China and India battle without bullets

Never bring a knife to a gunfight, the saying goes, but China does it differently. It brings clubs.

Last Monday, China and India had the nastiest frontier incident since their border war of 1962.

In the Galwan Valley of the Aksai Chin, a disputed region the size of Switzerland in the western Himalayas, Chinese and Indian border patrols clashed and 20 Indian soldiers were killed – yet not a shot was fired. The killing was all done with clubs, stones and bare hands.

Killing people without firearms is actually quite hard, but the fact that the fight happened on a steep ridge at night makes it easier to understand how so many died: many apparently fell or were pushed to their deaths. What’s not so easy to explain is why most or all of the dead were Indian.

The Chinese report blames the incident on India, but does not complain of any Chinese casualties. The Indians say that they came to a position that the Chinese were supposed to have left and were suddenly attacked by a large number of Chinese troops using makeshift weapons.

Put these reports together and you can begin to see what probably happened. The Chinese were lying in wait, all tooled up with clubs and metal rods, and when the Indian patrol stumbled upon them, they immediately attacked, tumbling many of the Indians off the ridge to their deaths.

That would explain the disparity in deaths, but it also means that it really was a deliberate ambush. In fact, it looks like a pre-planned Chinese operation, carefully designed to kill enough Indian troops to send the Indian government a message but minimize the risk of escalation.

What message? Don’t mess with us. We don’t really care about this useless, frozen valley, and we’re happy to leave it as a no-man’s-land. But if you keep pushing forward, we’re going to smack you down. And we can.

India has been pushing forward, building a new road in the most remote part of the Aksai Chin. No doubt the Indian military told themselves that they were just improving their tactical position – and no doubt the Chinese military saw it as a land grab. That’s how it usually works on this frontier.

The confrontations over this new road began 40 days ago, and they have all been conducted without gunfire because the two sides signed an agreement in 1996 that says “neither side shall open fire … conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres of the Line of Actual Control.”

They have kept to that agreement for almost a quarter-century because neither side wants a war over this uninhabited wasteland; they both have much bigger fish to fry elsewhere. But the Chinese clearly got fed up with the endless shoving and stone-throwing sessions and decided to tell the Indians it’s time to stop. That’s pretty much what happened back in 1962, too.

The conflict started along the eastern part of the border that time, but all of it is in dispute to some extent. There have been many failed attempts to pin the line down by governments that no longer even exist – the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, the Qing dynasty and the Nationalist regime in Beijing, and the British Raj in Delhi – and the fact that hardly anybody lives there makes defining it even harder.

The governments that are currently dealing with this border issue, the Communist autocracy under president-for-life Xi Jinping in Beijing and Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist, Hindu supremacist BJP in New Delhi, are at least as unreasonable as any of their predecessors. But the quarrel has never led to a major war in the past, and it probably won’t now either.

The problem in 1962 also began with Indian troops trying to improve their positions in the disputed territories: a so-called Forward Policy.

Mao Zedong’s government decided to drive the Indian army out of all the land under dispute, and then, after the Indians had been taught a lesson, declared a unilateral ceasefire and pulled all China’s troops back to their original positions.

It was a major military operation, with 700 Chinese and more than 3,000 Indian soldiers killed or missing. But Mao predicted that it “will guarantee at least 30 years of peace” along the frontier, and that’s just what it did.

Think of this as just another 1962, but in miniature and without bullets.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).

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