We have been witnessing standoffs at multiple locations across the Line of Actual Control (also called the LAC) between India and China for the past 3+ weeks. Skirmishes across the LAC are nothing new but the synchronized efforts at multiple locations across various sectors have made all of us take note of the evolving situation.
Before we look at the skirmishes, where and how they happened, is an important aspect that we think is needed to set things straight and that is about the differing perceptions of the LAC.
Differing perceptions of LAC
The border issue is something that we had covered in Episode 22 during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Chennai for an informal summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since the 1967 Nathu La border conflict there has not been any armed skirmishes across the LAC for over 52+ years. The last bullets fired were in Arunachal Pradesh in 1975 when some Indian soldiers reportedly got lost in the fog and were shot at by Chinese troops.
Through constant transgressions China has been needling India along the LAC. India has a dispute with Pakistan over POJ&K but we do have a delineated LOC (Line of Control) up to point NJ9842. Baring LAC and territorial claims, India and China don’t have delineated border at all. So, while troops of one side might genuinely think that they are patrolling on their own territory the opposite side might think that they are encroaching on their territory.
Let’s take a fictitious example to delve on this in more detail.
Assume Gujarat and Delhi are two states both of which claim Rajasthan to be part of their own territory. Neither side has full control of Rajasthan which they claim to be theirs.
Let’s say in the past both have fought a war over this area and when hostilities ended, they were around the city of Ajmer approximately (in central Rajasthan). But there is no defined boundary separating them since.
Now one might think that both sides would have troops actually eyeball to eyeball at Ajmer where a theoretical LAC passes through. However, they are in reality positioned a bit behind that. Both Gujarat and Delhi can’t decide upon where the actual LAC in this case falls at. Gujarat as shown in the map claims that the LAC should be at Jaipur which is more towards Delhi versus Gujarat making the area claimed by Gujarat larger than what Delhi would want. Conversely Delhi would claim that LAC as per its perception lies at Udaipur and all areas north of it fall under Delhi’s control where it has a right to patrol.
What this in effect does is that it creates a “gray zone” where the area between Jaipur (Gujarat Claim Line) & Udaipur (Delhi Claim Line) is claimed by both sides to be theirs. Hence both armies see it fit to patrol up to their own claim lines and where some of the disputes/standoffs occur.
Now the above example involved areas stretching over hundreds of kilometers but if you scale it down greatly to the situation at LAC between India and China this is what is happening on the ground. Both armies are keen to patrol to their respective claim lines and when they come into contact with each other, disputes arise.
In the past both armies used to patrol to their respective claim lines and return back to their bases without encountering any opposition. However, in recent years after India stepped up patrolling, they started running into Chinese patrols leading to standoffs.
An undefined/non-delineated border with a differing perception actual border is bound to lead to reported encroachments on both sides. This issue of a delineated LOC vs a non-delineated LAC often gets overlooked in the discussion of Indo-China boundary dispute. This is where the mandate of the previously mentioned SR (Special Representative) comes into picture: Define, Delineate and Demarcate. While there have been 22 rounds of these talks (22nd round was held in Delhi in Dec 2019) we have not resolved the boundary dispute. The frustrating part on India’s side is that while we have put forth our claims the Chinese for some apparent reason have never put forth their claims. When the process began, initially maps were exchanged in the Middle Sector where the differences were the least. However when the exercise was done in the Western sector once China saw the Indian claims and most likely realized that the divergences in positions/claims were so large with their perceptions, they not only refused to share their claims but also the process fell through around 2002. China has since rejected this exercise, viewing it as adding another complication to the on-going boundary negotiations. 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.
Once both sides put forth their claims some resolution can be reached via a so-called “grand bargain” or negotiations. But without any claims from one side it becomes hard to reach a settlement if not impossible.
