GP Insights # 363, 6 June 2020
On 6 June senior military officers from India and China held a meeting in the Chushul sector in Ladakh. The meeting was led by the Commanders of the 14 Corps based in Leh and South Xinjiang military region respectively on Indian and Chinese sides.
The two leaders held a lengthy meeting to discuss a series of border standoff between the two armies along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) during the recent weeks. While the decisions/conclusions of the 6 June meeting at the military commanders level is yet to made public, one could expect a lowering down of tensions across the LAC, as has happened before in the earlier meetings.
Since the first week of May 2020, there has been a series of physical but non-violent exchanges between the two militaries in two sectors - Ladakh and Sikkim. Within Ladakh, the exchanges took place between Pangong Tso in the Southeast and the Galwan valley up north.
What is the background?
Recent developments across the Ladakh and Sikkim sectors cannot be seen in isolation.
First is the series of border engagements between India and China during the last two decades. In the 2010s alone, there were four significant standoffs, including the latest one in Ladakh; Doklam (2017) was the biggest one. While there were “standoffs” involving the soldiers of both the armies, they did not escalate into an exchange of fire and the use of weapons.
Second is the nature of the border between India and China. The 3400 km plus LAC runs along a difficult terrain in the Himalayas from Aksai Chin to Sikkim. It includes mountain ranges, lakes, rivers and valleys; while most of it is demarcated in the map, a small section is not. And then the occupied territories in 1962. The clashes are taking place in these areas where there is no demarcation. The militaries across the world would want to protect and patrol their border; hence there would be incursions at undemarcated areas.
Third is the pursuit to build border infrastructure. Until the 1990s, a part of the LAC remained inaccessible for troops to use larger vehicles. Technology helped the Chinese to move into the border regions first; also, their strategic understanding of the need to build border infrastructure. On both, India was a late starter. The Chinese built the infrastructure on their side, while the Indians watched; now, the former object to the latter pursuing the same. The Chinese side sees the Indian efforts to build the border infrastructure as muscle-flexing and affecting the status quo.
Fourth is the growing anti-China jingoism within India, with the media (especially the electronic and social) fuelling it with half-baked truths and slogans – “teach them a lesson,” “ban the Chinese goods,” “2020 is not 1962” etc. While the border issues loom large for the Indian society, (thanks to the “breaking news” and “exclusive coverage” from their media), the same is not the case with the Chinese side.
Fifth is the broader India-China political and economic interactions. The political leadership in New Delhi and Beijing have not allowed the border to spill over. Trade and investments continue to expand and reach new heights every year. If Doklam and Depsang happened at the military level, there were also Wuhan and Mahabalipuram summits. However, the larger issue is the failure to settle the border issue and demarcating the same over a map.
What does it mean?
During the 2010s, despite three significant “standoffs” at the military level, none of them has escalated. The current exchange in Ladakh will also come to an end, or perhaps already ended, depending on what happened on 6 June at the Commanders level meeting.
However, unless the two countries agree to settle the border issue and demarcate it, the standoff would erupt again in Ladakh and Sikkim sectors.