The Territorial Dispute Between India and China – A Military Conflict as an Imminent Peril?

Tanja Neumann - Advisor, Conflict & Peace Program

Picture Source: ADGPI


India and China both claim territory along the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. The overlapping territorial claims stretch beyond 3,500 km of shared land. The disputed area comprises the longest deficiently demarcated Line of Actual Control in the world. 

The conflict roots back to 1962, when a massive Chinese military invasion of India’s northern frontier, the Ladakh region (the contested territory referred to by China as Aksai Chin), took place. This so-called Sino-India War ended abruptly after a month without any resolution when China unilaterally announced a ceasefire on the Sino-Indian border. 1st December 1962 onwards, China withdrew its troops 20 kilometers away from the Line of Actual Control, which has existed between the two States since 1959. The reasons for the unilateral declaration by China remain unclear since the conflict was an extraordinary success for China due to India’s lack of military presence in the region. Since then, the dispute about the territory has periodically erupted into countless minor conflicts and diplomatic discrepancies, most known the Doklam faceoff in 2017. Once again, tension seems to be growing in the Himalayas. This time, the build-up appears to be larger than ever seen before.

Thousands of Chinese troops have forced their way into the Galwan valley in Ladakh along the de-facto border, exorbitantly more than the usual Chinese incursions. Chinese forces put up tents, dug trenches and moved heavy equipment on what has been regarded – even by China – as Indian territory. In the first week of May 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the shared border led to seven Chinese and four Indian troops being injured in the Nathu La area near Sikkim. Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanged blows and threw stones at one another in the Pangong Tso lake and Naku La areas in the Ladakh sector. This was followed by a deadly clash on 15th of June, where 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a violent face-off with China.

Picture Source: BBC News

Why now?

China seems to be taking advantage of the COVID-19 crises to pursue its national ambitions. This can be seen in the occurrences stated above and additional incidents to be described in the following. Since the start of the global pandemic, China has been deploying military on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, further advancing in the South China Sea and trying to gain influence in Hong Kong. In the highly disputed area of the South China Sea, where overlapping territorial claims between China, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan along one of the most important trade routes in the world, China has been levelling up patrols and naval exercises. Moreover, while the world is preoccupied with the pandemic, China has turned its attention to Hong Kong, increasing the pressure to gain influence in its internal affairs. On the 17th of April, China announced that Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hongkong cannot be considered subject to Basic Law restrictions that bar the central government departments from interfering in local affairs, dismantling over twenty years of legal precedence.

The State Council’s Hong Kong, Macau Affairs Office and the Hong Kong Liaison Office are not what is referred to in Article 22 of the Basic Law, or what is commonly understood to be ‘departments under the Central People’s Government'. Based on Beijing’s new interpretation of Article 22 of the Basic Law, it carries the responsibility and the right to comment on Hong Kong’s matters. Summed up, Beijing declared its full authority to interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

A military conflict as an imminent peril?

Coming back to the India-China territorial dispute, it is important to notice that even though both States have engaged in physical standoffs in the last decades, the agenda to resolve the conflict without a war remains. On the 10th of June, military leaders met at the border to peacefully resolve the current situation in the area. Both parties promised to ease off of the area and began to partially disengage from some standoffs along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh. Even after a deadly clash on 15th of June where 20 Indian soldiers have died, the parties are still aiming at peaceful dispute resolution

Thus, the recent situation seems to be appeasing, but the imminent danger remains. The dispute is nowhere near to being solved. Both sides are still enhancing their military capabilities and increasing border controls in  the region. A lack of consensus on the Line of Actual Control leads to the perception on both sides that the other one is being aggressive. Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely for China to engage in an armed conflict with India in the future. While the world is preoccupied with battling a global pandemic, it appears that China has strategically used this situation to make up for the growing domestic unrest due to COVID-19 and repair China’s image which has internally suffered due to its bungled handling of the outbreak at the early stage. Through expanding territory and power, China has been trying to demonstrate strength towards its own people and re-establish trust within its population. These expansions are not marked by military interventions but military presence. China pursues a self-named wolf-warrior diplomacy, describing a proactive and assertive style of diplomacy when enforcing China’s national interests, generally without the use of military force but deployment of military presence. Therefore, even in the future, an actual armed-conflict seems unlikely. 

Additionally, the only time China and India went to war in the Ladakh border region was in 1962. At the beginning of this military incursion, the United Nations was occupied with solving the Cuban Missiles Crisis. The conflict had the potential to trigger a nuclear catastrophe while at the time neither China nor India was a nuclear power. When the crisis had ceased, international attention shifted to the Sino-India conflict. China saw India receiving international support in the shape of arms and weapons which led to its unilateral withdrawal from the conflict. Consequently, in order to avoid a large-scale armed conflict and avoid international aversion, China unexpectedly declared a ceasefire. A similar scenario can be witnessed  now. Currently, the conflict is drawing more international attention and China is using a more conciliatory tone, speaking of “positive consensus”, promising to disengage from the area without a resolution. 

Overall, there is a low probability of the territorial tension between India and China rendering into an armed conflict in the foreseeable future. China’s approach aims at demonstrating the capability of quickly reinforcing border defenses when necessary which is designed to undermine India, resolve and weaken its capacity to negotiate. Even though there is a strategic rivalry between the countries, especially concerning the dominance within South East Asia, India and China both are rising powers with common interests, as could be witnessed at the Wuhan summit, an informal summit to discuss issues and exchange views of bilateral, regional and global importance. Therefore, both parties are better off keeping their relationship above waters, focusing on peaceful dispute settlement as it is prescribed by Article 2(3) of the UN-Charter to which India and China, as members, are obliged to abide by.  


Tanja Neumann is currently pursuing a masters degree in Public International Law (LL.M.) at Leiden University, the Netherlands. She is an alumnus of the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich (LMU), Germany, where she obtained a diploma in law. Having studied at the Seoul National University (서울대학교), Republic of Korea, and served as a legal research assistant at the New York University School of Law (NYU), United States, Tanja provides international policy research capability and advocacy skills to further the goals of C.R.R.S.S. 


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