[Burning Issue] Skirmishes at the Line Of Actual Control

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Context

  • Three months after the last round of troop disengagement in eastern Ladakh signaling restoration of peace, soldiers from India and China clashed once again, this time in Arunachal Pradesh.
  • This was contested by Indian troops firmly and resolutely. This face-off led to minor injuries to a few personnel from both sides.
  • In this context, this edition of the burning issue will analyze the LAC standoffs between India and China.

Line of Actual Control Crisis- The Tawang Episode

  • Soldiers of the two sides clashed in Yangtse, in the upper reaches of the Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh on December 9, 2022.
  • PLA troops tried to transgress the LAC in Yangtse area of the Tawang Sector and unilaterally change the status quo.
  • Within Tawang, there are three “agreed areas” of differing Indian and Chinese perceptions of the LAC. Yangtse, which is about 25 km from Tawang town, north of the Lungroo grazing ground, is one of these areas.
  • As a result, it has been the site of regular “physical contact” between the Indian Army and the PLA, especially as the high ground is on the Indian side, giving it a commanding view of the Chinese side.
  • Both sides immediately disengaged from the area. As a follow-up to the incident, the Indian Army commander in the area held a flag meeting with his counterpart to discuss the issue in accordance with structured mechanisms to restore peace and tranquillity.

Some previous LAC crisis incidents

  • Depsang in Ladakh, 2013: Chinese troops came across the LAC, pitched tents and refused to move for several weeks until New Delhi threatened to cancel the planned visit of Premier Li Keqiang to India. This might have been a diplomatic victory for the Indian government but it also highlighted the inability of the Indian military to bring an end to the standoff or the unwillingness of the government to let the military take the lead in responding.
  • Chumar in Ladakh, Sept 2014 in the middle of Xi Jinping’s first visit to India: Chinese intruded at Chumar, also in Ladakh, in the middle of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to India. This was in keeping with a reasonably long tradition of Chinese transgressions during important visits but it was also notable for confronting Indian troops in an area where they enjoyed a degree of military advantage.
  • Doklam in 2017: China provoked India with infrastructure development in a third country in Bhutan’s Doklam territory. This was a case of China trying to browbeat an Indian treaty ally.
  • Transgression across multiple locations in 2020 and Galwan valley clash: The Chinese PLA took advantage of Covid-19 and a lack of Indian military alertness to transgress across multiple locations on the LAC in eastern Ladakh. On June 15, 2020 episode when 20 Indian soldiers were killed and several others were injured in violent clashes with the PLA troops in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley.

Reasons for these skirmishes

  • Enforce own perception of LAC: The transgressions, patrol clashes, faceoffs and flag meetings to resolve it has been a common feature to dominate or enforce own claim or own perception of LAC China and will continue to be so till the LAC is demarcated.
  • Difficult terrain: Rivers, lakes and snowcaps along the frontier mean the line can shift, bringing soldiers face to face at many points, sparking a confrontation.
  • Competition to build infrastructure: The two nations are also competing to build infrastructure along the border, which is also known as the Line of Actual Control. India’s construction of a new road to a high-altitude air base is seen as one of the main triggers for a deadly 2020 clash with Chinese troops.
  • Promote nationalism and divert attention: Chinese President Xi Jinping may be attempting to stoke nationalistic fervor out of his aggressive nationalistic stance by playing the victim card to divert domestic discontent due to the Zero Covid policy, downslide in the Chinese economy and other reasons.
  • Increase financial cost for India: Unhappy with the fastest-growing economy, a faceoff in winter may activate political debate in democratic India, and the Indian government may be compelled to deploy more troops throughout winters in all sectors, thereby increasing the financial cost for India by LOCisation of LAC.
  • India’s infrastructure development: China enjoyed gross asymmetry in infrastructure development in its favour for too long and is not comfortable with Indian effort to catch up in this regard; hence disruption in development activities along borders suits its design.

Other concerns in India-China Relation

  • Belt Road Initiative: India has objected to this, since its inception on grounds of violating its sovereignty pointing to China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
  • Non-reciprocal steps by China: India’s support to China on global issues has not led to Beijing’s reciprocation for instance. China opposed India’s permanent membership to UN Security Council and entry into NSG.
  • High trade deficit: India faces a trade imbalance heavily in favor of China. In 2017-18, the trade deficit has gone wide to US$62.9 billion in China’s favor.
  • Countering each other: China has expressed concerns about Indian military and economic activities in the disputed South China Sea. The same way India is also concerned about rising Chinese activities in the Indian Ocean.
  • China’s strong strategic bilateral relations with Pakistan and other neighboring countries like Nepal and Myanmar are the cause of concern as these countries act as buffer states.

