The Sino-Indian Standoff and a Most Misunderstood Frontier

July 15, 2020

India and China have begun pulling back from their disputed border after the deadliest clashes between Indian and Chinese troops since 1967. This  “disengagement process”, however, is likely to prove to be only a temporary fix without a major overhaul of thinking about contested borders in the mountains and high cold deserts between South and Central Asia.

Attention has focused so far on what is called the “Line of Actual Control” where 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops died in last month’s reported hand-to-hand combat in the Galwan Valley, which lies on the periphery of Ladakh in northwest India. My own perspective is rather different. I first got to know Ladakh while researching a book on another conflict on its periphery — the Siachen War between India and Pakistan on the world’s highest, coldest battlefield. I have since been working on a new version which looks more broadly at conflict on the contested frontiers of Ladakh, once the largest but least populated part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. These include the Line of Actual Control at the western end of the long Indian-Chinese border, the Siachen frontline, and the “Line of Control” separating the armies of India and Pakistan in disputed Kashmir (the BBC has an excellent map of the areas described here).



To be sure, there are significant differences between Sino-Indian and Sino-Pakistani relationships, and between the way their disputed frontiers and demarcation lines are managed. However, there are enough similarities to discern some common threads. All three — the Line of Actual Control, the Siachen frontline, and the Line of Control — form a chain around the periphery of Ladakh. The contestation over these demarcation lines happens at high altitude in remote and rough terrain far from the civilian population. Instability and conflict are driven both by tactical and broader confrontations. All three demarcation lines are becoming highly militarized frontiers in a region where previously no fixed borders existed.

Set against this larger picture, focusing on the question of whether or not the Indian Army retains a tactical foothold in the Galwan Valley obscures more than it reveals. Even in an old-fashioned conventional land war, the terrain in Galwan is such that it would not be a defensible position; in a modern war with airpower and satellite targeting, it would be irrelevant. Instead, there is a need to step back and retest all the implicit assumptions that have led to the armies of three nuclear-armed powers — India, China, and Pakistan — fighting over uninhabited high-altitude terrain where even breathing can be a struggle.

Others have written about the broader Sino-Indian relationship. Since my own research has focused on Ladakh, I will leave the subject of this relationship to those more qualified to comment. Instead, I look here at the steady militarization of frontiers between India, China, and Pakistan that, over the long term, has created a ripple effect of instability in a region that does not lend itself to hard borders.

A Frozen History

European nation-states historically built borders as defensive structures, forged through centuries of warfare between rival ethnic, religious and linguistic populations. In the mountains and high cold deserts between South and Central Asia, so unsuited to human habitation, there are no populations to divide. Until the mid-20th century, the harshness of the terrain acted as a natural but not insurmountable barrier between regions connected by the caravan trade and by a cosmopolitan web of overlapping cultural, political, and religious ties. Ladakh, for example, with its large Buddhist population, was culturally closer to Tibet, but politically anchored to Kashmir.

In the pre-British period, whenever treaties acknowledged any division of territory, they tended to be vaguely worded, stressed the importance of trade ties and referred for example to respecting “the boundaries of Ladakh and its surroundings as fixed from ancient times.” After the creation of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir under British sovereignty in 1846, British  India’s colonial rulers tried to demarcate its frontiers. But they changed their minds frequently in response to changing assessments of a perceived threat from Russia, and to the waning of central power in China. This reduced China’s ability to control its periphery in places like Tibet and Xinjiang. British India in any case had no need for hard borders. Such was the nature of British hegemony that it had the diplomatic, military, and economic clout to impose its will without fighting over every inch of land. As a result, though Britain drew many different lines on maps, the frontiers of Ladakh remained fluid right up to World War II.

It was only with the great upheavals of the mid-20th century and the disappearance of British hegemony that countries in the region began to fill out to their assumed borders. With the Partition of India in 1947 by departing British colonial rulers, Jammu and Kashmir was torn apart by India and Pakistan in their first war, and then divided along what eventually became known as the Line of Control. In China, the 1949 triumph of the communists in the civil war led to a reassertion of central power. China took over Tibet, culminating in an uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama into exile in India. Then came a dispute over the ownership of the Aksai Chin —  a desolate expanse of desert and salt flats to the north east of Ladakh — where China built a road along an ancient but little used trade route in order to move troops and supplies more easily from Xinjiang to Tibet. The British had been ambivalent about whether to include the Aksai Chin in Ladakh, Xinjiang or Tibet. Arguably neither India nor China had a solid claim to the Aksai Chin — it had never been administered by either Chinese or Indian authorities – and its status varied in a multiplicity of British proposals. But the dispute over the Aksai Chin, disagreements over the border between India and China far to the east, a broader contestation for power in Asia, along with Chinese sensitivities over Tibet, eventually led to a 1962 border war in which India suffered a humiliating defeat to China.

