Context: The India-China border has been witnessing tensions over the past month, with incidents reported in at least four different locations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
- While there is a possibility of a peaceful resolution of flare-up in Ladakh, there may be increased deployments along the LAC.
More about the news
- India’s construction of a road to Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) in the Galwan Valley has been suggested as one reason for the recent standoff between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
- Recent conflicts: Tensions between the two sides escalated with China accusing India of trying to change the status quo along the LAC, the de-facto border between the two countries.
- The stand-off in Galwan valley, according to reports, was triggered by China moving in troops and equipment to stop construction activity by India, which is well within India’s side of LAC.
- Both countries have brought in reinforcements to Demchok, Daulat Beg Oldie and around the Galwan river, as well as at Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh.
- The resolution of the last three crises — at Depsang plain in northern Ladakh during 2013, Chumar In eastern Ladakh in 2014, and Doklam on the east at Bhutan’s border with China in 2017—required ever-higher political intervention.
- The US President has offered to mediate between India and China.
- However, India said that it is engaged with China in efforts to resolve a tense border standoff.
- China has a history of changing lines.
- In the late 1950s, the lines kept moving westward, and ultimately led to the 1962 war.
- In 2002, when maps were exchanged during the Expert Group meetings, China showed a claim line in the western sector which was different from what existed on the ground since 1962.
- Again in 2007, China’s perception of the border in Depsang in the Ladakh sector, in Sikkim, and in many other places appeared to change.
- In 2017, China wanted to unilaterally change the boundary and the trijunction with Bhutan and India, which sparked the Doklam standoff.
- Until 2006, Chinese troops were positioned a few kilometres behind the LAC, except for a few places where they were deployed eyeball to eyeball with Indian troops.
- From 2007 onwards, we have seen a surge in defence infrastructure development along the LAC.
- At many locations, troops have been moved to forward areas.
Broader reasons behind the conflicts
- Infrastructural activities at LAC: Improvement in transportation and communications have led to the two armies patrolling these border areas better, more frequently. Hence, the possibility of patrols coming face-to-face is greater.
- India is seeking to restore a balance, to the extent that it is possible given enduring advantages of terrain and logistics on the Chinese side, by creating road and air connectivity to the LAC.
- India’s border road development: Last year, India completed the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO) road which connects Leh to the Karakoram Pass. India also maintains a key landing strip at DBO at 16,000 feet.
- By December 2022, all 61 strategic roads along the border, spread across Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, will be completed, adding up to 3,417 km in length.
- Chinese activities: China now seems to be telling India it has no right to carry out the kind of activity that Beijing has already done but India is well within its right to carry out construction work.
- Over the years, the Chinese have built motorable roads along their banks of the Pangong Tso and Arunachal Pradesh border.
India’s measured response to China: Mentioning South China Sea
- New Delhi said recent activities of Chinese troops were hindering Indian patrolling along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) but New Delhi “remains committed to the objective of maintaining peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas".
- India also reiterated its support for the “freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce" in the South China Sea and called for “any differences (to) be resolved peacefully by respecting the legal and diplomatic processes and without resorting to threat or use of force"
- India described the South China Sea as a “global commons". China claims the whole of the South China Sea disregarding claims by Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and others.
Efforts to resolve the issues
- Summit level meetings: Two summit-level retreats between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi — at Wuhan in 2018 and near Chennai in 2019 — raised expectations for more enduring solutions.
- Since the late 1980s, Delhi and Beijing had crafted a series of protocols to address these incursions.
- Clarification on LAC: India has long proposed an exercise to clarify differing perceptions of the LAC to prevent such incidents. Maps were exchanged in the Middle Sector, but the exercise fell through in the Western Sector where divergence is the greatest. China has since rejected this exercise.
- India’s argument is rather than agree on one LAC, the exercise could help both sides understand the claims of the other, paving the way to regulate activities in contested areas until a final settlement of the boundary dispute.
- Protocols for troops to handle such incidents: According to the 2005 protocol on modalities for implementing confidence-building measures, neither “shall use force or threaten to use force” and “both sides shall treat each other with courtesy and refrain from any provocative actions”.
- The 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement said patrols “shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding” of the LAC.
- It called for both sides to “exercise maximum self-restraint, refrain from any provocative actions, not use force or threaten to use force against the other side” in face-offs.
