A spine-chilling tale, played out in pitch darkness on jagged precipices at 14,000 feet above the Galwan River valley between the foot-soldiers of two nuclear-armed regional superpowers, India and China. (Subscribe: https://bit.ly/C4_News_Subscribe)
When an Indian commanding officer plunged to his death, reportedly pushed off a cliff, it triggered mayhem. And what happened next could, frankly, have triggered World War III, mid-pandemic. Chinese troops apparently wielding clubs wrapped in barbed wire and bludgeoning Indian soldiers to death using metal rods studded with nails.
By the time it was over, 20 Indians were dead, scores wounded and 10 taken captive – although they were released four days later. China conceded it too had suffered casualties; the number, however, unknown. It was the deadliest clash in decades.
Indian forces immediately headed eastwards and upwards through Kashmir towards Ladakh to defend the undefined frontier.
That the skirmish was fought without firearms heightened the savagery of the hand-to-hand combat. An agreement intended to prevent matters getting out of control bans guns in a strip two kilometres either side of what’s known as the Line of Actual Control.
The problem is, there’s actually no demarcated line along much of the 3,500 kilometre border between China and India. And while the two trade accusations and blame the other for violations of sovereignty, at least some of the blame rests with this man.
Lt Col Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, a British-Indian Army officer turned Foreign Secretary of India during the British Raj, who in 1914 lent his name to a line on a map, dividing India from Tibet. It’s now 70 years since China invaded and annexed Tibet and in Beijing, McMahon’s name is mud. In short, they don’t recognise lines colonial cartographers drew on maps.
In 1962, India and China went to war up here for a month. Same spot. India suffered a humiliating defeat. Territorial disputes have festered and tensions have simmered ever since.
Which is why face-offs are common high on the Himalayan plateau. This little spat dates from a few years back. There’s not much love lost between the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Armed Forces in such encounters.
China blamed India for provoking the deadly Galwan River clash while India accused China of a “premeditated and planned action.”
Chinese state television meanwhile engaged in bellicose cheer leading, airing pictures of high-altitude People’s Liberation Army exercises in Tibet.
And as if that was too subtle a message, the nationalist Global Times tabloid marked the anniversary of China detonating its first hydrogen bomb.
Here’s a whistle stop tour of what’s been going on while the rest of the world’s been in pandemic lockdown. China’s been busy making enemies of Canada and Australia.
Two Canadians have been charged with espionage in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer in Vancouver, who’s now likely to be extradited to the US on fraud charges.
Australia’s Prime Minister has blamed a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor” for multiple malicious cyber attacks on all levels of government there. He declined to name the alleged perpetrator, but China’s prime suspect. Beijing described these claims as nonsense.
In one of the world’s most strategic waterways, the South China Sea, all of which is claimed by Beijing, China has been aggressively posturing, engaging in intimidation tactics with vessels from the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. A Chinese patrol boat even sank a Vietnamese trawler.
In Hong Kong, a new National Security Law threatens the one-country-two-systems agreement with Britain. Meanwhile, Chinese Sukhoi fighters have repeatedly violated Taiwanese airspace, raising the temperature there.
China is now the world’s largest military spender, after the US, and it’s investing heavily in modern military capabilities. Its apparent incursions into Indian territory along the Line of Actual Control are designed to remind India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, of the pain it could inflict. It comes as India prepares to allow Australia to join a military alliance with the US and Japan, which Beijing views as a China-containment group.
For Beijing, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a useful distraction, as it flexes its new-found Wolf Warrior muscles. NATO’s Secretary General recently branded it “bullying and coercion.” The precipitous valleys between Ladakh and Tibet might seem remote, but as the source-region of nearly half India’s water supply it’s of huge strategic importance. And in light of what else has been happening while no one was looking, the high-altitude fist-fight up there might prove to have been a true watershed moment.