Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

A phantom called the Line of Actual Control with China


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Ladakh Region, Pangong Lake.

Mains level : Paper 2- Border issue between India and China

Yet again, India and China are engaged in a standoff on the border. But why the issues persist even after four agreements with a view to solve the boundary problem? This article explains the problem in wording of the agreement. And also explains the lack of intent from China’s part.

Four agreements: vision of progress or strategic illusion?

  •  At the heart of India’s and China’s continued inability to make meaningful progress on the boundary issue are four agreements.
  • Those agreements were signed in September 1993, November 1996, April 2005 and October 2013 — between the two countries.
  • Ironically, India and China keep referring to these agreements as the bedrock of the vision of progress on the boundary question.
  • Unfortunately, these are deeply flawed agreements.
  • And also make the quest for settlement of the boundary question at best a strategic illusion and at worst a cynical diplomatic parlour trick.

Let’s look into LAC provision in 1993 and 1996 agreements

  • According to the 1993 agreement, “pending an ultimate solution”, “the two sides shall strictly respect and observe the LAC between the two sides No activities of either side shall overstep the LAC”.
  • Further, both the 1993 and the 1996 agreement—on confidence-building measures in the military field along the LAC— say they “will reduce or limit their respective military forces within mutually agreed geographical zones along the LAC.”
  • This was to apply to major categories of armaments and cover various other aspects as well, including air intrusions “within ten kilometres along the LAC”.

Okay, but where is the LAC?

  • The specification of this phantom LAC as the starting point and the central focus has made several key stipulations and articles of the four agreements effectively inoperable for more than a quarter of a century.
  • In fact, many of the articles have no bearing on the ground reality.
  • Article XII of the 1996 agreement, for instance, says, “This agreement is subject to ratification and shall enter into force on the date of exchange of instruments of ratification.”
  • It is not clear if and when that happened.
  • Nowhere in the 1993 agreement is there the provision to recognise the existing lines of deployment of the respective armies, as they were in 1993.
  • The agreement does not reflect any attempt to have each side recognise the other’s line of deployment of troops at the time it was signed.
  • That would have been the logical starting point.
  • If both armies are to respect the LAC, where is the line?
  • The ambiguity over the LAC has brought a prolonged sense of unease and uncertainty and thus exponentially contributed to the military build-up in those areas.
  • The absence of a definition of this line allows ever new and surreptitious advances on the ground.

What could have been done?

  • Had the 1993 agreement begun the exercise with the phrase “pending an ultimate solution, each side shall strictly respect and observe the line of existing control/deployment” instead of the “LAC”, it would have been more possible to keep the peace.
  • In such a case there would have been two existing lines of control on the map — one for the physical deployment of the Chinese troops and the other for the physical deployment of the Indian troops.
  • This would have rendered the areas between the two lines no man’s land, and would have ensured that the two armies were frozen in their positions.

The issue of two LAC in the eastern and western sector

  • The LAC is two hypothetical lines in the following two sectors-
  • 1) In the eastern sector, where the Chinese have not accepted the loosely defined McMahon line which follows the principle of watershed.
  • 2) The western sector, which is witnessing another episodic stand-off.
  • The first is what Indian troops consider the extent to which they can dominate through patrols, which is well beyond the point where they are actually deployed and present.
  • The second is what the Chinese think they effectively control, which is well south of the line they were positioned at in 1993.

Why map exchange didn’t happen for the western sector?

  • It is in this theatre of the militarily absurd that we should look at the outcome of the attempted exchange of maps in the western sector.
  • It is the sector where this round of confrontation continues between India and China.
  • This came after the exchange of maps in the middle sector.
  • In the middle sector, divergences were the least, i.e., the existing line and the Chinese and Indian idea of the LAC were more or less the same (in 2002).
  • The Foreign Secretary India and the head of the Chinese delegation, met in New Delhi in 2003 for sharing the map of the western sector.
  • It had been agreed that both sides would exchange maps to an agreed scale on each side’s perceptions of the location of the LAC in the western sector.
  • The idea was to superimpose the maps to see where the perceptions converged and, crucially, where they diverged.
  • Due to the contentious nature of the sector, it would provide a starting point, not the end point, to discuss how to reconcile divergences presumed to be significant, given Chinese military behaviour on the ground there.
  • Each side handed over its map to the other.
  • But, head of the Chinese delegation gave it a long, hard look, and wordlessly returned it.
  • They provided no reason for their action.
  • The meeting effectively ended there.

Consider the question “Examine the reasons for the persistent nature of the India-China border issue.”


By disregarding the map, China is not bound in any way by New Delhi’s perception of the LAC, and therefore does not have to limit liberty of action. This was evident then and is especially evident now. Because the nature of the terrain, deployment, and infrastructure and connectivity asymmetries in the border areas continue to be so starkly in China’s favour that it is clear that the Chinese are in no hurry to settle the boundary question. They see that the cost to India in keeping this question open suits them more than settling the issue.

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