June 20, 2020

Last week, the world’s most populous nations, India and China, both nuclear armed, clashed in the high Himalayan region of Ladakh.

At least 20 Indian troops died and 12 were reportedly taken prisoner before a cease-fire went into effect. So far, there were no reports of Chinese casualties.

Ladakh is one of the world’s most remote, obscure and inhospitable places, a plateau averaging 4,200 meters altitude (about 14,000 feet) with frigid temperatures, scant oxygen, little rainfall, and howling winds. This bleak moonscape has long been called ‘Little Tibet’ because of its semi-nomadic ethnic Tibetan yak-herders. China has pretty much crushed the life out of Tibet’s ancient culture while India has helped preserve the Tibetan way of life.

China and India’s confrontation in airless Ladakh reminds me of the ‘bon mot’ about Ethiopia and Eritrea’s battle over the barren Ogaden desert region between them: ‘two bald men fighting over a comb.’

I’ve been over much of Ladakh by jeep, foot and even yak, and atop the world’s highest glacier, Siachen, that overlooks Ladakh. India and Pakistan have been fighting over Siachen for decades, making it the highest war in history and another crazy conflict. As a Pakistani officer told me, ‘we hate one another so much we will fight to prevent them from occupying our part of Hell.’

My book ‘War at the Top of the World’ (available through Amazon) is all about the conflict in the Himalayas and Kashmir between India, Pakistan and China.

So why are China and India at daggers drawn over the Galwan River Valley in Ladakh? Both are busy dealing with the coronavirus epidemic. Delhi and Beijing have conducted off and on diplomacy to ease Himalayan border tensions.

The clash in Ladakh was no accident but clearly a planned offensive act by China – and the biggest military operation since the two Asian giants went to war in the Himalayas in 1962, producing a serious defeat for India. China then said the war was a ‘serious message’ to India to restrain its ambitions in the region.

This time, it appears that the Chinese sent another ‘message’ to India. Part of this problem was due to the British Empire which never properly demarcated its Himalayan borders between the British Indian Raj and then independent Tibet. Some borders were never surveyed; others drawn with thick pens, leaving whole regions with unclear borders. But in those days no one cared about the vast emptiness at 14-17,000 feet. That is, until China moved in an occupied Tibet in 1950-1951, putting it on India’s northern border.

Since then, India and China have been uneasy rivals with both sides laying claims to parts of the Himalayas, Karakorams and the great rivers that course down from the Tibetan Plateau, providing water for much of Southeast Asia’s peoples.

Two recent issues have sparked the latest round of fighting – with threats of a much bigger war between Asia’s two giants. First, India’s new Hindu nationalist government under PM Narendra Modi has made no secret of its growing hostility to both China and its close ally, Pakistan, India’s longtime rival.

Modi’s revoking of Kashmir’s autonomous status and its division into two states has created major new tensions in the region. So have Modi’s plans to fashion a purely Hindu state in India, and China’s growing influence over Burma.

But a more important source of China’s anger has been growing efforts of the Trump administration to build a close military alliance with India to counter-balance China’s increasing military power.

Though seeming counter-intuitive to Trumps’ efforts to secure re-election by getting Beijing to buy more produce from American farmers, the Pentagon is preparing for a future war with China. Trump came close to facing military coup in recent weeks and is trying to avoid angering the Pentagon and Washington’s active and retired military establishment.

Meanwhile, the fiercely anti-Muslim White House has quietly allowed four million Hindu Indians to emigrate to the United States as a way of countering the growing number of Muslims in our nation. Trump even offered to mediate the intractable Kashmir dispute, a proposal scorned by all sides.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2020

This post is in: China, India


  1. Steve_M. says:

    I recall that back in the 1960s, Pakistan recognized China’s claim to the Ladakh region, even though it was claimed by India. This has been a part of the tensions between India and Pakistan over their claims to Kashmir. Back in the 1960s, under Ayub Khan, Pakistan seemed to view its friendship with China as an insurance policy of sorts in its (Pakistan’s) dealings with India.

  2. Eric,

    So glad to see your column back.

    You say: “Trump came close to facing military coup in recent weeks.”

    You must be speaking metaphorically about statements concerning Trump by the former Generals Mattis, Kelly and Powell and the mea culpa by current chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley.

    It’s highly unusual to have former military leaders making statements about elected representatives. What could cause these military leaders to break with tradition to speak ill of a sitting president? It suggests that there are far worse things Trump has done or is talking about doing than we are aware of.

    But to talk of their behaviour as a coup is a metaphor too far.

    • Catch the latest news headlines:
      “Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum sued the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies Friday night, alleging that federal law enforcement officers sent to Portland to suppress the Black Lives Matter protests violated the Constitution by unlawfully detaining and arresting demonstrators without probable cause.”
      Makes you wonder what sort of a mess the US is really in.

    • From the news:
      Protesters and journalists in U.S. cities including Portland, Oregon, must be able to take part in peaceful demonstrations without risking arbitrary arrest, detention, the unnecessary use of force or other rights violations, the U.N. human rights office said Friday.
      Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted reports that some peaceful demonstrators in Portland had been detained by unidentified officers.
      “That is a worry, because it may place those detained outside the protection of the law, and may give rise to arbitrary detention and other human rights violations,” she told reporters in Geneva.
      Scarey, eh… you have to realise that even Adolph Hitler was elected.

  3. peter mcloughlin says:

    Washington’s efforts to “counter-balance China’s increasing military power” seem certain to end in war. Momentum is building in that direction, the problem looking intractable.

  4. Never have I read a more appropriate comment than “Two bald men fighting over a comb.” Pure insanity.

  5. Interesting to note that the ‘battle’ was fought with ‘sticks and stones’; imagine what they could do with real weapons.
    Both populations have a large population numbers that can be used as ‘cannon fodder’; both countries do not place a high value on human life.
    In the last decade or so, China has begun to ‘flex its muscles’; it will be interesting to see where this goes.
    The US continues on its rapid spiral downwards.

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