Seizing a Window of Opportunity? The Causes and Consequences of the 2020 Sino-Indian Border Stand-off

Published date01 April 2021
DOI10.1177/2347797021992527
Date01 April 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
01AIA992527_ncx.indd Research Article
Seizing a Window
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
of Opportunity?
8(1) 7–32, 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
The Causes and
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Consequences of the
DOI: 10.1177/2347797021992527
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2020 Sino-Indian
Border Stand-off
Stephen P. Westcott1
Abstract
In 2020, the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC) witnessed several violent
clashes between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian military that
resulted in a tense stand-off between the two highly mobilised armies and plunged
Sino-Indian bilateral relations to its lowest point since the 1962 border war.
Whilst confrontations between Chinese and Indian border forces are relatively
commonplace, this recent crisis has proven remarkable due to the ferocity of the
clashes and the alarming pace and degree to which established rules of engagement
on the LAC have broken down. With both sides seemingly locked in a stalemate,
it is prudent to reflect on the causes and significance of the current stand-off. This
article argues that the crisis was largely precipitated by China’s calculation that
India’s recent border infrastructure building activities and assertive domestic and
foreign policy in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir could threaten the
PLA’s tactical advantage along the border, and eventually undermine China’s hold
over the disputed Aksai Chin region. Acting on these perceptions and sensing
that a ‘window of opportunity’ could be rapidly closing, the Chinese government
authorised the PLA to initiate actions to consolidate its advantageous position
on the LAC. Although both militaries are fully mobilised and in close proximity
across the LAC, both sides clearly recognise the decision to go to war would not
benefit either side. Hence, both sides will need to engage in some deft diplomacy
going forward to resolve the current crisis and to reset bilateral ties.
1 College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences, Murdoch University, Murdoch, Western Australia,
Australia.
Corresponding author:
Stephen P. Westcott, College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences, Murdoch University,
90 South Street, Murdoch, Western Australia 6150, Australia.
E-mail: Stephen.Westcott@murdoch.edu.au

8
Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 8(1)
Keywords
Sino-Indian border dispute, windows of opportunity, Galwan Valley clash, line of
actual control
Introduction
In early May 2020, while the world’s attention was focused on the COVID-19
pandemic, Chinese and Indian border troops began to clash at numerous points
along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the informal and undefined boundary line
separating the two states. For seasoned China–India watchers, these encounters
between the two border forces were not particularly surprising developments.
Confrontations became relatively commonplace along the disputed border over
the last decade as both sides began patrolling as close to their interpretation
of the LAC as possible after negotiations became deadlocked in the late 2000s
(Smith, 2014, pp. 49–50). Indeed, India often reports hundreds of ‘transgressions’
of the LAC by Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) border forces per year,
with a recent tally identifying 1025 separate alleged instances between 2016 and
2018 (PTI, 2019). Most of these confrontations between the border forces have
been non-violent and quickly resolved by discussions between officers on the
ground.
However, on 15 June 2020, events took a dramatic turn for the worse when a
brutal melee in the Galwan Valley resulted in the first combat fatalities on the
Sino-Indian border in 45 years. Although the exact series of events remain
contested, once the dust settled 20 Indian soldiers were confirmed killed, with
China also acknowledging its forces suffered casualties but refusing to provide
details. These fatalities clearly came as a shock to both sides, ensuring that the
negotiations to secure a mutual disengagement and deescalate the crisis were
elevated from localised efforts to the regional commanders and ministerial levels.
Despite coming to a ‘five-point consensus’ and achieving a mutual withdrawal of
border forces in some areas, including the Galwan Valley, tensions have remained
high. Negotiations to end the crisis have become deadlocked with neither China
nor India willing to alter their stance on the LAC and each continued to blame the
other for the ongoing stand-off.
Additionally, both sides have mobilised and deployed tens of thousands of
troops to forward posts just behind the LAC, markedly increasing the volatility
of the situation and the possibility of war breaking out. Tensions further spiked in
August and September 2020 as the PLA and Indian military attempted to
outmanoeuvre the other by establishing outposts in previously sparsely patrolled
regions and a military build-up from both sides began in earnest. An additional
complication has been the rapid unravelling of the codes of conduct established in
the 1990s to pacify the border. Initial clashes involved stone pelting and active
brawls that quickly escalated to involve crude melee weapons being brandished or
even used and warning shots fired, all of which are in violation of the protocols
established in earlier treaties. Furthermore, tense confrontations and even brawls

Westcott 9
between patrols when they encounter each other have quickly become the norm
rather than the exception (Chan, 2020; Som, 2020).
At time of writing in December 2020, the dust appears to have mostly settled
after a turbulent six months and both sides are clearly entrenching themselves to
endure a Himalayan winter in anticipation for a longer stand-off (Deng, 2020;
Philip, 2020c). Even though the crisis is still ongoing and with no end in sight, it
is prudent in this quieter period to step back and assess the significance of this
recent border clash. In particular, two pressing questions remain open. First, why
did the border dispute suddenly escalate? Second, what impact will this recent
crisis have on China–India relations and management of the contested

Sino-Indian border?
In addressing these questions, I draw upon M. Taylor Fravel’s previous studies
of the conditions under which states generally, and China specifically, will choose
to escalate territorial disputes. In essence, Fravel (2007, 2008) has theorised that
a state will be incentivised to use force in an interstate border dispute when it
perceives it is experiencing a decline in its ability to control or project force
over the contested territory. This perceived decline, whether real or not, prompts
the state to act to strengthen its territorial claim before the window of opportunity
closes and its plausible claim over the territory is diminished. Applying this logic
to the current Sino-Indian border crisis, I argue that it was precipitated by China’s
belief that just such a window of opportunity was closing. Hence, China moved to
secure its tactical position on the LAC.
Specifically, I posit that China perceived that its tactical military advantage
along the LAC in Ladakh and its hold over the disputed Aksai Chin area could be
threatened in the near future by three developments. First, India’s efforts to
strengthen its military position through the construction of a network of border
roads, bridges and tunnels that would facilitate the transportation of troops and
supplies closer to contentious points along the LAC has been gradually nearing
completion. Second, since 2014, operating under the strategic doctrine of
‘offensive defence’ India has become strategically more assertive and even
aggressive. India’s defence spending has increased significantly, with India
becoming one of the largest importers of sophisticated weapons in the world,
thereby increasing the strength and operational capability of the Indian military.
Furthermore, under Prime Minister Modi India has increasingly shed its previous
non-aligned and defensive posture. Indo-US strategic relations have seen a
massive upswing and India now forms a part of an informal anti-China alliance in
Asia led by the United States. Third, in August 2019, India unilaterally changed
the political status quo on the ground by reorganising its part of the erstwhile state
of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government first abrogated Articles 370 and
35A of the Indian Constitution that bestowed a ‘special status’ on the state of
Jammu and Kashmir. Then the Indian government reorganised and bifurcated the
state into two separate ‘Union Territories’—a reorganised Union Territory of
Jammu and Kashmir and a separate centrally administered Union Territory of
Ladakh. During debates in the Indian Parliament over these moves, Indian Home
Minister Amit Shah explicitly reasserted India’s claim over the Aksai Chin, which
India claims is part of Ladakh.

10
Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 8(1)
For China, these three developments appeared to be an active effort to diminish
the tactical military advantage it enjoys along the LAC and undermine its control
over the Aksai Chin, thereby changing the status quo in India’s favour. Acting on
this perception, China’s President Xi Jinping, through the Central Military
Commission which he chairs, likely authorised the PLA to consolidate its control
over the tactically advantageous positions up...

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