GP Insights

GP Insights # 360, 30 May 2020

India-China border: Military tensions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC)
Ashna Joy

What happened?
Top military brass reviewed the situation at the three-day Army commander's conference on 28 May. India and China have entered into a standoff in Pangong Tso Lake, Galwan Valley, Demchok and Daulet Beg Oldie of Ladakh sector on 5 May. 

Amid the border skirmishes, Prime Minister Modi along with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the Chiefs of Defence forces in a closed meeting reiterated India's defence modernization policy in LAC and emphasized on diplomatic routes to de-escalate the crises. Since then, commanders of both the Indian Army and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) have met several times to normalize the crisis.

It all started in early May. The standoff ensued into a fistfight with several soldiers injured from both sides. On 9 May, another standoff erupted over Nathu La in the Indian state of Sikkim when the Indian soldiers stopped the Chinese patrol army from crossing the disputed boundary line. 

What is the background?
First is the road construction by India, that is central to the border standoff. The reason for current tension is over the completion of a road by India which connects the Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldie Road in Galwan Valley. The Galwan valley was the focal point of the 1962 war and is close to the LAC. This triggered the transgression by Chinese PLA into Indian territory with setting up of a large number of tents and aggressive patrolling in Daulat Beg Oldie, Demchok, Galwan valley and Pangong Tso. However, India's construction and defence facilities at LAC is within the border management protocol, according to BDCA, 1999 and Wuhan Summit, 2018. 

Second is the unresolved territorial claims that lead to repeated border transgressions. The settlement of the India-China boundary is an uphill task where both countries have an overlapping claim on the territories. The series of border incursions between India-China has now become an annual affair with a repeated invocation of the historical memory from the 1962 war. The current standoff follows a similar incident of incursion in Ladakh during the visit of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping to India in 2014. 

Third is the border modernization as a power play. The tool of border road construction and modernization for territorial control has been frequently used by China for strategic counterbalance. China's infrastructural prowess was evident in Doklam, Bhutan where it constructed a road along with Tibet to Doklam plateau which is a disputed territory between Bhutan and China. The tri-junction became a serious concern for India because of its proximity to the strategically important Siliguri corridor connecting Northeast India and the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is equally claimed by China. The 73-day standoff came to an end through diplomatic negotiation wherein both sides agreed to withdraw its armed forces. Even though the dispute has been resolved after every incursion, the more significant territorial concerns remain contested. 

What does it mean?
First, the present border crisis brings out a repeated pattern of Chinese strategy based on 'fang' and 'shou,' which means 'squeezing' and 'relaxing' which was also witnessed in the Doklam incident. After squeezing the Indian militarily through constructing infrastructure and increasing the defence personnel in the border, China subsequently relaxes its military presence to offset its aggressive attitude. As India goes on to construct a road along the border, the present impasse is a reflection of China's attempt to change the status quo on the border.

Second, the border impasse comes as a corollary to India's recent position towards Ladakh.  In 2019, the Indian government changed the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir by splitting it into two Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. This policy was criticized by China accusing it of changing the status of Ladakh unilaterally. And with the present completion of the road in the region, China seems to be leveraging India's border modernization policy to once again reassert its historical dominance in the Aksai Chin region.

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