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Independence Day Incursions

The Sino-Indian border is a peaceful disputed border. There is no commonly delineated Line of Control which determines the border between the two countries. The differing perceptions of the border on the map and on ground lead to occasional skirmishes along the disputed pockets along the border. The stone throwing incident between the soldiers of the two armiesin Finger Four and Finger Five, two such “disputed” pockets needs to be contextualized to understand its security implications for India[i]

The timing of the incursions by the Chinese soldiers is significant. It coincided with the planned Independence Day speech by the Indian Prime Minister, thus drawing maximum media coverage in India. The main purpose of such incursions is not to provoke war but to show continued presence in the area to bolster sovereignty claims. Recent heightening of tensions between India and China had increased  likelihood of assertions regarding sovereignty. 

Ground Situation

Both sides have strengthened infrastructure in the region. This long term investment increases the mobility of troops, playing a crucial role in sovereignty assertions.

China has constructed a road up to Finger Four which falls under Siri Jap area and is five km deep into the LAC.[ii] India has upgraded the Karu- Tangtse road to a National Highway Double Lane under Project Himank by the Border Roads Organisation.[iii] The increased water flow due to swift moving rivers reduces mobility in summer the region which is gradually being bridged by permanent bridges like the TsultakSetu.[iv]

Karu is an important town near Leh while, Tangtse is the military formation headquarter closest to Pangong Tso Lake. While China has built a number of motorable roads in the border region, it does not have a major military base nearby. Khurnak fort frontier defense company in northern Ladakh and Banmozhang, near Pangong Tso, on the Chinese side of the LAC, in territory claimed by India are both small garrisons in the area.[v]Ngari, a larger military base being developed in western Tibet is a fair distance from the disputed area.

China and India both use high speed interceptor boats, equipped with latest technology like infrared visibility and GPS for patrolling the lake.[vi]These patrols allow the two nations to mark their presence on the territory. China sends regular patrols but does not otherwise monitor the region. India on the other hand continuously observes the region as well as conducts routine patrols. The Chinese rely on their airpower to bolster their capabilities in the region. However, lack of acclimatization to weather conditions above 14,000 feet is a major limitation for the Chinese.

Peace Mechanisms

India and China have made considerable progress in formulating a mechanism to handle flare ups along the LAC. The first step in case soldiers encounter soldiers from the other side is a “banner drill”, based largely on the 2005 Agreement. The soldiers show each other a ten feet flag with a slogan and appeal to the other side to back down from their patrolling positions.[vii]

Article VIII Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, 2013 (Hereinafter, “2013 Agreement”)[viii]states: “The two sides agree that if the border defence forces of the two sides come to a face-to-face situation in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control, both sides shall exercise maximum self-restraint, refrain from any provocative actions, not use force or threaten to use force against the other side, treat each other with courtesy and prevent exchange of fire or armed conflict.” This position of maximum restraint and not exercising force has enabled the armies to proudly state that no bullet has been fired on the border since 1962. While some might argue that stone pelting between the soldiers of the two sides was an escalation from the past, the exchange without fire arms is an indication that the soldiers were probably unarmed. It is rare for weapons to be carried by the Chinese in the Pangong Tso area to avoid accidental flare up of a minor incursion into a full-blown conflict. The soldiers still maintained the letter of the 2013 Agreement.

The 2013 Agreement was signed after 15 rounds of border talks and is a watershed in India- China relations. It facilitates confidence building measures across the troubled border. Article III of the 2013 Agreement states that:

“Border deference cooperation visualized in this agreement shall be implemented through the following mechanisms:

1. Flag meetings or border personnel meetings at designated places along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.

2. Periodic meetings between officers of the relevant Military Regions of China and Army Commands of India and between departments responsible for military operations.

3. Periodic meetings of the representatives of the Ministry of Defence of the Government of India and the Ministry of National Defence of the People’s Republic of China.

4. Meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs.

5. Meetings of the India-China Annual Defence Dialogue.”

 

Under the mechanism laid under Article IV of the 2013 Agreement, five sites have been picked across the border to host Border Personnel Meeting sites have been established along the LAC. These are  Daulat Beg Oldie in northern Ladakh, Chushul area (Spanggur Gap) in Ladakh, Nathu-La in Sikkim, Bum-La near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and Kibithoo in Arunachal Pradesh.[ix] These meetings allow both countries to sort out local issues and ensure peace and tranquility along the sensitive border.