Improvement in bilateral Military Relations
- Bilateral military relations have improved, with annual defence dialogues and joint training.
- Patrol face-offs have been resolved with existing protocols, and issues resolved at the local commanders level.
- After the 1986-1987 Sumdorong Chu incident, it was more than 30 years later, at Doklam, that Chinese transgression led to both sides moving up a brigade-sized force (around 5,000 troops) to the LAC.
- The Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 has helped limit the number of troops deployed near the LAC by both sides.
- It also necessitates a mutual appraisal of any change in numbers.
- In Ladakh, both sides have moved up at least a brigade-sized force.
Issues with hotlines
- As a rule, cases of violation are resolved through a meeting of local commanders, which may be arranged through a conversation on hotlines.
- This arrangement has not been without problems.
- When a transgression is initiated by China, often the Chinese side does not answer the call on the hotline.
- Presently, the situation is different. Named the hexin or core, Mr. Xi has assumed total control. It will be unlikely that Mr. Xi will go against the spirit of Wuhan and Mamallapuram.
- The standoff in Ladakh is likely to be resolved peacefully.
- Given the conventional strength of both sides, any skirmish will lead to a stalemate.
- Existing mechanisms under renewed stress: Flag meetings between brigade commanders have so far been unable to break the stalemate.
- Protocols agreed to in 2005 and 2013 detail rules of engagement to prevent such incidents, but have not always been adhered to.
- Second, these protocols are unable to cope with the new dynamic marked by more vigorous patrolling by the two armed forces
- The diminishing trust between Delhi and Beijing amid the widening template of economic and political conflict threatens the capacity of the two security establishments to manage crises.
Beijing’s Ladakh brinkmanship
- The current intensification of tension between China and India is one sign that Beijing is increasingly feeling beleaguered.
- In response to it, it has embarked on a strategy of brinkmanship with several goals in mind.
- This is particularly the case when an authoritarian regime whose legitimacy rests primarily on its economic performance is faced with a situation where growth is expected to plummet.
- Simultaneously, it can act as a diversionary measure to escape international criticism, because of Beijing’s attempt to cover up the spread of the coronavirus during the crucial early weeks.
- Many countries hold China responsible for the huge cost in human lives and suffering as well as the unprecedented economic distress.
Bilateral ties with U.S.
- The Communist Party of China (CPC) feels increasingly threatened both domestically and externally.
- Washington has periodically imposed economic sanctions on China and Beijing has retaliated in kind.
- Trade talks have faltered because of growing protectionist sentiments in the U.S. and Chinese inability to adequately respond to them.
- Tensions between the U.S. and China have also increased for other reasons.
- The chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomous status by Beijing and the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has led to severe criticism by the U.S. administration and in the Congress.
- Differences over the issue of Taiwan have added to tensions, with China viewing the U.S. as the primary impediment preventing Taiwan’s integration.
- Increased Chinese adventurism could result in an escalation of the U.S.-China confrontation in the South China Sea.
- If that happens, the India-China face-off in Ladakh could become part of a much larger great game.
- The current India-China crisis should, therefore, be seen in its proper context and not as an isolated event.
About India-China border issue: Line of Actual Control (LAC)
Source: EurAsian times
- The disputed boundary between India and China, also known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is divided into three sectors: western, middle and eastern.
- Eastern Ladakh forms the western sector, to the east of the Karakoram and Ladakh Ranges. It runs from the Karakoram Pass in the north — 18 kilometres from the country’s highest airfield at Daulat Beg Oldie which is now connected by a road to Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road — to Chumur in the south, almost bordering Himachal Pradesh.
- Lake Pangong Tso lies closer to the centre of this 826 km long disputed border in eastern Ladakh.
- Issue: The LAC has never been demarcated. Differing perceptions are particularly acute in around two dozen spots across the Western (Ladakh), Middle (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), Sikkim, and Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors of the India-China border.
- The boundary in the Sikkim sector is broadly agreed, but has not been delineated.
- Aksai Chin & Arunachal Pradesh issue: Both nations claim these regions although China controls the former and India the latter.
- As it stands, China claims 90,000 sq km of Indian territory and occupies another 38,000 sqkm in Jammu and Kashmir.
- Besides, under the boundary agreement of March 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to China.
