Contention in Himalayan frontier


By Nsungbemo Ezung


Tension resurface between India and China after the reports of a deadly physical clashes in the last few days between the two deployed troops in Galwan River Valley, a high altitude and largely uninhabited region, at the disputed Ladakh-Aksai Chin sector which reportedly killed more than dozens of soldiers belonging to both groups, the deadliest encounter between the two countries since the 1962 Chinese invasion of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh (hereafter AP) as a result of which India under Jawaharlal Nehru conceded Aksai Chin to China. Not surprisingly, China is now using this violent clash as an opportunity to claim its right over the land of Galwan valley.

This latest Galwan River Valley incident cannot be read as an isolated incident in one border area involving the armies of two neighboring countries, which together share more than 4000 kms of international boundary, but rather is a reflection of decades long larger political conflict between them over the Himalayan frontier which not only are affecting their relations but also had its detrimental effects on the geo-politics of the whole of South Asia and the world. In fact, reports of regular border disputes over the past few years where the two armies used to come face to face at many border points like Aksai Chin, Sikkim and AP only reflects a deteriorating relationship and increasing tension mounting between the two neighboring Asian giants.

Ever since the 1962 Chinese aggression, after China unilaterally withdrew from the Panchsheel Agreement of 1954 which contains principles of peaceful co-existence and invaded India and then  withdrew on its own terms and conditions meaning a humiliating defeat for the latter, the Indo-China relations are defined by an enigma of mistrust, suspicion and competition for political supremacy in Asia, and which, for obvious reasons, occupies a dominant place in the political discourse in the history of modern Asia. This strained relation between the two continues to this day despite witnessing over the years an increase in cooperation in the social, cultural and economic spheres which serve the interests of both. However in a situation where cooperation happens only when it concerns the interest of the respective countries it increases the mutual distrust that is already prevailing in their relations for decades. Any hope of a normal and cordial relationship between the two in any foreseeable future appears bleak given the hostile political and military atmosphere confronting the two since 1962.

Disputes over territory, as demonstrated by the recent Galwan valley incident, constitute the major contention point in the already strained Indo-China relations, alongside many other contentious issues. This dispute over different territories, which includes AP, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling, Tibet and Aksai Chin covering the entire 4000 km long Himalayan stretch, marked by claims and counter-claims from both sides, makes the incidents of clashes between the two armies at different border points a regular phenomena where the respective leaderships appears helpless to prevent them.

Among the disputes over different territories, the issue of the sovereignty of Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, which China referred to as South Tibet, forms a major source of dispute between India and China. In theory, as long as China controls Tibet, it gives political impetus to them to keep claiming AP as an integral part of their country as an extension of greater Tibetan territory. In order to substantiate its claim over AP, China continues to protest visits of any Indian officials to this very “disputed territory”. This skeptical posture and attitude of China over India’s “illegal occupation” of “South Tibet” creates perfect propaganda to discredit India’s claim over AP, and the same model is used from Aksai Chin to refuse to recognize the latter’s right over Kashmir, whereas Tibet has its own unique social and political history which gives the Tibetans every right to pursue self-determination. The most unfortunate scenario is that their political aspiration is already sandwiched between the two contesting powers. And India providing the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, a political space in the country to establish a Government-in-exile for Tibet, which also indicates India’s recognition for Tibet’s right to self determination, can provide enough political grounds to China to have strong reservations on India’s sovereign rights over Kashmir, AP and the entire Northeast India.

Resolution of this contest for legitimacy over Tibet and AP among others remains a distant reality as the leaders of both the countries show no political will or commitment towards resolving the same. In the process, the conflict will only deprive the different communities in the  affected areas their political rights and aspirations in their homeland. This is the classic case where thousands of microscopic communities inhabiting different parts of the Himalayan frontier for centuries, which had their own unique and political history, had been submerged in a power struggle between the so called superpowers, thereby reducing these communities to insignificant people only to be used as political pawns by the contesting superpowers in their ultimate quest for establishing political supremacy in the region.

With so many internal/domestic disturbances, problems and challenges confronting both the nations, the two cannot afford to engage in a full military confrontation in the near future. Nevertheless this will not stop the two countries from continuing to engage in a psychological warfare given the deep rooted distrust and suspicion that had already developed in the past five decades, and which had caused enough damage in their relations which is irreparable. Aggressive posturing, both in political and military front, for asserting supremacy from each side could be the new rule of engagement that would define Indo-China relations in the coming decades.

The nature of the conflict in this Himalayan frontier, where both India and China assert political and military stakes makes this frontier as one of the most volatile frontiers in the world. And a full-blown armed conflict in the frontier, if it has to happen, involving two nuclear-armed neighbours, which constitute more than 35 percent of the world’s population, both taking pride in having one of the largest standing armies in the world and whose influence extends to all parts of the world, would turn this regional conflict into a consequential crisis that could affect the whole world.


(Nsungbemo Ezung, PhD is an independent researcher based in Wokha, Nagaland and can be reached at ezung_n

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