On Jan 1 2020: China said it was actively exploring the contents of an “early harvest” settlement of the bilateral boundary dispute with India. Beijing’s statement comes a day after Hindustan Times reported that India had linked China’s “early harvest” proposal for settling the Sikkim land boundary to the simultaneous demarcation of the middle sector in Uttarakhand as a stepping stone to the phased resolution of the boundary dispute.
The current standoff started this month: May 2020 in multiple places along the LAC in both Western sector (Ladakh) and also Eastern Sector (Northern Sikkim).
On May 9 at Naku La, mountain pass between Northern Sikkim and Tibet there was a confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops. According to one report, a young Indian lieutenant punched a Chinese major which led to the Major being left with a bloody nose. In the process of this confrontation some soldiers from both sides were injured. The situation was brought under control after senior officers of both the sides intervened.
Pangong Tso/Pangong Lake
This beautiful lake is in Eastern Ladakh on the LAC with Tibet. Approximately 2/3 of the lake is under Chinese control while the remaining ~1/3 is under Indian control. This lake has been featured in a few Bollywood movies such as Dil Se & 3 Idiots.
The lake’s northern bank has protrusions which look like “fingers” into the lake. There are 8 protrusions, which are identified as “fingers” to demarcate this disputed territory.
While India claims that the LAC is at Finger 8, China on the other hand claims LAC is at Finger 2.
Twitter user d-atis (@detresfa_) who does IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) in his recent tweet (as seen below) has shown the respective claim lines.
While India claims the LAC is at Finger 8, their patrol used to take place up until about Finger 5 and anything beyond was always challenged. Interestingly during the 1999 Kargil war when Indian troops were diverted from the area to the war China took advantage of this opportunity and quietly built a road at Finger 4. Finger 4 is where Chinese and Indian troops came to blows in mid-2017 and stone pelting. According to some reports six years ago, the Chinese attempted to build a permanent structure at Finger 4 which was demolished after Indians strongly objected to it. Till the recent fracas, the Indian side which patrols on foot, could go up to Finger 8. But the skirmishes happened at Finger 5, causing “disengagement” between the two sides. The Chinese have now stopped the Indian soldiers moving beyond Finger 2. This eyeball-to-eyeball situation is still developing.
As per reports India tried building a road from Finger 2 towards Finger 3 for quick movement of soldiers and vehicles along the northern bank of the lake. But The Print reports indicate that the Chinese have built blocking points at Finger 2 to stop the Indian patrols from going further and are also reportedly building bunkers.
China is eyeing to gain access to Finger 4 from the West as the supposed Lukung point offers a view of Indian patrol boats movement of Indian troops along the Northern Bank.
As per NDTV report on May 29, Chinese build-up of forces has taken place close to the Indian posts, though it is likely that the build-up is presently located on the Chinese side of the LAC.
Reports indicate that this month the PLA did move towed artillery and infantry combat vehicles to areas near the LAC within Chinese held territory and there are no new incursions into Indian held territory.
Twitter user @detresfa_ in May29th confirmed Chinese buildup within Chinese held territory and no intrusions across the LAC.
The Shyok River which runs parallel to the LAC in eastern Ladakh is an important landmark and narrow Galwan Valley branches off from the Shyok river.
Galwan valley witnessed armed conflict between Chinese and Indian troops during the 1962 war. Chinese troops have been reported to have come very close to the LAC (or possibly slightly over the LAC). The construction of a “feeder” road/bridge over the rivulet near the confluence of Galwan and Shyok Rivers has been the reason for the standoff in this area. Construction of “feeder” road that branches off from the 255 km Darbukh-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road has reportedly irked the Chinese who wants the construction to be stopped. Analysis by Nathan Ruser (@Nrg8000) of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (as seen in the image below) shows that Chinese haven’t transgressed into the LAC but are very close to it.
Galwan river basin is at 13,600 feet while the surrounding mountain crests are 19,000+ feet high making it an unlikely region for major conflict escalation. Effectively, even if the Chinese manages to bring disproportionate forces space limitation will be a major constraint for a major combat.
