Chinese Marines train to fight with bayonets on June 9 in Shandong, China.Getty Images
Forget tanks and jet fighters. Chinese soldiers may have found a new weapon to battle the Indian army: medieval-style halberds.
Photos have surfaced that purportedly show Chinese troops in Tibet carrying polearms. Chinese soldiers in modern battle gear – including body armor and helmets – are seen holding long sticks topped with curved blades that resemble machetes. Presumably the weapons are meant to be used against Indian soldiers, with whom China has fought recent border clashes.
If true, this would be consistent with numerous reports that Chinese troops have used improvised edged weapons, such as nail-studded clubs, in previous border skirmishes with Indian forces.
“In the hands of the Chinese, the guan dao is a Chinese edged weapon, similar to a glaive or a halberd, consisting of a long shaft with a warhead in the form of a wide curved blade and weighing in the range of 2 to 5 kilograms [4 to 11 pounds],” notes Dambiev, a Russian defense site.
Why does the People’s Liberation Army resemble a Society for Creative Anachronism joust, or live-action Dungeons & Dragons players? There’s actually a very practical reason. A 1996 agreement regarding the disputed border – known as the Line of Actual Control, or LAC – states that "neither side shall open fire or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometers [1.3 miles] from the line of actual control." China and India have skirmished for years – and even fought a war in 1962 — along the 2,500-mile LAC, a loosely defined border that comprises some of the harshest terrain on Earth, including the Himalaya mountains.
In theory, this form of battlefield gun control should have kept a lid on hostilities. But when China began gradually encroaching on the border this summer, its soldiers came up with a creative but lethal solution. In a June clash in the Galwan valley along the northern Indian territory of Ladakh, Chinese troops reportedly attacked Indian soldiers with improvised weapons that included nail-studded rods. India lost 20 soldiers in hand-to-hand battles, while China may have lost dozens of soldiers. There have also been incidents along the border between Tibet, which China annexed in 1950, and the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim.
Both sides have been deploying their most advanced weapons along the LAC. China has sent J-20 stealth fighters and light tanks to Ladakh, while India has deployed its new French-made Rafale fighters there. China may also be building new surface-to-air missile sites in Tibet.
Yet as both nations are keenly aware, the problem with committing this 21st Century hardware to combat is that once one side uses it, the other side will respond with its own advanced weapons, creating an escalatory spiral. Despite much posturing and finger-pointing, neither China nor India – both nuclear-armed powers – are eager for war.
Which suggests that the firearms-free border zone will continue for now, though that doesn’t mean violence-free. China is now recruiting mixed martial artists for the army, while India has sent commandos trained in martial arts to the Tibetan border.
The status quo will likely remain as long as neither country feels compelled to use jets or tanks – or even rifles and pistols – to defend its interests. Both Beijing and Delhi would also prefer that if shots are fired, it’s the other side that suffers the blame for firing first.
An interesting question will be how India responds to China’s medieval arsenal. India has a rich history of edged weapons, including the famous kukri knife wielded by Gurkha soldiers, the curved talwar sword, and the chakkar, a sharp throwing ring capable of beheading enemies (on the popular TV show Xena: Princess Warrior, Xena uses a similar weapon called the chakram).
Amid all the medieval-style mayhem, there is one bit of good news. The Himalaya mountains are not horse country, so neither China nor India will be deploying knights in armor.