“Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in High Himalaya” by Manoj Joshi


In mid-June 2020, Indian and Chinese forces clashed in the mountainous north-western portion of the Sino-Indian border in the Galwan River valley in Ladakh, resulting in scores of casualties, including twenty Indian and four Chinese deaths. Each side eventually deployed about 50,000 troops to this freezing battlefield located 14,000 feet above sea level. Both sides quickly deescalated, but the clash upended years of diplomatic efforts to resolve the long-simmering border dispute. Indian journalist Manoj Joshi’s new book Understanding the India-China Border provides details of the clash, historical insight into the causes of the fighting, and places the longtime Sino-Indian border dispute in the context of global geopolitics.

Joshi, who is a distinguished fellow at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation and a journalist who has extensively reported on India’s relations with China, begins the book with the June 2020 skirmish, then reaches back to the beginnings of the Sino-Indian border dispute in the late 1940s, when India gained its independence from Britain and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) achieved victory over the Nationalists in the civil war. The border is more than 3,000 kilometers long, with a western, central, and eastern sector. Joshi provides maps in the first few pages of the book to help explain the geography of the conflict.

Joshi’s encyclopedic knowledge of the border dispute is evident on virtually every page of the book, whether he is discussing the McMahon Line of part of India’s eastern border that was established at the 1914 Simla Convention, the one-sided Tibet Treaty of 1954 in which India “surrendered all its rights in Tibet”, the 1962 Sino-Indian War which ended in a Chinese victory, the India-Pakistan War of 1971, the 1993 agreement between India and China on a border Line of Actual Control, the lengthy series of negotiations over the border during the post-Cold War era, improved Sino-Indian relations under Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, border stand-offs in 2013 and 2014, heightened tensions over China’s border dispute with Bhutan in Doklam in 2017, and the impact on the border regions of the geopolitical realignment caused by China’s economic and military rise and India’s reaction.


 Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in High Himalaya, Manoj Joshi (Hurst, June 2022)

Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in High Himalaya
, Manoj Joshi (Hurst, June 2022)

The Himalayan border disputes are less a cause of a potential conflict than a symptom of the shifting balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. Joshi notes that when China and India viewed each other as equals in the immediate post-Cold War world, the border disputes seemed less important. But as China’s economic and military rise significantly outpaced India’s, Beijing’s border diplomacy became more demanding, and China became more assertive in the Indian Ocean littoral by moving to encircle India with the so-called “string of pearls” port facilities. India sought ways to redress its growing imbalance with China, turning to the United States, Japan, and Australia at the same time that the Trump administration took a more confrontational approach to China. Joshi explains:


As mutuality of interests developed in New Delhi and Washington in balancing China … as the gap between India’s economy and its military capacity and that of China has widened, India has begun to lean harder on the United States.


Joshi describes Trump as moving the US from a policy of engagement to confrontation with China by crafting “a new Indo-Pacific policy” and challenging China in the South China Sea. India was viewed by Trump’s national security team as a key player in an emerging “Asian NATO”. Joshi reports that a leaked Trump administration policy document stated that a US objective was to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security and Major Defense Partner.” He believes that the clash in Ladakh pushed India even closer to the United States.

“The enduring threat of war remains high in the Himalaya”, Joshi writes. The “wounds of Galwan are still raw.” But as important as the events on the border are, he explains, the real “fulcrum” of Sino-India relations is “the larger Chinese goal of attaining regional eminence, if not pre-eminence in South Asia.” It is that larger geopolitical picture, not the border dispute, that inhibits better relations between India and China.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.