In the past few days an Indian journalist created panic over Chinese incursions with reports of PLA deployment of 5,000 troops to 10,000 Chinese troops (later) across the LAC. These soldiers were said to have been “deep inside” Indian Territory at the LAC. At some point during this standoff claims were made that there was a Chinese brigade each at all of the 3 face off points in Ladakh. While reasons for this alarmist reporting are best known to him this was picked up by both Indian and foreign media experts who quoted him painting a very grim picture of the situation on the ground.
Other sources in the media did quote that 5,000 troops were diverted from an ongoing exercise in Tibet but they were not at the LAC but held in reserve at depth in Chinese held territory in Aksai Chin. Rajat Pandit of Times of India reported that there are only 1200-1500 soldiers at the actual face-off points while Snehesh Alex Philip at The Print said that “it is estimated that every transgressed location has about 600-800 troops each.”. Both these are well below the alarmist 5,000 to 10,000 troops claims (as mentioned above).
India in response has decided to stay “dug in” and conduct what is called “mirror deployment”. Times of India reported that Indian Army had moved some units of the Leh based Infantry Division forward to their “operational alert areas” with other units replacing them in the “traditional depth areas”. This was to cater for any contingencies just in case (very unlikely possibility) that hostilities break out at the LAC.
While some folks readily experience “heartburn” and mini panic attacks over the reported Chinese forces near in depth around LAC, most don’t consider the strength of Indian forces in Eastern Ladakh.
Below is an image of Indian forces in this area based on some brilliant work by Vats Rohit (@KesariDhwaj) who meticulously outlined in detail all the Indian troops and armor force levels in this critical area.
The entire state of Jammu & Kashmir was served by the 15 Corps of the Indian Army until 1999. After the Kargil war The Leh based 14 Corps was raised to guard against the Chinese threat towards the east vs the threat from Pakistan to the west. This 14 Corps has 3 Infantry Divisions in Ladakh including an armored brigade in the DBO area.
When projecting force levels at the LAC one has to consider the strength on both sides of the border to get a good perspective. India has over the past 10+ years strengthened its presence in this area. Any kind of skirmish in areas such as this where terrain presents a challenge will require the aggressor to have a substantial superiority in force levels to achieve their goals. There has been no such reported massive buildup of troops on the Chinese side to believe that they intend to start a battle (even a highly localized one). With Indian forces deployed in numbers no Chinese commander in the right frame of mind would want to escalate this by starting an armed conflict. While some in the media may project the events in a manner that the “situation is dire and war is imminent” the possibility of any skirmish remains slim to none.
This was best encapsulated by M.K. Narayanan, former National Security Adviser & former Special Representative on the boundary talks recently said “The most important thing is to not view every single border skirmish as the beginning of another war”. “We should be careful in not being driven by, I’m sorry to say, what the media and many people are saying.”
Reason for Current Standoff
China has had the “early mover’s advantage” as far as border infrastructure is concerned. The asymmetry in border infrastructure gave Chinese upper hand all these years and they were ok with it as India was lacking in this regard.
India for a very long time (even after the defeat in the 1962 war) neglected robust infrastructure development near to the LAC. They thinking back in the day was that in case war breaks out Chinese troops would use the same infrastructure to ingress rapidly into India. Thankfully around ~1.5 decades ago this defensive mindset was dumped and building roads & railway links in these hard to access remote areas close to LAC was priortised.
For years, Indian troops were at a disadvantage in Sub Sector North due to absence of road connectivity. India has an ALG (Advanced Landing Ground) for IAF (Indian Air Force) in Daulat Beg Oldie the highest in the world at almost 17,000 feet above sea level. Supplies to troops in this area had to be either airlifted to the ALG or were transported by land via mules! Daulat Beg Oldie is just a short distance away from the Karakoram Pass on the border with Tibet.
After BRO, Border Roads Organization expedited road construction, last year the strategic 255km long Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road was completed.
This connects (as per the excellent illustration below by VatsRohit (@KesariDhwaj) Darbuk/Durbuk to Daulat Bed Oldie (& also the nearby Karakoram Pass on the northern edge of the LAC).