Article V of the border agreement outlines some of the suggested activities along these border points as “joint celebrations on major national or military days or festivals and organize cultural activities, non-contact sports events and small scale tactical exercises along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.”[x] Additionally, it states that the two sides may also conduct joint military training exercises, at Army level, in each other’s country on a regular basis.”[xi]

Tentative progress was made between the two countries when these border meets became a regular feature. For instance, Chushul, the point operationalized on the occasion of India’s Independence Day 2015[xii] saw a major celebration to mark the date in 2015. It involved traditional dances, a volleyball match with mixed Chinese and Indian teams among others to ease tensions between the countries.[xiii]Previous meets have marked China’s foundation day, October 1st and events of importance in local life like the Harvest Festival. [xiv]

This year, despite heightened tensions in the Doklam plateau in Sikkim, the Chinese and Indian troops participated in the border meet at Spanggula Pass on 16th August 2017.[xv]While the ceremonial meet on 15th August was not held[xvi], the hosting of a meet on the very next day demonstrates a keen interest to maintain status quo. The commanders from both sides categorically mentioned the August 15th incursions and decided to let it be “bygones”.[xvii]

Conclusion

There is an old saying which says that a General will never want war. Incursions into disputed territory by the armies of both sides are routine to maintain claim over the regions. In this instance, in light of the situation in Doklam, this incursion was not unusual. It is important to note that both sides have maintained the spirit of the border agreement. They have also gone forward with the usual mechanisms like the border meet to signal a desire for peaceful borders. It is important to not blow the incident out of proportion and maintain the tenuous peace that the border enjoys.

However, we must not lose sight of China’s creeping expansion of claims and long term aim to consolidate its territory. It is in furtherance of this aim that China has not clearly defined its border claims. While China is occupied with the South China Sea front, it is unlikely to open another front, especially one where it is on weaker ground. India must improve infrastructure and equipment to further strengthen its position and counter any possible challenge in the future.

 


 

References

[i]PTI, ‘Indian Army foils Chinese incursion in Ladakh’, 15 Aug, 2017, Livemint, available at http://www.livemint.com/Politics/muaHDHjOIyHsvYJqIOre1J/Indian-Army-foils-Chinese-incursion-in-Ladakh.html; accessed on 16 August 2017.

[ii] Claude Arpi,‘India is soft on Chinese intrusions’, 12 March 2017, http://claudearpi.blogspot.in/2013/09/india-is-soft-on-chinese-intrusions.html; accessed on 16 August 2017.

[iii]http://www.dailyexcelsior.com/bro-constructs-bridge-phiya-lung-nallah/

[iv]Ministry of Defence, ‘Year End Review -2016, Various Achievements of Ministry of Defence’, 31 December 2016, Press India Bureau, available at

http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=156049; accessed on 16 August 2017.

[v]Claude Arpi, General Xu visits the Indian Border, 24 July 2017,

http://claudearpi.blogspot.in/2014/07/general-xu-visits-indian-border.html

[vi]Supra note 1.

[vii]Ajay Banerjee, ‘LAC meet after stones hurled’, 17 August 2017, The Tribune, http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/lac-meet-after-stones-hurled/453039.html; accessed on 17 August 2017.

[viii]Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Border Defence Cooperation, available at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=100178; accessed on 16th August 2017.

[x]Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Border Defence Cooperation, available at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=100178; accessed on 16th August 2017.

[xi]Id

[xii]Ministry of Defence, ‘Independence Day Bonhomie Between Indian and Chinese Border Troops in Eastern Ladakh on 15 August 2015’, 15 August 2015, Press Information Bureau, available at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=126093; accessed on 17 August 2017.

[xiii]Id.

[xiv] PTI, ‘India, China Hold Border Meeting Along LAC In Jammu And Kashmir's Ladakh’, 10 April 2017, NDTV,

 http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/india-china-hold-border-meeting-along-lac-in-jammu-and-kashmirs-ladakh-1679707

[xv]Supra note 7.

[xvi]Customary India-China border meet not held on Independence Day, 16 August 2017, Hindustan Times, available athttp://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/customary-india-china-border-meet-not-held-on-independence-day/story-ck8PFnWoqxVO3jujkQ5tlL.html; accessed on 17 August 2017.

[xvii] Supra note 7. 

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