Possible solutions to LAC standoffs

  • Be ready for all contingencies: With no de-escalation by the Chinese in sight, India should continue to be ready for all contingencies with similar deployment along LAC, in the coming months/years, including creating some more leverage, if the situation demands so.
  • Prevent LOC-isation of LAC: The Indian aim should be not to concede Chinese attempt to redraw LAC, or LOC-isation of the LAC further.
  • Be proactive in dealing with China: A change in mindset is required, from being reactive to being proactive with additional intelligence, surveillance and offensive capability to demonstrate the capacity to encroach into Chinese sensitive areas, in absence of which China has assumed no threat from India, with the freedom to encroach anywhere, at will.
  • Pass a border defense law similar to China: If the Chinese have passed a Border Defence Law, India too should pass some laws to facilitate emphatic border construction and extend schemes under the Border Infrastructure Management Authority (BIMA) as near as the LAC as is practically feasible.
  • Capacity building: India must continue capacity building in all domains, including the maritime domain, where Chinese vulnerable sea lines of communications can be threatened. Besides ongoing infrastructure development along borders, the scope of the Border Area Management Programme (BAMP) needs to be enhanced.

What are the options for India to learn from the past and see what lies ahead in India-China relations?

  • Inevitable Race: The prevailing tension on the China-India border is a symptom of the broader strategic competition between the two Asian neighbors.
  • Equal seriousness: Both sides should treat the military escalation along LAC with equal seriousness.
  • Armed coexistence: Even after the resolution of the present standoff in eastern Ladakh, both sides may be in a prolonged period of armed coexistence as a new normal. As the forces on both sides are likely to be relatively balanced, it would be advantageous for both to return to the agreements and understandings from 1993 onward and improve upon them. Clarifying the LAC is a crucial step in this effort.
  • Address trade imbalance: India has flagged the unsustainable trade imbalance at the front and center of the relationship, and this has gone unaddressed. China will need to work on resolving the trade deficit with India. At any rate, decoupling will happen selectively, in the same way, and for the same reasons that China is choosing to decouple from the United States. A balanced trade and economic relationship might lay a solid foundation for future relations, given the size of both economies.
  • Dialogue is necessary: Better understanding of each other’s regional initiatives through open dialogue is important to build trust. The Indo-Pacific vision is as much a developmental necessity for India as the BRI may be to China. Part of building trust must be an open discussion on each other’s intentions in key regions South Asia and the northern Indian Ocean and East Asia and the western Pacific as well as respect for each other’s special positions in the western Pacific and northern Indian Oceans.
  • Protect the core interest: The two sides would need to accommodate the legitimate interests of the other side on key partnerships: China’s with Pakistan and India’s with the United States. These may not be desirable, but in the current circumstances neither will give up its partners, and both India and China could talk through a modus vivendi on the red lines of concern.

EAM S. Jaishankar’s Suggestion to deal with China

  • The External Affairs Minister suggested “Three Mutuals” and “Eight Broad Propositions” as a way forward for the relationship.
  • Three mutuals
  • Mutual Respect and Mutual Sensitivity to each other concerns and Mutual Interests to cooperate are the “determining factors” for India-China relations to grow.
  • Eight Major propositions
  • Adhering to commitment: The first proposition was that agreements already reached must be adhered to in their entirety, both in letter and in spirit.
  • Respect for LAC: Both sides also needed to strictly observe and respect the LAC, and any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo was completely unacceptable.
  • Maintaining peace and tranquillity: Peace and tranquillity in border areas were the basis for the development of the relationship in other domains. If that was disturbed, he said, the rest of the relationship would be too.
  • Broader partnership: The fourth proposition was that while both remain committed to a multipolar world, they should recognize that a multipolar Asia was one of its essential constituents.
  • Reciprocity: While each state had its interests, concerns and priorities, sensitivities to them could not be one-sided and relations were reciprocal. As rising powers, neither should ignore the other’s set of aspirations.
  • Divergences management: While both sides had made a common cause on development and economic issues and common membership of plurilateral groups was a meeting point, there were divergences when it came to interests and aspirations.
  • Civilizational ties: The last proposition was that as civilizational states, India and China must always take the long view.
  • Cooperation and competition: Even before the events of 2020, the relationship had reflected a duality of cooperation and competition.

Conclusion

  • The two countries are standing at a crossroads, and this might be the final chance to take the path to the coexistence of cooperation and competition. If not, a new phase of antagonistic rivalry may be starting, with the countries sliding into possible confrontation as the strategic periphery of China collides with the strategic backyard of India in the Indian Ocean region.
  • Therefore, China and India should be “Good Neighbors, Good Friends,” as both countries are “important engines of the world economic growth.” By building on that theme, the two countries should “enhance dovetailing of the two countries’ development strategies” to build a “manufacturing partnership.”

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Ankur Dutta
Ankur Dutta
1 month ago

Madam/Sir,
In the introduction part of the article where you have shown an image of the map of India, you have mentioned Jammu and Kashmir as a state. It should have been the Union territory of Ladakh as it shares the boundary with China and not UT of J&K.
Kindly amend it.