The Simmering Boundary: A “New Normal” at the India–China Border? | Part 1

COMMENTARY Asia

The Simmering Boundary: A “New Normal” at the India–China Border? | Part 1

Jun 15th, 2020 8 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Jeff M. Smith

Research Fellow, South Asia

Jeff Smith specializes in South Asia as a research fellow in Heritage's Asian Studies Center.

The good news is, the current crisis in Ladakh bears some resemblance to these prior standoffs, all of which were peacefully resolved. The bad news is, they also differ in some important and concerning ways, with mounting evidence to suggest the LAC is entering a new, more volatile chapter.

This is the first part in a two-part series. Read part 2.


The China-India border is simmering again. Less than two years after Chinese and Indian forces engaged in an unprecedented standoff on the Doklam plateau, this May tensions erupted at several junctures along their disputed, 2,167-mile border. Fists were thrown. Blood was shed. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) was crossed. Artillery and heavy equipment was moved to forward positions near the border. Then, in early June, a ray of hope: negotiations between senior military commanders on 6 June appear to have begun a de-escalation process at several standoff points, though Chinese and Indian troops remain embroiled in a standoff at Pangong Lake. Even if, like its many predecessors, this border crisis is peacefully resolved, the trends at the LAC suggest the disputed boundary is growing more volatile.

Over the past decade, China has been deploying coercive tactics along four territorial fronts: in the East China Sea, South China Sea, China-India border, and toward the US on the question of freedom of navigation. The China-India border was once thought to be among the more stable of these fronts. It may be time to revisit that thinking.

Over the past decade, China has been deploying coercive tactics along four territorial fronts: in the East China Sea, South China Sea, China-India border, and toward the US on the question of freedom of navigation.

Background

The latest saga at the China-India border began in early May, with reports of a pair of fistfights between Chinese and Indian border patrols at two separate locations. The first occured along the banks of Pangong Lake in Ladakh on 5 May, in one of two-dozen volatile stretches of the border where there’s no mutually agreed LAC. The second, more peculiar, fistfight erupted on 9 May where the Indian state of Sikkim meets Tibet. Notably, that section of the border was ostensibly settled in the mid-2000s and no longer considered disputed by India, although there have been periodic reports of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) transgressions across the Sikkim border since then.

By mid-May, reports revealed Chinese and Indian forces were engaged in additional and ongoing standoffs and military buildups at four distinct points in Ladakh, including near the Galwan river, Hot Spring, and Gogra areas, while the sparring at Pangong Lake was still ongoing. By month’s end, videos surfaced of a violent confrontation between Chinese and Indian forces at Pangong Lake, and the Indian media seized on speculation that China had crossed the LAC with an invasion force 10,000 strong.

Chinese and Indian officials initially offered very little commentary on the LAC standoffs. In mid-May China accused India of “trespassing” and “illegal” infrastructure work near the LAC. India’s Ministry of External Affairs stressed: “All Indian activities are entirely on the Indian side of the LAC. In fact, it is [the] Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns.”

China’s senior leadership avoided broaching the topic in speeches. Its ambassador to India stressed the two countries “pose no threat to each other” and should “seek understanding through communication.”

China’s senior leadership avoided broaching the topic in speeches. Its ambassador to India stressed the two countries “pose no threat to each other” and should “seek understanding through communication.” China’s Ministry of Foreign affairs claimed the ” situation is overall stable and controllable.” Only China’s hyper-nationalist mouthpiece, the Global Times, took a predictable swing at Delhi. It insisted India planned the crisis in advance, blamed the border standoffs on the US, warned India not to be used as “cannon ash,” and urged Delhi to “improve [its] understanding and research on China” and “make correct and strategic judgments.”

In early June, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh offered some public comments that on one hand sought to emphasise a diplomatic resolution but also presented a warning: “India does not want to hurt [anyone’s] self-respect, nor will it tolerate under any circumstances anyone harming India’s self-respect.. if anyone tries to get us to bow our heads, there is no doubt that we can give a befitting response.”

A clearer picture emerges 

So, what on earth has been happening in the Himalayas? As is often the case at the LAC, our understanding of events is hindered by imperfect information, conflicting accounts, and a steady stream of anonymously sourced speculation. Nevertheless, the release of new reports, government statements, satellite imagery, and informed analysis paint a better, but still incomplete, picture of recent events in Ladakh.

First, there appears to have been a substantial and concerning massing of military forces in Ladakh to positions near the LAC at three standoff points near the Galwan River, Gogra, and Hot Spring. Near Gogra, Chinese positions were reinforced with heavy artillery. Near the Galwan river, there are credible reports the PLA made a limited incursion beyond the LAC in May, but was either evicted or returned by choice to its side of the LAC.

For its part, India rushed troops, equipment, and supplies to reserve positions near the LAC, drawing from forces previously stationed near the Line of Control in Kashmir. Accounts suggest roughly 10,000 soldiers from each side may be involved.

Other accounts have suggested the PLA was encamped beyond the LAC at some of these locations but those claims have yet to be verified. For its part, India rushed troops, equipment, and supplies to reserve positions near the LAC, drawing from forces previously stationed near the Line of Control in Kashmir. Accounts suggest roughly 10,000 soldiers from each side may be involved.