Ladakh’s once fluid borders slammed shut, leaving it separated from neighboring Gilgit-Baltistan by the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, and from Tibet and Xinjiang by the India-China border row. Since then, India has been steadily moving to shore up gaps in the ill-defined frontiers that run around periphery of Ladakh. This is not necessarily India’s fault; it has often acted in response to choices made by either China or Pakistan. Yet looking at these various frontlines over the long term, it is far from clear that seeking militarized fixed borders in the uninhabited mountains and high, cold deserts on the periphery of Ladakh is contributing to stability.

Ripples of Instability

The Siachen War is a salutary lesson in how military operations in these mountains can escalate far beyond their initial intentions. In 1978, India sent army mountaineers to explore the 76-kilometer long Siachen glacier, which forms a wedge between territory held by Pakistan and China in a bleak, glaciated no man’s land high in the Karakoram mountains. Pakistan had been allowing foreign climbers into the region and India wanted to check what was going on. Based on interviews I conducted for my book, there was no intention on the part of either India or Pakistan to start a war. But as Indian military mountaineers returned every summer in the following years, Pakistan sent its own men up to find out what the Indians were up to. Soon mountaineering expeditions mutated into military patrols and the two countries became convinced the other planned to take over Siachen. In 1984, both countries made plans to occupy the Saltoro ridge that overlooks the Siachen glacier — not because they particularly wanted it, but because they did not want the other side to have it. The Indian military managed to get its own men into position first; Pakistan rushed troops up into the mountains to try to drive the Indians out and the Siachen War began. Initially Indian plans had been to put on a show of force over the summer — nobody had ever spent the winter in Siachen. But as fighting intensified, both armies dug in for the winter and remain there to this day.

The Siachen War was grim even by the usual grim standards of warfare. Men wasted away because the altitude made them incapable of eating, were swept away by avalanches or fell into deep crevasses. The air was so thin that walking was an effort. While altitude sickness and frostbite were an obvious cause of casualties, soldiers suffered from more humiliating problems too — piles were one of the more common complaints since men were often dehydrated. When they did go out to fight, there was no romantic charging into battle — men lumbered uphill with agonizing slowness, some of them vomiting from the altitude, and then fumbled with guns that froze in the cold and used bayonets instead. They fought battles at heights of up to 21,000 feet. Many were wounded or killed by artillery fire directed at them from below; they might then bleed to death parched with the thirst that comes with high-altitude since it is so hard to evacuate men from these heights. Even without fighting, deployment at these heights is deadly — soldiers continue to die despite a ceasefire agreed in 2003.

Yet once the war started, it proved impossible to end. Instead the armies of India and Pakistan sprawled ever outwards as they jostled each other for advantage. It is part of the inexorable logic of mountain warfare that for every new post that is set up, there is always another high position nearby that looks like it might be useful to help defend it. The two armies eventually reached near the Line of Control.

The fallout did not end there. In 1999, Pakistan dusted off a military plan first drawn up in the late 1980s to attack Indian supply lines to Siachen. In what became known as the Kargil War, Pakistan used the cover of winter to move troops undetected across the Line of Control, and set up a string of posts that ran for 168 kilometers. These included high positions that allowed Pakistan to target artillery fire on the main road used to send supplies to Siachen — one that was also a vital artery linking the Kashmir Valley with Ladakh. After several months of fierce, high-altitude fighting, Pakistan was forced to pull back its troops when it came under intense international pressure led by the United States. India and Pakistan had tested nuclear weapons only a year earlier and the outside world was alarmed about an escalating conflict that might end up in a nuclear exchange. But even after the Pakistani retreat, India was compelled to increase its year-round presence in the mountains above the Kargil region, exposing hundreds more troops to the deadly consequences of deployment at high altitude. It was what the Kargil Review Committee, set up by India after the Kargil War, described as the “Siachenisation of the Kargil Heights.”

A similar trend of filling out towards the frontiers has happened on the eastern periphery of Ladakh. In recent years, India has been building up roads and infrastructure on its side of the Line of Actual Control. This includes the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road which connects the Ladakhi capital, Leh, with a high-altitude airstrip near the Chinese frontier. While this work was carried out in part in response to Chinese road-building on its side, it has also become ensnared in the perverse logic of mountain warfare: for every new position staked out to shore up defenses, another one beyond needs to be defended to protect it. Thus India became all the more determined to maintain its toehold in the Galwan Valley in order to protect the Daulat Beg Oldi Road.

In the months and years ahead, India may well end up having to post more soldiers along the Line of Actual Control, exposing them to the perils of high altitude and rough terrain. Though the terrain there is not as brutal as in Siachen, it is still harsh. The Galwan Valley, for example, lies at nearly 14,000 feet, high enough to make breathing difficult. Many of the Indian troops killed in last month’s clashes died of exposure after falling, or being pushed, into the freezing Galwan River.

