Problems at the periphery


Last Wednesday, US President Donald Trump tweeted – “We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute.” He then followed it up on Thursday by stating that “they have a big conflict, India and China…Two countries with 1.4 billion people each. Two countries with very powerful militaries. India is not happy and probably China is not happy.”

On Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prepare for war. Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted him as saying, “it is necessary to explore ways of training and preparing for war because epidemic control efforts have been normalised…. it is necessary to step up preparations for armed combat, to flexibly carry out actual combat military training, and to improve our military’s ability to perform military missions.” Simultaneously, China is evacuating its citizens from India, though they have cited pandemic as the reason.

On the same day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the three service chiefs, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat to discuss the border standoff with China. And on previous Friday, Army Chief General MM Naravane visited the XIV Corps Headquarters in Leh to review the situation at our eastern Ladakh border.

On the Ground

The situation took a turn for the worse on May 5 when around 5,000 Chinese troops crossed into the Galwan Valley. Around 250 Indian and Chinese soldiers faced off in the Pangong Tso Lake area in Eastern Ladakh on the same day. The fight continued to the next day and over 100 soldiers from both sides were injured. On May 9, Indian and Chinese military personnel engaged in a combat near the Nakula Pass in the Sikkim sector. At least 10 soldiers from both sides were injured. The Army Chief on May 14 confirmed that the incidents at the Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh on May 5 and on May 9 at Nakula had led to injuries due to “aggressive behaviour on both sides”.

Chinese intrusions have also been detected at three places in the Galwan area, well within the Indian territory. Reports state that Chinese soldiers, numbering 1,000-1,300 have crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in at least three places – Patrolling Point 14, Patrolling Point 15, and at Hot Springs, which are about three kilometers within India. The Chinese have not only brought in a fleet of monitoring equipment and heavy vehicles, but have also erected around 100 tents in the areas around Pangong Tso Lake and Galwan Valley. Reports also state that they planted a Chinese flag on the hill north of Pangong lake (the famous closing scene of 3 Idiots).

India too has moved in equal number of soldiers to these areas, which are now separated by a distance of around 500 metres from the Chinese. Additional men and material are also being moved in on an urgent priority. Analysts state that the situation is ‘unprecedented’ and troop build-up is happening at locations which are 200 km apart. This is the second time there has been a heightening of tensions between India and China in recent times. Both the countries were engaged in a 73-day standoff on the Doklam tri-junction in 2017.

Conflicting Claims

The LAC between India and China has not been clearly demarcated at multiple places. Many such areas are there along Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Ladakh. Therefore, there are overlapping claims and any intrusions to these areas lead to face-offs. The Galwan area, the epicentre of present tensions, was considered to be clearly delineated but China is disputing it now. Both sides have agreed to Protocols twice, in 2005 and 2013, which have to be followed in case of disputes, but these have not really helped.

In fact, there is an established mechanism to resolve the boundary disputes between both the countries. The 22nd round of talks on this front were held between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Wang Yi, China’s State Councillor, in December 2019 in New Delhi. But many sticking points remain. China claims 90,000 sq km of Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang, and India believes China is occupying at least 38,000 sq km of its territory in Aksai Chin.

India shares an 857 sq km long border in Ladakh with China but only 368 sq km of it is the International Border. The remaining 489 sq km is the LAC. While Trig Heights and Demchok have been disputed by both sides, the two sides have differing perceptions on Depsang Plains 972, Samar Lungpa 176 sq km, Sarjap 129, Hot Spring 38, Dhumtsele 25 sq km, Spanguur 24, Changlung 13, Kungkala-Phobrang 5. China has also raised disputes at Pangong Tso 83 sq km and over 80 sq km at Chumur. (P Stobdan)

Recent Reasons

China has vehemently criticised making Ladakh a Union territory. “The Indian side has continued to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally amending its domestic laws. This practice is unacceptable and will not produce any effect,” a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry had said. It even raised the issue at the United Nations Security Council. India dismissed the claim stating that it is an “internal matter” and there were “no implications for India’s external boundaries or the LAC with China.”

The China-Pakistan camaraderie has too been gaining strength. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor binding them in a strong economic relationship, Pakistan has received unstinted support from China for its mission against India. China supported India’s most wanted terrorists as well as Pakistan on the Kashmir issue at the United Nations. Chinese President Xi even suggested a China-India-Pakistan meet to Prime Minister Modi at Mamallapuram last October.

