June 16, 2020

CNAS Responds: Indian and Chinese Soldiers Killed in Ladakh Border Clash

Tensions between Indian and Chinese forces boiled over in a deadly clash last night on the countries’ border in the Himalayan Mountains. After weeks of troop build-up on both sides of the border, reports indicate that dozens of soldiers were killed in fighting late Monday.

In this press note, CNAS experts examine possible implications and outcomes for journalists to watch. The statements below are attributable as written. To arrange an interview, contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org.

  • Chris Dougherty, Senior Fellow for Defense: "The current crisis along the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC) between China and India in Ladakh, following three years after the standoff in Doklam, raises several important issues. First, China continues to try to improve its strategic position relative to India by seizing key terrain along the LAC. Second, the PLA has developed capabilities—including mobile ground forces and supporting infrastructure—that enable it to move more quickly along the LAC than Indian armed forces. Third, this is an area where smart Indian investments—backed by U.S. cooperation—can improve India’s defense while presenting dilemmas to China’s strategic aims.

    India should continue improving infrastructure near the LAC to improve operational mobility, while rigging roads and hillsides for demolition in the event of a PLA incursion. It should continue investing in weapons systems like heavy-lift helicopters that can enable greater mobility at high altitudes, and consider stationing more forces at high altitudes so that Indian forces do not simultaneously confront the PLA and altitude sickness. Finally, India should demonstrate an ability to rapidly counterattack and seize key terrain along the LAC in places where PLA forces are weaker. Toward this end, India should develop and demonstrate unconventional warfare, information warfare, cyberwarfare, counter-space, and conventional long-range strike capabilities to enable calibrated, non-nuclear responses to Chinese coercion and aggression.

    The United States can support these efforts by selling India critical hardware and providing India with intelligence about PLA troop movements. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Defense should consider working with its counterparts in the Indian Ministry of Defense to develop officer and NCO exchange programs. This could help Indian forces gain proficiency with U.S. weapons systems and familiarize U.S. forces with the capabilities and tactics of the PLA."
  • Daniel Kliman, Director and Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security: "With many of the world’s democracies turning inward to manage the economic and political fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing perceives a unique window of opportunity for advancing its geopolitical ambitions. This is why China has ratcheted up tensions along the Himalayan border that it shares with India. Yet pressure on New Delhi is likely to backfire on Beijing. India, confident that China does not wish to risk a major conflict, and that its military is positioned to inflict significant costs on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the event of armed hostilities, will hold its ground. Moreover, the current standoff holds the potential to further galvanize security cooperation between New Delhi and Washington – a dynamic that Beijing fears. Rather than offering to mediate a confrontation triggered by China, Washington should look to optimize U.S.-India defense engagement for an era of intensified strategic competition with Beijing."
  • Iskander Rehman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security: "Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the People's Republic of China has demonstrated a growing proclivity for regional coercion and territorial assertiveness--whether in the South and East China Seas, or along its long, contested Himalayan frontier with India. We are still learning the tragic details of the most recent skirmish along the LAC, and a great deal of analytical caution is warranted. One thing is for certain, however. This confrontation—which has for the first time since 1975 resulted in direct combat fatalities—constitutes a watershed moment in Sino-Indian relations, and will affect both nations’ foreign and military policies for decades to come. It also confirms what many close Asia-watchers already knew: the India-China rivalry is one of the most consequential in Asia, and deserves far more attention from the broader defense policy community in Washington. Over the past year, we have provided a series of detailed recommendations that directly address some of the military challenges highlighted by the current crisis in Ladakh, and which--if implemented--would allow India, discreetly working in concert and alongside the US, to bolster its conventional capabilities, deter future acts of Chinese aggression or adventurism, and help forestall any future forcible annexation of such contested border regions."
  • Joshua Fitt, Research Assistant for Asia-Pacific Security: "Patrols from India or China briefly cross the LAC in small numbers somewhat regularly. Under normal circumstances, it doesn’t trigger the mobilization of thousands of troops to the border region. Over the past month, China has tested the limits of its power by upsetting status quos while the world is preoccupied with responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. This is a symptom of the same regional power play that is behind recent developments in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well.

    Before yesterday’s conflict, Delhi and Beijing appeared to be engaged in productive diplomatic dialogues, which signaled a peaceful resolution to the force build-up along the LAC. But with both sides now claiming that the other acted unilaterally to upset the status quo, it will take time before the public knows what really happened. Even if cooler heads prevail and the deadly clash in the Galwan Valley resolves without further conflict, one thing remains clear: Beijing’s demonstrated pattern of provocative actions during a global crisis indicates that this will not be the last time that China pushes the limits of India’s sovereignty."

Learn more about the India-China relationship: Imbalance of Power: India’s Military Choices in an Era of Strategic Competition with China.


  • Chris Dougherty

    Former Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Chris Dougherty is a former Senior Fellow for the Defense Program at CNAS. His primary areas of research included defense strategy, operational concepts, and force planning. H...

  • Daniel Kliman

    Former Program Director and Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Daniel M. Kliman is the former Program Director and Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is an expert in As...

  • Iskander Rehman

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Asia-Pacific Security program.

    Dr. Iskander Rehman is a former Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)....

  • Joshua Fitt

    Former Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Joshua Fitt is a former Associate Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. He focuses on U.S. East Asian security strategy and specializes in Japanese and Korean ...