Just as it appeared that China and India had reached a détente after weeks of military escalation at their Himalayan border, Chinese troops have reportedly killed at least 20 Indian soldiers, and may have suffered their own casualties. The first deadly border clash since the mid-1970s shows just how fraught relations between the world’s two most populous countries are becoming. And while the geopolitical dangers are obvious and severe, the crisis also presents the U.S. with an opportunity to forge the strong relationship with India it has desired for more than two decades.
The current conflict began several weeks ago when the Chinese moved thousands of troops into the Galwan valley in Ladakh, along what is known as the Line of Actual Control. (I’ve always been struck by that oddly worded term — what is the alternative, the Line of Fake Control?)
The proximate cause was India’s decision to build a road leading to a forward air base. China responded by building up forces, bringing in heavy equipment (excavators, troop carriers and possibly artillery), and building a new tented barracks to support them. In doing so, the Chinese soldiers entered a part of the region that had long been regarded as Indian by both sides.
India responded to the incursion by reinforcing its troops along the 2,000-mile border. Complicating the situation, neighboring Nepal and Pakistan have been strengthening their relationships with China, and the Nepalese are disputing Indian claims along their shared border.
No matter which side stands down first, the truth is that the Chinese escalation was a decisive move, one reflecting Beijing’s growing strategic objectives not only at the “top of the world,” but globally. Does any of this matter to a distracted U.S.? It should, because the stakes are far higher than just lines on a map demarking barren lands 14,000 feet above sea level.