On October 21, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a strategically important bridge at Shyok, Ladakh, which helps establish all-weather connectivity on the 255-km road linking Durbuk to the world’s highest Advance Landing Ground, Daulet Beg Oldie, which is very close to the LAC. The fast tracking of this road, which allows the Indian armed forces to bring in tanks and other military equipment into Aksai Chin, upset China. Moreover, Home Minister Amit Shah while speaking in Parliament on abrogation on Article 370 last August had stressed: “I want to make it absolutely clear that every single time we say Jammu & Kashmir, it includes Pak occupied Kashmir (including Gilgit-Baltistan) as well as Aksai Chin. Let there be no doubt over it.”

Very recently, India updated its foreign direct investment rules with nations which share a land border with it making it mandatory for them to invest in India only under the government route. This is seen as an attempt to check China’s predatory attempts to use the current Covid situation to consolidate its control on Indian businesses.

Chilling Truths

Writing in The Indian Express, P Stobdan, a former ambassador and expert on India-China matters, points out that while “we have been harping on the ‘differing perception’ theory of the LAC for decades, but in reality, China has been gaining control over a massive ‘disputed territory’ in Eastern Ladakh since the 1980s.

The Chinese first made encroachments into the 45-km long Skakjung pastureland in Demchok-Kuyul sector. This resulted in local Changpas of Chushul, Tsaga, Nidar, Nyoma, Mud, Dungti, Kuyul, Loma villages gradually losing their winter grazing. Ladakh’s earlier border lay at Kegu Naro — a daylong march from Dumchele. Starting from the loss of Nagtsang in 1984, followed by Nakung (1991) and Lungma-Serding (1992), the last bit of Skakjung was lost in 2008. During the 21-day Depsang standoff in 2013, when Burtse became a flashpoint, the PLA set up remote camps 18-19 km inside Indian territory. The Shyam Saran Report of August 2013 made a chilling revelation of India having lost 640 sq km due to ‘area denial’ set by PLA patrolling. Clearly, intrusions are part of China’s never-ending effort to push Indian troops westward of the Indus and Shyok rivers and reach the 1960 claimed line.”

Lt Gen HS Panag, former GOC in Northern Command and Central Command and former Member of Armed Forces Tribunal, writing for The Print states that “just like in 1962, 1965, and 1999, we have once again been surprised both at the strategic and tactical levels. The manner in which we had to rush reinforcements from other sectors gives a clear indication that we were surprised…. PLA has likely secured 40-60 sq km in Ladakh.”

David Devadas, a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute of Social Sciences, writes in that a Chinese attack is on the cards and “before things might come to a head, India must persuasively make its case on diplomatic and public platforms with regard to Jammu and Kashmir. Internationally, India must seek joint responses, getting its Quad partners (the US, Japan, and Australia) to join in putting pressure on Chinese shipping all the way from the Sea of Japan to the Persian Gulf. Commitment to protect Taiwan must be redoubled.”

While both China and India have begun speaking about diplomacy to resolve the situation, there has been no improvement on the ground with both sides holding to their ground positions. That the situation would come to such a pass, especially after the two summits between Modi and Xi in Wuhan in 2018 and Mamallapuram in 2019, speaks volumes about China’s real intent.

Unhappy Neighbours

On May 8, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a link road from Dharchula to Lipulekh, which would take Indian pilgrims to Kailash-Manasarovar in Tibet. Nepal claims that the road passes through its territory.

In response, Nepal summoned the Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu and expressed its displeasure. Nepal’s Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli also convened an all-party meeting to amend the constitution and include the strategic northwestern tri-junction — Kalapani, Limpiadhura and Lipulekh — with India and China into Nepal. On May 20, Nepal released a new political map including these three territories under its sovereignty. It has also claimed tracts of land in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur in Susta in the new maps and claimed India has ‘encroached” upon this area.

The Ministry of External Affairs responded stating that Nepal’s new map “includes parts of Indian territory” and the act was “contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue”. It urged Nepal “to respect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. While Nepal is unhappy with India, its proximity to China is growing, especially given China’s investments in Nepal’s hydroelectric projects.

Similarly, China is investing big in Sri Lanka as well and now for Sri Lanka “both China and India are valued friends”.

Disputed Borders

  • India and China share a border across Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh,        Sikkim and Uttarakhand
  • While India claims Aksai Chin as part of Kashmir, China says it is part of Xinjiang
  • The British proposed two borders between India and China – Johnson’s Line and McDonald Line
  • The Johnson’s line, proposed in 1865, shows Aksai Chin in Ladakh under India while McDonald Line, proposed in 1893, puts it under China
  • As per India, it’s the Johnson Line that matters, but China swears by the McDonald Line
  • The McMahon Line runs from the eastern side of Bhutan till the trijunction of Tibet, India and Myanmar

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