Fistfighting in the Himalayas: India and China Go Another Round

China and India were at it again this month. According to Indian news reports, border patrols from both countries have been involved in a series of incidents along their disputed boundary in recent weeks, including a pair of confrontations in early May that devolved into fisticuffs.

On May 5, the two sides came to blows on the banks of Pangong Lake, where Ladakh meets Tibet, and where the two sides have registered multiple confrontations in recent years. On May 9, dozens of soldiers from both sides tussled along the Sikkim-Tibet border, resulting in injuries on both sides. In both cases, tensions were quickly defused, forces disengaged, and local commanders opened lines of communication. Nevertheless, the incidents draw attention to, and raise questions about, the apparent uptick in volatility along the disputed boundary.

The 2,167-mile China-India border, by some estimates the longest disputed border in the world, has witnessed ongoing friction since a short but intense war in 1962. The Line of Actual Control (LAC), as the perceived boundary is known, is far calmer than the one separating Pakistan and India in Kashmir, where deadly artillery shelling and kidnappings occur regularly. Yet the mostly desolate and mountainous LAC is the site of frequent “transgressions” by Chinese border patrols, regular face-to-face meetings between patrolling units from both sides, and occasionally violent or prolonged confrontations.

The volatility results partly from disagreement over the precise location of the LAC along a dozen or so contentious stretches of the border, including Pangong Lake. The Indian government registered 273 Chinese border transgressions in 2016, 426 in 2017, and 326 in 2018. After the decline in 2018, some reports suggest the number of Chinese transgressions surged by 50 percent in 2019. China does not report publicly on Indian transgressions.

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