On June 15, members of the two largest standing armies in the world had a violent face-off along the countries’ de facto border in the Himalayas. The incident, the first between India and China since 1975 to involve fatalities, left at least 20 dead.
Both India and China are nuclear powers. Yet, not a single bullet was fired at the Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan Valley that night. In subsequent statements, both countries emphasised the unarmed nature of the conflict.
In fact, India’s Minister of External Affairs issued a statement clarifying that his country’s soldiers had carried firearms to a No Man’s Land that had been carved out as part of de-escalation efforts, but did not fire.
The Indian media has since reported that Chinese soldiers in riot gear used bamboo poles with nails stuck on them, clubs wrapped with barbed wire and stones against their Indian counterparts. This choice of weaponry, experts say, is intentional and symbolic.
"When soldiers engage in scuffles or fist fights, it shows an engagement at a lower, local level of conflict,” Happymon Jacob, associate professor of disarmament and diplomacy at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told VICE News.
“But when they fire a pistol, rifle, machine gun, etc, it could have very different implications. The symbolism that is attached to deaths from such scuffles is very different from those resulting from firing.”
Technically, with no firearms, it was not an act of war. However, more than 20 Indian soldiers — the Chinese side acknowledged casualties but is yet to provide details — were dead.
Experts point to rules of engagement defined by a 1996 agreement between the two countries. “Neither side shall open fire, cause bio-degradation, use hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns and explosives within two kilometres from the LAC,” states Article 6 of the agreement.
India’s Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar referred to the agreement in his statement on carrying firearms. "Long-standing practice (as per 1996 & 2005 agreements) not to use firearms during faceoffs,” he tweeted.
The 1996 agreement is among a clutch of such documents ensuring peace along the Line of Actual Control, which forms part of the Indo-China border. The agreements were put in place after decades of war and mutual suspicion between the two countries.
The “scuffles” are routine, military experts say. Lt General Vinod Bhatia, the director of Centre for Joint Warfare Studies and the former Director General of Military Operations in India, told VICE News that this “lowest end of confrontation” is not rare since “tempers are always high because of the border.”
An account of the last armed confrontation involving both sides — the 1975 incident was described as an ambush on Indian soldiers — indicates that stone-pelting used to happen as far back as 1967. A video from a 2017 standoff between the two armies also showed fistfights and stone-pelting. “Stone-pelting has happened earlier, so has shoving and pushing. Despite those, we have maintained peace,” said General Bhatia.
This year, the stand-off along the border was first reported on May 5, when a scuffle broke out between the troops at the Pangong Tso lake. The incident reportedly included fistfights and stone-pelting, injuring eleven soldiers. Trespassing accusations were also reported on May 9, 12 and 18. On May 26, a clash reportedly included the use of clubs wrapped in barbed wires.
Even by those standards, the June 15 incident was an unprecedented escalation. “Casualties out of such incidents have never happened before, ever,” said General Bhatia.
Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda, the former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, which includes the eastern Ladakh region, agreed. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he told VICE News.
“Even in the Doklam stand-off in 2017, there was a high degree of restraint from both sides. Every year, there are hundreds of intrusions across the LAC. You don’t see something like this.”
The viciousness was further highlighted by senior defence journalist Sushant Singh in The Indian Express. “If such a large number of soldiers could be killed without firing a round, it means that these deaths were far more brutal than they would have been had guns and rifles been used,” he wrote.
The clash was enough for India to order additional protection. An Indian news report stated that the first consignment of 500 lightweight riot gear has now been airlifted from Mumbai to the Indian soldiers on the Chinese border.
The conflict has raised concerns within India about China’s adherence to the peace agreements between the two countries.
“Stone-pelting shows they’re not serious about a military confrontation. They want to test how far India can go. They will probably come back and test India again. It will be a long haul,” said Jacob, who is an expert on international relations of South Asia.
Experts also believe the events of June 15 were cleared by senior figures in Beijing, and that it could be part of a grand Chinese plan for the region.
Jacob predicts that even in the event of de-escalation, much like what happened after the Doklam stand-off in 2017, China will continue to add infrastructure in the area. “China will probably step back in Galwan again if there is a de-escalation. They’re looking at the next 10-15 years,” said Jacob. “This is an inch-by-inch, step-by-step territorial grand strategy. This will go on for a very long time.”
India also has an active border with Pakistan and Nepal. Over the last week, both borders saw aggression and confrontations too. With Nepal, an old row over the India-Nepal border map sparked off hostilities. In Pakistan, cross-border violations and firing are constant. But it’s China’s aggression that stands out the most.
“If you look at the India-Pakistan border, violence is recorded almost on a daily basis, and of a much larger scale. But in the India-China border, they haven’t even used a revolver. They engaged in killing with pushing, pulling, fistfights and clubs. It may sound barbaric but the fact is that they didn’t go to the level of using high-tech weapons,” said Jacob.
He added that part of the reason for not using arms is that both countries understand the stakes in each other’s countries, unlike India and Pakistan, where there is “negligible amount of trade”.
“The economic-political stakes between China and India are too high. That is why they will not escalate it beyond this.”
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