How World War III Could Begin with a Fistfight on the Outskirts of Tibet

By John Banks

On June 15, a deadly fight broke out in a disputed border region between India and China.

It was reportedly an actual, literal fight — with fists and iron rods — between dozens of Chinese and Indian soldiers.

It was not the first fight of its kind, nor even the first one this year. In May 2020, another large-scale fistfight broke out in the same disputed area.

This time, though, at least 20 soldiers died on India’s side, some of them from falling in the mountainous area where the fight occurred. The number of Chinese casualties is unknown — China has not reported it as of this writing — but is likely comparable to India’s.

These were the first China-India casualties in nearly half a century: The last combat deaths relating to a border dispute were in 1975. Tensions had been simmering in the area for years — and now they have boiled over. Nobody knows what will happen next.

The skirmish took place in Ladakh, a remote and beautiful area in the northeast corner of India. Ladakh — which translates as “the land of high passes” — shares a border with China and Tibet. 

China and India have been in bitter disagreement over this particular section of border for decades. Due to the mountainous nature of the region, with ample snowfall and shifting terrain by way of rockslides and avalanches, it is the longest unmarked border in the world.

Because neither side recognizes the other’s claims, the existing border is referred to as the “Line of Actual Control,” or LAC for short. Chinese and Indian troops constantly patrol the LAC. Every once in a while, one side will push into disputed territory, escalating a sense of conflict with the other.

Then, too, because the border is unmarked, soldiers can get confused about which side a patch of territory belongs to. This is how the fistfights break out.

For decades, the prior fights — which have happened multiple times — avoided actual casualties, likely because neither China’s nor India’s government wants a hot war on its hands.

This time, things got out of control. It may have been the metal-tipped iron rods, reportedly brought by the Chinese soldiers. Or, after years of build-up, things may have simply come to a head.

The China-India border dispute is unlikely to be solved, because there is just too much at stake.

For example, the region provides water for 1.4 billion people, via the rivers that are fed by the Himalayan snowpack. Then, too, control of the high ground would be vital in any full-blown conflict between China and India. Neither power wants to cede that ground to the other.

A serious conflict in this far-flung corner of the earth has the potential to suck in the entire world. That is because China and India are both nuclear-armed powers with steadfast allies — and enemies.

For example, India is at odds with Pakistan, and China (naturally) gives strategic support to Pakistan.

When India and Pakistan have a disagreement, China tends to weigh in on Pakistan’s side, and a series of large infrastructure projects populate what is known as the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.”

Meanwhile, Himalayan neighbors in the area — like Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal — can be viewed by China and India as valuable pieces in a geopolitical chess game.

Each instance of neighborly dispute — not just between India and China, but with other neighbors, too — adds tautness to a complex web of tensions ensnaring the whole region.

The United States has an indirect hand in this also, by way of rising tensions with China — what some would consider a second Cold War, or “Cold War 2.0” — and a strategic friendship with India.

India, the U.S., Australia, and Japan form a loose-knit group known as the “Quad.” The purpose of the Quad seems to be designing China containment measures and comparing notes on what China is up to.

The Quad meets regularly for talks, the Economist reports, and Australia is planning to soon participate in joint naval exercises with the other three Quad countries.

Then, too, India further cemented its strategic relationship with the United States by signing a $3.5 billion arms deal in February 2020.

These alliances mean that a real fight between China and India — one that involves, say, mass mobilization of troops — is not one the West could stay out of.

The members of the Quad would almost certainly weigh in on India’s side, and other countries would weigh in on China’s.

A bloody border skirmish is a far cry from a shooting war, let alone a tipping point leading to World War III.

Nonetheless, the first real China-India bloodshed in nearly half a century — in a long-disputed border region, with casualties on both sides — should be taken seriously. There are many points of conflict and dispute around which further tensions could crystallize.

Making matters worse, China and India share a preference for state-controlled media, a taste for hyper-nationalistic press coverage, and aggressive leaders who would not be above stoking the flames of conflict to distract from problems on the home front (like economic slowdown on China’s side, or a catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak on India’s).

As if 2020 needed yet another spark that could touch off a raging geopolitical wildfire. But it is what it is, and here we are. We’ll be keeping an eye on the China-India border.