Director General of BRO Lt. Gen. Harpal Singh (in an interview a couple of months ago to BharatShakti) said that the DSDBO road which has approximately 37 bridges built across rivers & rivulets cut down the time to reach DBO from Leh from 2-3 days to just 6 hours. This has been a great achievement as during the summer the gushing waters of the Shyok River make it impossible to cross hindering connectivity with areas across the river close to the LAC.
One of the standoff points at the junction of Galwan and Shyok Rivers was caused by the construction of a “feeder” road/spur which branches off from this strategic 255 km Darbukh-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road. M. Taylor Fravel Professor of Political Science and Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an interview said, “China lacks a road similar to the DSDBO that runs parallel to the LAC, and that can facilitate the lateral movement of troops along the Chinese side of the LAC”. “China likely views it as challenging their position on and perhaps the stability of the LAC.”
The Chinese having enjoyed dominance in the infrastructure domain in the past, are now waking to the fact that the gap with India is slowly decreasing. It is not that this infrastructure poses an existential threat to their positions across the LAC. But the once held advantage of theirs now slowly being eroded is what rankles them the most. Their aim as part of these standoffs is to build pressure on India to show that they can still call the shots and can change the situation on the ground as they desire. The Chinese would want to return to the old “status quo” as a pre-condition to peacefully disengage from these standoffs. This would be sort of a “reverse” of Doklam situation where India blocked Chinese construction of a road towards the sensitive Jhamperi ridge. During 2017 standoff near India-Tibet-Bhutan trijunction, Indian troops crossed over into Bhutanese territory and stayed there during the 73-day standoff.
A return to “status quo” would mean abandonment of the infrastructure building by India. This would be detrimental to India’s interests as Chinese would be in a stronger position at LAC Vis a Vis India. India has so far resisted bullying efforts of the Chinese to abandon building of roads as part of a bargain to stop making into Indian territory across the LAC. If India can successfully navigate such standoffs without giving up the building of this critical infrastructure then the Chinese plan to retain their “first mover” advantage will not succeed.
What is different about this standoff vs earlier ones
While standoffs have occurred with China in the past, what makes this one different vs earlier ones?
Earlier standoffs like Depsang in 2013, Chumur in 2014, Doklam in 2017 were in a single point/location. Now we have 3 distinct standoffs occurring at the same time in Ladakh which are geographically well separated and another incident in Sikkim’s Eastern sector thousands of kms away from Ladakh standoffs. This according to some experts is not a simple overzealous exercise of a local PLA commander but a consequence of diligently planned set of instructions from the highest levels in Beijing.
In the past incursions have largely remained peaceful barring the incident in 2017 on the banks of the Pangong Lake where a few soldiers from both sides were injured. This time however the number of injuries to soldiers is concerning. The aggressive Chinese behavior resulting in fisticuffs and fighting caused injuries necessitating moving of some injured soldiers to hospitals across North India as per some reports.
The number of soldiers may not be in the thousands as some journalists have alleged but they seem to be larger than previous standoffs. The reports of China moving up close to the border (but at some depth from LAC) with tanks/IFV/artillery seems that they came prepared for this standoff.
Lt General DS Hooda in an interview with Nitin Gokhale on StratNewsGlobal said that the 2014 Chumur incident which coincided with Xi's visit to India happened when Kashmir witnessed floods posing difficulty in troop movement. He speculated that perhaps, this time around the Chinese are trying to take advantage of India being busy with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Larger Geopolitical Point
Indian Strategic Response
During the 2017 Doklam crisis while the USA made a reference to the crisis in favor of India there was hardly any reaction from the rest of the world for the fear of Chinese backlash.
Former FS & NSA Shivshankar Menon in a paper for Brookings wrote “No other country shares India’s precise set of interests for the simple reason that no other country shares India’s history, geography, size, culture, and identity”.
