As the talks continue on diplomatic level between India and China, we break down the current standoff and the complexities surrounding it.
Sakshi Tiwari | Chandigarh
As the world continues to reel under the effects of coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan of China pushing countries under lockdown, claiming lives and crashing economies, the Dragon has come up with a new strategy to demonstrate its strength- at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. Being pushed to the corner for mishandling the pandemic, China has adopted a new geo-strategy to flex its muscle in the neighborhood.
Chinese troops entered the Indian Territory starting May 5th, simultaneously at multiple points along the Western border with Ladakh and eastern border with Naku la pass in Sikkim. They were however confronted by the Indian troops which led to non-combat skirmishes and resulted in injuries on both sides. The Chinese have since maintained that they were “trying to stop Indian aggression at the LAC.”
Understanding the Chinese ingression
Given the fact that we share a boundary with the People’s Republic of China which is based more on perceptions and not much on physical demarcations, these skirmishes along the border are regular occurrences, especially during the summers when the high altitude borders are more hospitable for troop movement. However, what makes the current stand-off different is that the PLA troops entered the Indian territory along different points at the border around the same time and have not gone back even after more than 30 days of the first ingression. This new design of multiple incursions suggests that it wasn’t planned at the Military level but by the higher officials of the Chinese Military Commission (CMC) which is chaired by President Xi Jinping himself. What’s also worth noting is that this time there are new claim lines that have not been a point of contention in the Sino-Indian border dispute.
The major reason that the Chinese have communicated for the incursions is the construction of infrastructure along LAC, particularly the Durbuk Shyok DBO road. Even though there has been some limited construction in this region for a very long time, it has picked up in recent years. This is seen as an act of aggression by the Chinese even though the construction is well within the Indian Territory, as has been iterated by the Indian Army. The PRC is now alarmed by the fact that India is fast catching up, thus impinging upon its hegemony.
The Chinese have also taken special exception to the airfield in Leh that became operational earlier this year. An-32 transport aircraft flew from its base in Chandigarh and arrived at this high altitude landing zone which is 10,682 ft above sea level. This strength building in Laddakh alarmed China and was taken as strong military posturing within the Chinese quarters.
The areas in which the Chinese erected tents are- Naku la (Sikkim), north of Pangong Tso lake, the Galwan valley, Hot springs area, Dogra and Demchok. Even though most of these locations see regular incursions, the Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso have brought new claim lines and have taken India by surprise.
The curious case of Galwan Valley and Pangong Lake
The PLA and Indian troops often face-off at Pangong Tso due to the difference in claim lines. The boundary along the lake has been divided into ridges classified as fingers. India claims its territory up to Finger 8. The Chinese have set up camps at the Finger 4 area to stop Indian patrols from going beyond this point. This is a major geostrategic threat to India because it has long sent patrols up to Finger 8 and China is now attempting to change the border design unilaterally. This is a new area in the larger scheme of the Sino-Indo border dispute.
Another point of contention is the Galwan valley which is situated along the Galwan river or nallah. As could be seen in the map above, the Galwan river enters the Ladakh region from Aksai Chin in China. The Indian side has been busy constructing a bridge over the river to ease summer patrolling when the river melts and the area is not navigable on foot. The Chinese view this bridge as an illegal act of aggression that threatens its sovereignty vis-a-vis Aksai Chin.
Political angle to the Chinese incursion
Ever since the standoff began in May, many defense experts have voiced their concerns about Chinese aggression being retaliation to the Home Minister’s assertion about Aksai Chin on the floor of the Parliament. Post abrogation of Article 370 Amit Shah had said, “We will take back Aksai Chin.” This caused shock waves in Beijing. This chain of thought got impetus when a think tank named CICIR linked to the Department of Intelligence in Beijing claimed that the recent Chinese actions at the LAC must have been a result of the Indian threat to the Chinese and Pakistan sovereignty post after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A.
De-escalation and the road ahead
On June 6, a high-level military talk was held at the Corps Commander level where both sides identified five points of standoff including PP14,15,17, northern bank of Pangong Tso, and Chushul. Naku la wasn’t discussed. Subsequently, talks were held at Major General Level and partial disengagement took place in Galwan and Hot springs area. India has stated in no uncertain that it will settle for nothing less than Status quo ante and infrastructure work would continue inside the Indian Territory unhindered.
The trajectory so far suggests that this standoff is going to be a protracted one given the new claim lines and the fact that the ingression was planned at the highest level. It is being speculated that China is flexing its muscle at the LAC for a larger goal which could only be discerned by the political leadership of India. After being accused by the West for hiding information about Covid-19 in days following the outbreak, Xi Jinping is aggressively opening new fronts to reassert his power, both to the world and to its own people and members of the Chinese communist party.
The fact that Chinese officials have kept a low profile just like their Indian counterparts suggests that there is more to this tactic than what meets the eye. It could be a while before a total disengagement takes place and what might look like the end of the standoff is in fact the beginning.