LAC: Avoiding Club and Fist Fight

Though ensured that the differences will not escalate into disputes, inconclusive but unprecedented Lieutenant General-level talks were held at Chushal on June 6, 2020, between India and China, declaring the disengagement of their troops and infantry combat vehicles in the Eastern Ladakh area, started from early June. Both moved back their forces to 2.5 km, with China’s People’s Liberation Army restraining itself in Galwan area, Patrolling Point 14, 15 and 17 (Hot Springs) north bank of Pang Tso and Chushul area out of the five areas of conflict. Chushul still has to be declared in the public domain. While keeping all the hotlines open, it was also decided to continue with the lower commanders meetings more frequently. The Chinese foreign Minister’s spokesperson, Mr. Hu Chunying has also declared that “the diplomatic and military channels of China and India held effective communication on the situation along the border and reached positive consensus.”

With the Chinese having a deployment of fighter bombers, Rocket forces, air defence radars, jammers etc at a few km from the Line of Actual Control( LAC), where does the actual issue lie? Will both be able to halt any major build up or maintain the status quo ante April 2020 and continue to seize the tactical gains in piecemeal? After all, Doklam Pateau is in control of China. China, India and Bhutan do not agree where their borders meet. Similarly, the standoff continues in the contested Fingers area on the north bank of Pangong Tso where Chinese troops are not allowing Indian patrols beyond Finger 4 — it is 8 km west of Finger 8 which India says denotes LAC.

These recurrences of episodic conflicts; Depsang 2013, Chumar 2014 and Doklam 2017, are however, all peddled by the differing perceptions on strategic and political interests of both China and India. Launched in 1991, a marked strategic shift in India’s foreign policy; the Look East Policy extends India’s economic and strategic linkages in Southeast Asia to solidify its regional influence. It is undoubtedly aimed at counterweighing China in the region with the aligned support of  US. Similarly, a competitive defence force in the border areas by both India and China is keeping the paradox in peace alive. The Indian Army has moved its battalions of three Infantry Divisions, based in Leh, forward but the country is also looking for a quick diplomatic resolution. Significantly, Chinese President Xi Jinping also asked the People’s Liberation Army to scale up battle preparedness during the parliamentary session being held in Beijing. The region of South Asia, hosting the flagship project of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is particularly destabilized in this atmosphere of “fist and club fight.”

Nonetheless, the question remains if it would step up into a full-fledged armed conflict in these difficult times of COVID 19. Any dissection and understanding of the consequential implications of the current standoff in view of the historical, political and the geographical configuration of the border between India and China is mandatory. Unlike mutually agreed Line of Control (LoC) between Pakistan and India, the LAC is neither clarified nor confirmed by the two countries. Except for the middle sector, even the mutual exchange of maps about their respective perceptions has not taken place between India and China. This has led to different perceptions of the LAC for the two sides, and soldiers from either side try to patrol the area up to their perception of the LAC. Essentially, what Indians believe to be ‘their side’ is not the same as what the Chinese believe to be ‘their side.

Divided in three sectors, the LAC falls in the western sector and falls in the union territory of Ladakh. It is 1597 km long. India tried to launch itself in the region by constructing 225 km long Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) all weather road. It is less than 10 km west of the LAC at Aksai Chin with a significant strategic importance. It connects Leh to DBO, virtually at the base of the Karakoram Pass that separates China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region from Ladakh.DBO is the northernmost corner of Indian Territory in Ladakh, with the world’s highest airstrip.  The Indian Air Force (IAF) revived it in 2008, as one of its many Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) along the LAC, with the landing of an Antonov An-32.

In August 2013, the IAF once again landed its newly acquired Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 transport aircraft at the DBO ALG, doing away thereafter with the need to send helicopters to paratroop supplies to Army formations deployed along the disputed frontier.

On the other hand, the Chinese build-up along the Galwan River valley region overlooks, and hence poses a direct threat to the DSDBO road. It is to the West of DSDBO where China enjoins the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan. This is very critical for the flagship project of

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), to which India is unjustifiably objecting persistently.

The unprecedented high levels of tension at multiple locations in eastern Ladakh on the disputed India-China border owes also much to India’s increasing infrastructural developments in the border areas of Ladakh as well. China is particularly sensitive about the Indian activity around Galwan as well. This leads us to dig into the comparative force posture of both the countries.

Hence, an eyeball to eyeball situation at two places in Ladakh, with strong statements coming from both sides, can’t be interpreted as an auspicious situation. During his comments in Mandarin Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has once again reiterated that “Chinese border troops are committed to upholding peace and tranquility in China-India border areas. At the same time, we will resolutely defend the sovereignty and security of our homeland.” 

Both China and India are nuclear states sharing a 2,167 mile long border. Together their populations are about 2.7 billion, more than a third of the world’s total population live in the two countries. Both have achieved speedy economic development in recent decades. India has significantly expressed its territorial ambitions not only in the border areas but is also denying the long standing rights to its own people such as, by revocation of Article 370 of its own constitution which provided independent status to the Indian Occupied Kashmir. Ending of inconclusive dialogue between the two states in the throes of aggressive presence, statements and ambitions by India is particularly destabilizing for the South Asian region. More so, the premise of bilateral issues of the two countries is now multi-pronged.  The anti-China institutionalization for competitive national interest of US in the region is further worsening the situation.  Emboldening one against other can cause immense damage not only to the region, but to the entire world.