“There is no point in India getting dragged into external entanglements where it would have to make a stand if it was part of a military alliance like NATO with USA or other powers.
The more India rises, the more it must expect Chinese opposition, and it will have to also work with other powers to ensure that its interests are protected in the neighborhood, the region and the world. The balance will keep shifting between cooperation and competition with China, both of which characterize that relationship. The important thing is the need to rapidly accumulate usable and effective power, even while the macro balance will take time to right itself.”
As of May 30, there has been little coverage on the border in Chinese media, another contrast from 2017 when there was almost daily coverage on Doklam in what was a campaign by State-controlled media to whip up public sentiment.
Some have construed the silence from both sides as “a desire to keep space for de-escalation” although that could change.
In 2017, Chinese analysts described the Doklam stand-off as being different from other India-China border situations as it was not taking place on territory disputed between the two countries. China was emphasizing in statements then that India had crossed the border into Bhutan, on land that is disputed between Bhutan and China and to which India had no claims.
From Beijing’s standpoint, the Indian action was a clear violation of China’s sovereignty, even if the area was also claimed by Bhutan, with whom India has a special kind of relationship. Hence, China’s diplomacy was vocal and public, designed to communicate its resolve to defend what it views as its territory in the Doklam Plateau. When Indian troops returned across the border to Indian territory, the situation eased and was eventually resolved.
Today, however, China appears to be asserting itself along the LAC in the Western sector. This is similar to the 2013 and 2014 border stand-offs between China and India. Perhaps paradoxically, fewer and less vocal or public statements allow China to use troop movements and posture to signal its opposition to Indian activities on the LAC while leaving flexibility for a resolution that would likely entail Chinese troops returning to their original positions. By contrast, in Doklam, China very publicly “tied its hands” in a way that it is not doing today — at least so far.
China watcher Jayadeva Ranadev in an interview with Nitin Gokhale on StratNewsGlobal said- after abrogation of article 370, China perceived a threat to its strategic and economic interests in POK and Modi government’s muscular policy. Taking advantage of Covid-19 outbreak, China is upping the ante not only across LAC but on other fronts like Hong Kong, Taiwan & South China Sea and China believes that India will back down when threatened during the prevailing health emergency. Lt. Gen D.S. Hooda during that same interview brings out a point which can’t be emphasized enough: Chinese military pressure on India hasn't worked in such a long time: Be it the 1967 Nathu La clashes or the 1986 Sumdorong Chu standoff, 2013 Depsang, 2014 Chumur, 2017 Doklam. He further adds "where has military pressure on India worked for Chinese giving very big dividends ". On the idea of India putting the pressure back on China he says that there are points across LAC and International Boundary where it can be done. He is not in favor of upping the pressure on China via maritime domain by sailing in the South China Sea (SCS) which is something that even we agree.
China’s Diplomatic Response
On May 19, the Chinese MFA said India had “crossed” the LAC in the western section and Sikkim “to enter Chinese territory”. It accused India of blocking normal patrols and attempting to unilaterally change the status quo.
The English language Global Times on May 18 published the only article so far on the border situation, saying Chinese troops “have bolstered border control measures and made necessary moves in response to India’s recent, illegal construction of defence facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region”. It cited “a source close to Chinese military”. A Chinese version of the article, published on the Sina website’s military portal, referred to the Galwan Valley “as China’s territory”, although this was missing in the MFA’s statements.
Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said the situation at the border with India is "overall stable and controllable," underscoring that the two countries have proper mechanisms and communication channels to resolve the issues through a dialogue and consultation.
"We are capable of resolving the issues properly though dialogue and consultation," Zhao stated while stressing that China remains committed to safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and security, and safeguarding peace and stability in the border areas.
Chinese Envoy to India, Sun Weidong said that “China and India are fighting together against #COVID19 and we have an important task to consolidate relations. Our youth should realize the relation between China and India, the two countries are opportunities for each other and pose no threat”
On last Sunday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi did not mention India even once during his long annual conference in Beijing. With the Chinese National Peoples’ Congress having started from Friday, there is unlikely to be any meaningful dialogue between the two sides until this ends. Chinese Foreign Minister spoke for a record 100 minutes.
