09 June 2020

Tension High, Altitude Higher: Logistical and Physiological Constraints on the Indo-Chinese Border

The Sino-Indian border dispute is a significant subject with broad ramifications. It is likely to become even more so as the world’s two most populous great powers face growing domestic challenges amid enduring issues of bilateral contention. All too often, however, emerging new data are granular, unclear, and difficult for outside observers to verify. MIT professor and Security Studies Program Director M. Taylor Fravel and others have done foundational work in surveying the historical and strategic landscape in these Himalayan heights of friction. Now MIT Ph.D. candidate Aidan Milliff has encapsulated these problems in a punchy, source-linked article. He distills enduring dynamics governing this contested, unforgiving geopolitical and geophysical terrain, offering a “big picture” view that is likely to remain revealing long after today’s sundry specific details have evolved. If you read one recent piece on India-China territorial issues, make sure it’s this one!

Tension High, Altitude Higher: Logistical and Physiological Constraints on the Indo-Chinese Border

Aidan Milliff, “Tension High, Altitude Higher: Logistical and Physiological Constraints on the Indo-Chinese Border,” War on the Rocks, 8 June 2020.

Are India and China on the path to war in the Himalayas? Or will recent tensions over their disputed border fade into history like dozens of other standoffs that were resolved diplomatically?

Last month, Indian outlets reported that hundreds or even thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers were digging positions on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control — the de facto border between the two countries — in the mountainous region of Ladakh, in the western sector of the India-China border. Although government officials in New Delhi were slow to confirm the existence of a new dispute, PLA soldiers may have established camps and destroyed Indian infrastructure in territory that was not previously part of the long-running disagreement over the location of the Sino-Indian border.

Since the end of a short and bloody border war in 1962, skirmishes and land grabs in forbidding and difficult operating environments have become standard fare for soldiers in China and India. Earlier this month, eleven Indian and Chinese soldiers were injured in a fistfight at Naku La (4,500 meters above sea level), when patrols clashed northwest of the tri-junction border between the Indian state of Sikkim, the Kingdom of Bhutan, and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. In 2017, cell phone video captured a spectacular brawl at Pangong Lake, one site of the present dispute. Earlier that same year, much larger units engaged in a multi-month standoff on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan near the tri-junction border. Present day tensions over road construction and patrol incursions may follow a well-rehearsed script, but given the history of conventional warfare over the border and given that both countries are nuclear powers, military adventurism at high altitude carries risks that far exceed broken noses and injured pride.

How dangerous are these frequent border disputes and standoffs, whether they begin as spontaneous patrol clashes, infrastructure building projects, or, as prominent scholar of South Asian security Ashley Tellis has recently argued, as more carefully planned attempts to amend the political map in the Himalayas?

Though the situation on China and India’s Himalayan border facilitates frequent disputes and small land grabs, any individual conflict has relatively low potential to escalate into a conventional war. Difficulties of fighting in the high altitude and harsh terrain make large changes to the territorial status quo very costly. Reversing an adversary’s small land grabs is not worth the prize. Absent misinterpretation or miscalculation — always possible during militarized disputes — neither side is likely to escalate the current situation. As a result, the decades-old border dispute between India and China remains far from resolution. … … …

Aidan Milliff is a PhD candidate in the MIT Department of Political Science and an affiliate of the MIT Security Studies Program and the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard. His research focuses on behavior and decision-making during violence, emotions and in political violence, and South Asian security.