becomes clear, however, when considered within the patterns of China’s military history. China’s military historically has been marked by internal distrust. Leaders frequently constrained their own soldiers’ individual capabilities and instead used formidable-looking infrastructure to deter adversaries. The accounts of Major Clarence Dalrymple Bruce, who traveled through China extensively and whose accomplishments included commanding a regiment of Chinese soldiers serving under British officers, described these measures in detail:
The outer walls are twenty feet high and four to six feet thick. East and west there are double gates of solid aspect, while the inner wall is thirty-five to forty feet high all round. … Round the highest wall runs a narrow parapet for defensive purposes, but being built within four feet of the summit of the wall it is inaccessible, except in three or four places. From the point of modern defence the whole place is pitiable. Guns there are none. The garrison consists of a half-score withered old men, of the usual type of soldier seen in these parts, and they are the proud possessors of wooden jingals. One other item of defence remains to be catalogued, and with no intention to hurt the feelings of the trusty garrison to whose charge is committed the most advanced outpost their mighty empire possesses, this must not be passed over. At intervals of a few yards along the top of the walls, piles of small round stones are heaped as ammunition for the purpose of repelling assault! Could even Chinese conservatism go further? … We were still in the days of David and Goliath.5
In certain cases, officers deliberately withheld from their soldiers more advanced weapons: “In one of the infantry camps visited we made the acquaintance of a junior officer. Him we asked if there were any modern rifles. He replied that there were, and at once sent for one, explaining at the same time that each [unit] had its two hundred rifles, but that they were always kept locked up, and the men trained with the old kind.”6
China’s current approach to the border dispute with India aligns with the Middle Kingdom’s historical emphasis on extensive static defenses instead of armed confrontation. This tendency also specifically elucidates the 1996 agreement, which suggests a continued lack of trust in the Chinese military.
Through what appeared to be a reasonable de-escalatory framework, China entrenched a competitive dynamic that facilitated the style of defense Beijing has preferred for well over a century. China successfully defined the parameters of the conflict and, as a result, gained the upper hand.
Although seemingly of little significance to the United States, the recent China-India melee in remote Ladakh offers a deep insight into Beijing’s behavior. China’s posture has been engineered to correct against what Beijing perceives to be the country’s own internal vulnerabilities.
This framework has implications for how U.S. policy makers and business leaders understand issues as diverse as China’s military strategy and behavior, Beijing’s treatment of foreign companies in China, and its elevation of national champions in key sectors such as tech. Protecting both economic and national security interests will require the United States and allied nations to consider more carefully China’s assessment of its assets and liabilities, and its resulting behavior in the intensifying Great Power conflict.
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* Photo by Eric Feng: Signage for Tianshuihai Army Service Station located in Aksai Chin, currently administered by the People’s Republic of China
1 Marc Santora, “For China and India, A Border Dispute That Never Ended,” The New York Times, June 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/16/world/asia/india-china-border.html.
2 “China Suffered 43 Casualties in Violent Face-off in Galwan Valley, Reveal Indian Intercepts,” Times of India, June 16, 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/china-suffered-43-casual-ties-in-violent-face-off-in-galwan-valley-reveal-indian-intercepts/articleshow/76411372.cms.
3 “Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas,” People’s Republic of China and The Republic of India, adopted November 29, 1996, https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/CN%20IN_961129_Agreement%20between%20China%20and%20India.pdf.
4 Amy Kazmin, “Brutal Details Emerge of Deadly China-India Border Clash,” The Financial Times, June 17, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/572ecd74-af77-400e-aa0a-6012dec260a6.
5 Clarence D. Bruce, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1907, page 245.
6 Ibid, page 292.