Risks of Miscalculation

The tendency to fill out towards frontiers is accompanied by a serious risk of miscalculation, in part due to a misreading of the intentions of the other side. In the course of my research on Siachen, I travelled there with the Indian and Pakistani armies, conducted hours of interviews with serving and retired soldiers in both countries and waded through reams of nebulous historical background. In doing so, I have come to the conclusion that little can be known for sure. My only certainty about last month’s fighting in Galwan is that details of what happened will continue to change in the coming months and may never be fully known. In reconstructing battles fought on Siachen, I found it impossible to reconcile the versions given to me by India and Pakistan. This was not simply the mismatch you would expect from rival armies. Nearly every detail was contested. I would also run into contradictions between men who had fought on the same side, sometimes on the same day.

There are many reasons for this. As I discovered myself while walking around over-enthusiastically in Ladakh at 17,500 feet, altitude diminishes you psychologically as much as it attacks you physically and it is not always easy to keep a grip on what is going on. Soldiers fighting high up in Siachen were far too intent on surviving and on the narrowed vision of hand-to-hand combat to have any grasp of the broader picture. They were often several days’ walk away from their commanders, far below. Carefully thought-out military plans were upended by the unpredictable mountain weather, but pursued nonetheless, adding to the chaos. It is an environment ripe for misunderstandings and miscalculations as information is passed down the line from the site of a battle to commanders and from there to governments in national capitals. Maps and modern satellite imagery can help make sense of the positions of soldiers from rival armies. But these only go so far. Threat perceptions on either side are shaped not only by the position of troops, but by topography, access routes and availability of supplies.

Indeed, one of the few certainties about high altitude warfare in these mountains is that the situation always looks different from the other side. That may seem like a statement of the obvious. But the temptation is to assume these differences are equal and opposite. Instead, they are jaggedly asymmetric. To take one example, and without going into too many details, the topography and access routes as seen by helicopter on the Pakistani side of the Siachen region are very different from the view you gain on the Indian side, informing the way the two countries have understood the war and its connection to the area where the Kargil War was fought. To take another example, China sees the Aksai Chin as essential for defending its periphery in Xinjiang and Tibet. Indian views have been colored by its defeat in the 1962 war and the need to counter China.

The risk of miscalculation is all the higher given that many parts of the demarcation lines around the periphery of Ladakh do not follow any obvious topography, determined by natural features like rivers and ridgelines. They rely instead on positions achieved through fighting or on contested historical documents and old maps. There is no natural feature, for example, to explain why the Galwan Valley should be split between India and China.

Tactical confrontations are then filtered through the lens of broader diplomatic ties. When relations are good, they can be contained. When suspicions run high, they are more likely to escalate. The frontiers on the periphery of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir contain a multitude of reasons for mutual distrust. These include the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, Indian worries about a Sino-Pakistani alliance that leaves it fearing it might one day face a two-front war, and China’s concern about deepening Indian-U.S. ties. On top of that, China relies on Gilgit-Baltistan as its land bridge into Pakistan — a major irritant for India which claims all of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir as its own. This land bridge is a vital part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects meant to connect southwestern China with the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. On the Indian side of the Line of Control, a decision by the Indian government last August to separate Ladakh from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir prompted criticism from China. In such an environment, it would seem unwise to let a tactical confrontation high up in the mountains spin out of control.


To be fair, there are no easy answers to minimizing conflict on the frontiers and demarcation lines on the periphery of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. A softening of borders to restore old trade ties would be ideal but looks unlikely in the near term. So too would be mutual withdrawal from flashpoints and the creation of large buffer zones. The trend, however, has been in the other direction, with armies filling out to the frontiers. In the short term, perhaps the best that can be done is to re-examine all the assumptions and miscalculations accumulated over years and even decades, that in turn created the conditions for last month’s clashes in Galwan. Above all, there is a need to avoid the temptation to become so overly focused on tactical positions that these end up driving strategy rather than the other way around. That is not to say that India should necessarily have given up its toehold in Galwan. But framing is important, and becoming absorbed by the tactical over the strategic can lead to a blinding recklessness. Had the situation been allowed to escalate between India and China, it would have been clear in hindsight that the stretch of barren rock at the lower end of the Galwan Valley was an absurd place over which to start a war.

In his memoir, The Making of a Frontier, about the five years he spent on the fringes of Jammu and Kashmir in the late 19th century, British officer Col. Algernon Durand observed that “the man on the Frontier sees but his own square on the chess-board, and can know but little of the whole game in which he is a pawn.” When and if we next see clashes on the frontiers of Ladakh, it will be vital to keep this perspective in mind. Not all squares on a chess board are worth fighting over.



Myra MacDonald is a the author of two books: Heights of Madness, One Woman’s Journey in Pursuit of a Secret War on the Siachen War, and Defeat is an Orphan, How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War, which looks at the relationship between India and Pakistan after their nuclear tests in 1998. A revised and updated version of her earlier book on Siachen, White as the Shroud, India, Pakistan and War on the Frontiers of Kashmir, is due out later this year. She lives in Scotland and can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.

Image: Good Free Photos (Photo by Cascayoyo)