A Himalayan tragedyBeijing and New Delhi must talk immediately so as to maintain peace in the neighbourhood.
The violent face-off between Indian Army and Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers in eastern Ladakh’s Galwan valley on Monday evening does not bode well for peace in the neighbourhood. India has claimed that 20 of its soldiers were killed; China is yet to disclose the number of casualties, if any, though there are unconfirmed reports of casualties on their side as well. As details of the chain of events and the brutality of the violence emerge—heavy use of rods and stones rather than firearms to maim and kill the adversary—all that can be said is that it was an avoidable and unnecessary tragedy.
The stand-off began on the intervening night of May 5 and 6 when both sides to the conflict accused each other of intruding into their sides. After a month-long standoff, there were reports that de-escalation was underway following a high-level meeting between Leh-based 14 Corps commander Lieutenant General Harinder Singh and South Xinjiang Military Region’s Major General Liu Lin, on June 6, in Ladakh. But with the Monday tragedy, the Sino-Indian relations have sunk to a new nadir not seen since the last violent clash in 1975 or at least since their rapprochement in 1988.
It is not abnormal for the neighbours that share an almost 3,500-kilometre border to dispute on territorial issues. The vast, wild border has remained a thorn in their relations since as long as the 1962 war, but they have mostly avoided violent confrontations. Their last major standoff in 2017, which lasted for 73 days, was settled when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with each other. The least the people of the neighbourhood expected this time around was mature handling of the standoff since the two Asian giants were said to have been trying to strengthen their bilateral trade relationship that stands at around $90 billion at the moment.
But the tragedy has exposed the Achilles' heel on their diplomatic fronts, marking a major setback for both of them as they try hard to burnish their images on the global stage. The recklessness with which they handled their border dispute has alarmed their other neighbours as well, most of all Nepal which shares borders with both of them. Nepal felt betrayed when India and China agreed, in 2015, to conduct trade via the tri-junction of the Lipulekh Pass. Today, it is closely watching—in utter disappointment—as the giants clash, for it has outstanding territorial concerns with both of them and is calling for a peaceful solution. As an important ally of both the disputing countries, Nepal is keen to see that they de-escalate permanently and live together peacefully.
Not only are India and China in a position to benefit from living together peacefully, but they also have a great responsibility to maintain peace in the neighbourhood. Delhi and Beijing must, therefore, initiate high-level talks immediately to strengthen their bilateral relations. The last thing expected of them is the killing and maiming of each other's soldiers for a piece of mostly uninhabitable land at a time when the entire world is struggling to save more lives in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.