As former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sagely observed, “You can change friends but not neighbors.” That observation still holds true.
Indian Diplomatic Stand
Proof of the pudding lies in eating. It needs to be seen if the PLA will ask its soldiers to return back from their forward positions. This will be the actual step which confirms the diffusion of tensions. India cannot and should not be satisfied with the statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. After all, even the Doka La crisis extended for 73 days. Current LAC incursions are less than a month old as we record this episode. The Chinese might want to drag this issue for a while to test our military and political resolve. Both sides are aware that they cannot and don’t need a full-scale war at this moment. However with an unmarked boundary, it becomes imperative for both sides to keep making periodic claims. Else, when the actual time comes to sit down at the table and discuss, the lack of periodic claims might ruin the case. Hence, both countries in general and China specifically would want to create favorable facts on the ground and also attempt to remove unfavorable facts on the ground. After all, this was the strategy adopted by China in its claims in the South China Sea. India will be wary of such tactics and would not wish to be seen as bowing down to pressure.
The current agreements to manage the border don’t seem to be working when they were drawn up years ago. A new modus vivendi will have to be reached otherwise these events will keep happening. How best to tackle such situations going forward without compromising India’s interests in face of Chinese pressure and bullying is an open question. With a likelihood of such incidents including physical fighting between troops more likely to occur there remains a danger of actual shots being fired by some crazy soldier when he is under the pump during such standoffs. This can easily devolve into a 1967 Nathu La type incident. Back in 1967 we didn’t have social media and 24x7 news media which would create intense pressure on both sides to not back down making any kind of diplomatic de-escalation difficult to execute.
In Modi 2.0, former Foreign Secretary and Indian Ambassador to China, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was made the Minister for External Affairs primarily because of his experience in dealing with the Chinese. In September last year, when he was on a whirlwind tour around the world to justify India’s step to repeal autonomy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in his address to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “Where we differ (with China), we have mechanisms and, in a way, a sort of ethos of handling it. And frankly, it’s not a relationship that has given cause for anxiety to the world for many, many years”.
During the Chennai Connect informal summit between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping at Mamallapuram on the outskirts of Chennai, in October 2019, both the leaders vowed to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas. Now is the time to come good on that vow for China’s political and military leadership.
Although China would never say this publicly, there is an assessment in India that China feels that India’s push to build physical infrastructure can one day threaten the Lhasa Kashgar highway in Aksai Chin. Remember, both Tibet and Xinjiang are restive provinces in the Far West of China. From a strategic perspective this is similar to how India thinks that China has a stranglehold on India’s North East with its ability to choke the Chicken’s Neck. The only difference is that once the Chicken’s Neck is captured, the only way India’s North East can be contacted by the mainland is by air. However, such a complication doesn’t arise in case of the Lhasa Kashgar highway. However, China might still feel irritated by the presence of Indian infrastructure this close to the highway.
What has alarmed analysts and policymakers in India is not only the Chinese incursions occurring at multiple places across the LAC in a synchronized fashion but also them “pushing the envelope” in other domains such as the stance taken by the Nepali government at the behest of China, incident of sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea near the Paracel islands in early April and decision by China to enforce new national security law in Hong Kong.
India is left with no option but to stare back at the Chinese across the LAC and make it obvious that the Indian military and the political establishment won’t back down. Else, the government runs the risk of being seen as capitulating in front of an emboldened Xi Jinping who is desperate to whip up nationalistic sentiments due the COVID-19 crisis and the slowdown in the Chinese economy.
Note: This was originally discussed on Episode 26 of the India Rising podcast (@indiarisingmk) hosted by Mohal Joshi (@MohalJoshi) & Kishor Narayan (@veggiediplomat). (Below are links to the episode)
Image Credits: Zee News