Kashmir is a remote, inhospitable region of the Himalayas. But for more than two centuries, it has been the focus of struggle between empires. Portions of the Kashmir region have been, at different times, controlled by the British, Russian, Pakistani, Indian, and Chinese. As the British Empire’s reach waned and the Soviet Union dissolved, remaining tensions centered on claims over disputed border lands between geopolitical rivals Pakistan, India, and China. Deadly skirmishes between the latter two could have significant national security implications for the United States.
India and China are no strangers to border skirmishes over disputed territory. But between 1962—when the two nuclear giants fought a war—and June 15, 2020, their longstanding rivalry has resulted in relatively little bloodshed. On June 15, an altercation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian military personnel. Just as with the history between the two nations, the causes of the June 15 incident are complicated. What follows is an attempt to broadly explain the factors leading to the June 15 incident and the implications of that incident for geopolitics and U.S. national-security interests.
China has long sought regional dominance as part of its grand strategy to eventually reach global supremacy. But India’s rise as a geographic, economic, and military competitor presents a formidable challenge to China’s vision.
Geographically, both India and China have undertaken significant critical infrastructure projects at or near the LAC in an attempt to claim territory each nation historically recognizes as its own. Underlying these geographic quibbles is the struggle for economic dominance. China sees the Kashmir region as a key corridor to Pakistan and has invested billions in economic development within the area. Compounding its concerns over India’s geographic and economic challenges to its dominance, China is also be concerned by India’s fast-growing military prowess.
With the world’s third-largest defense budget, and a military rapidly modernizing its forces and capabilities, India undoubtedly has Beijing’s attention. After nearly five decades of relative ambivalence, India is now challenging China’s aggressive push to expand its territorial reach from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. Although it may have been slow to develop its military capabilities, India—one of the world’s fastest growing economies—is quickly catching up. New Delhi increased military spending from 2 to 5 percent of GDP, leveraged its historic conflict with Pakistan to address deficiencies, and now has modernized capabilities at its disposal. Although the June 15 confrontation along the LAC resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers, it should be seen as a sign of India’s growing willingness to challenge China.
The national security implications of the India-China border skirmish are complex and deserve a deeper analysis than is possible here. But here are a few key takeaways. First, China’s ambitions are well known; it seeks to become a unipolar superpower. The June 15 incident demonstrates China shows no sign of abandoning its aggressive posture in the Asia-Pacific region. Second, the United States recognizes China as a near-peer competitor. For its part, the U.S. Department of Defense is doing what it can to evolve and address 21st century conflicts, with a continued focus on China and Russia as the two greatest potential threats. Finally, India’s rise as a proto-superpower capable of resisting China’s dominance is a critical development in American foreign policy vis a vis the Asia-Pacific region. And viewed through a broader lens, the June 15 skirmish could be a sign that the United States might have a powerful ally in challenging China’s march to regional and global supremacy. Despite periodic setbacks, Indian-American relations are generally positive. If the United States is to continue to resist Chinese-Russian dominance, its positive relationship with India, and others, is vital.