Significance of LAC: Both sides know a final settlement will ultimately have to use the LAC as a basis, with only minor adjustments.
Initiatives for resolution to the boundary issue: The annual Special Representative (SR) talks is the main channel and an important platform to discuss not only the solution to the boundary issue but also all other issues concerning the two countries.
- The two countries, according to the practice, hold the meetings in rotation
- Recently, the 22nd round of border talks were held between Mr. Ajit Doval, National Security Advisor and Chinese Foreign Minister Mr. Wang Yi.
Deadlock in the border talks
- India’s point: India doesn't want to negotiate one common line, but negotiate a line that Chinese don’t cross, and another line that India doesn't cross.
- Recently, India tried to persuade the Chinese leadership to restart discussions on the clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) through the exchange of maps.
- China’s point: Clarifying perceptions of the LAC could help, but China has stalled the process as they are afraid the LAC will become the boundary.
- Instead, China asked for a comprehensive ‘code of conduct’ for the forces deployed along the border. This mismatch in desired outcomes was the main obstacle in the recent border talks.
- India’s objection: The Chinese proposal is aimed at limiting India’s military and infrastructure modernisation, and thereby enabling China to preserve its military advantage in Tibet.
Three urgent imperatives present:
- First, Indian Prime Minister must take the Opposition political parties into confidence on the nature of the crisis.
- Second, is the need for an early political consultation between Delhi and Beijing on exploring ways to end the stand-off.
- Restoring status quo ante: a renewed effort at resolving the conflict over the boundary dispute must necessarily complement the management of frequent crises on the Indian frontier with China.
- Two countries must begin the clarification of the Line of Actual Control on an urgent basis.
China would be wise to take a fresh look at its position instead of risking a prolonged confrontation with India and a deepening chill in bilateral relations in a world still reeling under the effects of COVID, and at a time when its own handling of the outbreak is coming under mounting scrutiny.
History of the Indo-China border tension
- Conflict over Tibet (1950): India provided asylum to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader when China invaded Tibet. China considers him a dangerous separatist leader.
- Since then India-China confrontations have happened over the Dalai Lama.
- India-China war (1962): The border dispute between the two countries resulted in a war between China and India in 1962.In this clash, the Chinese forces captured Aksai Chin and Demchok region of Ladakh.
- Two border conflicts 1967: The troops of both sides clashed at Nathu La and Cho La. Heavy artillery firing between the Indian and Chinese forces took place for four days.
- Arunachal Pradesh conflict, 1986: Once again conflict occurred between the two nations in 1986 near the Sumdorong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.
- Doklam dispute, 2017: It flared up when the Chinese were trying to construct a road in the area, and Indian troops, in aid of their Bhutanese counterparts, objected to it, resulting in the stand-off.
- Doklam is strategically located close to the Siliguri Corridor, which connects mainland India with its north-eastern region. The corridor, also called Chicken’s Neck, is a vulnerable point for India.
- Ladakh & Sikkim conflicts, 2020: The Indian Army confronted Chinese troops on at least two occasions recently— in eastern Ladakh and in north Sikkim. On both occasions the two armies physically engaged each other, causing injuries on both sides.
Pangong Tso Lake
- Pangong Tso is a long narrow, deep, endorheic (landlocked) lake situated at a height of more than 14,000 ft in the Ladakh Himalayas.
- The western end of Tso lies 54 km to the southeast of Leh. The 135 km-long lake sprawls over 604 sq km in the shape of a boomerang..
- The brackish water lake freezes over in winter, and becomes ideal for ice skating and polo.
- The legendary 19th century Dogra general Zorawar Singh is said to have trained his soldiers and horses on the frozen Pangong lake before invading Tibet.
- The Line of Actual Control (LAC) mostly passes on the land, but Pangong Tso is a unique case where it passes through the water as well.
- Currently, the 45 km-long western portion of the lake is under Indian control, while the rest is under China’s control.
Tactical significance of the lake: It lies in the path of the Chushul approach, one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Indian-held territory.
- To the north of the Pangong lake, is the Army’s Dhan Singh Thapa post, named after Major Dhan Singh Thapa who was awarded the country’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra.
- During the 1962 war, this was where China launched its main offensive — the Indian Army fought heroically at Rezang La, the mountain pass on the southeastern approach to Chushul valley.