After several rounds of inconclusive talks between local- and division-level military commanders, on 6 June the two sides held corps commander-level talks conducted in a “cordial and positive atmosphere.” Those talks, coupled with diplomatic negotiations, have reportedly prompted a step-by-step de-escalation at Galwan, Gogra, and Hot Spring, with both sides agreeing to pull back from forward positions along the LAC. The Chinese foreign ministry insisted the two sides “reached a positive consensus…to take actions to ease the situation along the borders.”

The troublesome lake

Further south in Ladakh, a more complex standoff is still unfolding at Pangong Lake. For years trouble has been brewing along the banks of the lake, which is bisected by the LAC: India controls the western third, China the eastern two-thirds. According to Indian government figures, between 2015 and 2019 Pangong Lake saw more Chinese transgressions than any other point along the border, a full quarter of the well over 1,000 LAC violations in that period.

In 2017, the same year China and India were engaged in an unprecedented standoff 500 miles southeast on the Doklam plateau, videos surfaced of the two countries’ forces engaged in a rare bout of physical violence, exchange blows and rocks along the banks of the river. This May, China reportedly tripled the number of boats patrolling the disputed lake, where naval transgressions of the LAC are not uncommon.

The problem at Pangong Lake isn’t the overlapping claims; it is the fact China and India don’t agree on the location of the LAC.

Why is Pangong Lake so problematic? The lake’s northern bank hosts several geological protrusions—eight mountainous “fingers” grasping toward the water. India’s territorial claims extend east to Finger 8. China’s claims extend west to Finger 2. The problem at Pangong Lake isn’t the overlapping claims; it is the fact China and India don’t agree on the location of the LAC. China argues it belongs at Finger 4. For India, the LAC lies several miles east, at Finger 8.

India enjoys sovereign control of the territory leading up to Finger 4, with a military outpost on its western flank. The problems lie east of Finger 4, between the two perceived LACs. China has been regularly patrolling the area for decades and built a road there in 1999. Indian forces also patrol the area up to their claim line at Finger 8, although they’re forced to do so on foot as vehicles can’t traverse the difficult terrain around Finger 4. This grey zone between Finger 4 and Finger 8, between the perceived LACs, has been the source of frequent Indian confrontations with the PLA, with reports of Chinese forces “blocking” Indian patrols as far back as 2013.

Last month, as tensions were unfolding further north in Ladakh, a Chinese force roughly 200 strong advanced to Finger 4, even temporarily crossing the LAC at one point. It appears the PLA has established a structure near F4, and smaller outposts east of it, in an attempt to alter the status quo.

The Indian media is now embroiled in a debate over whether China has seized “Indian territory.” The answer is complicated: India claimed and patrolled the area, but never exercised sovereign control over the space between Finger 4 and Finger 8, where China enjoyed better road access and arguably a stronger presence.

Concerning trends at the LAC 

There hasn’t been a single death from hostilities at the LAC in over 40 years—a fairly remarkable feat given the volume of interactions among hostile parties in contested territory. India records several hundred Chinese LAC violations annually and the vast majority of confrontations between border patrols result in fleeting, ceremonial interactions.

However, in the spring of 2013 something changed. Dozens of Chinese soldiers crossed the LAC in Ladakh in the Depsang Valley and set up camp, objecting to Indian construction of new military bunkers and listening posts near the border. They remained camped there for three weeks until negotiations brokered a withdrawal agreement and a commitment to dismantle at least some of the new military outposts. Chinese forces had briefly crossed the LAC to dismantle makeshift facilities before, including in 2011, but their prolonged encampment in 2013 was a departure from the status quo.

There hasn’t been a single death from hostilities at the LAC in over 40 years—a fairly remarkable feat given the volume of interactions among hostile parties in contested territory.

More concerning, the PLA employed the same tactic the following year, on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s inaugural visit to India. In September 2014, hundreds of Chinese soldiers crossed the LAC near Chumar prompting a sixteen-day standoff. The two sides eventually negotiated a withdrawal agreement that reportedly committed India to destroying a recently built observation hut and several bunkers near the LAC, and China to halting the extension of a road toward the LAC. In 2015, Ladakh witnessed yet another, briefer, standoff when Indian forces sought to prevent China from constructing a watch tower near the LAC.

The good news is, the current crisis in Ladakh bears some resemblance to these prior standoffs, all of which were peacefully resolved. The bad news is, they also differ in some important and concerning ways, with mounting evidence to suggest the LAC is entering a new, more volatile chapter.

First, Chinese violations the LAC in all sectors are growing in frequency. The Indian government recorded over 660 LAC violations by the PLA in 2019, a surge of over 50% from 2018 and a contemporary record. (Recorded aerial transgressions of the LAC have also spiked, from 47 in 2017 to 108 in 2019.)

Second, the recent standoffs erupted across several non-contiguous sectors of the LAC at the same time, an unusual occurrence. Third, they involved an uncommon level of hostility, including several bouts of fist-fighting and rock throwing that were rare prior to 2017.

Fourth, they erupted in some sectors that were not traditionally viewed as contentious or volatile, and where there was no disagreement on the location of the LAC. This includes the Galwan river, Gogra, Hot Spring, and Sikkim (which have recorded roughly one PLA transgression of the LAC annually the past few years, versus over 100 per year in Pangong Lake).

In aggregate, these trends suggest LAC standoffs are growing more hostile, more frequent, longer in duration, and are receiving more media coverage and international attention, potentially restricting both sides’ room for manoeuvre.

This piece originally appeared in Observer Research Foundation