The celebratory tone to mark seventy years of diplomatic relations between India and China has been today overshadowed by the long-standing border standoff in Ladakh. What began as a faceoff between the Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh and Sikkim in early May 2020 transformed into a deadly skirmish on 15 June, killing twenty of India’s soldiers and causing several casualties on the Chinese side. After profound military and diplomatic efforts, on 6 June, a meeting was convened between the GoC of Leh-based XIV Corps and the Regional Commander of People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) South Xinjiang Military Region. A de-escalation plan to diffuse the tension in Ladakh sector — northern bank of Pangong Tso Lake, Galwan Valley and Gogra-Hot Spring was agreed upon. However, the events that convened on 15 June not only violated the agreement reached during this meeting but also the tenets of every agreement signed between the two countries since 1993 as part of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). China also unilaterally undermined the consensus reached by the leaders of both countries on the border issues during the Informal Summits in Wuhan (2018) and Chennai (2019).
Even though it was believed that the disengagement between the Indian and the Chinese troops were taking place in a “phased manner and that the situation was under control”, still the Chinese transgressed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and attempted to erect structures on the Indian side of the border. On being intercepted by the Indian troops, the PLA soldiers resorted to violence and used crude medieval weapons — nail-studded clubs, stones and trench knives — to attack the Indian soldiers. In retaliation, “the most brutal counter-attack against the PLA soldiers” was launched by the Indian troops. “The premeditated and planned action by China” is a clear violation of the bilateral agreements signed in 1993, 1996 and 2013 underlining the resolve of both sides to maintain peace and tranquillity on the LAC. Article VIII of the 2013 Agreement between both the governments on Border Defence Cooperation states that during a faceoff “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.” Categorically, this was violated by the PLA troops by carrying out a barbaric attack on the Indian troops.
Following the skirmish, many questions were raised in India like why the India soldiers were unarmed, why did they not use weapons when attacked by the PLA soldiers and why was artillery not used? To this, the Minister of External Affairs clarified that the Indian soldiers were indeed carrying weapons however they strongly abided by the mutually accepted Rules of Engagement (RoE) and it was the adversary that violated the RoE. A retired Indian Army Officer explained that “using weapons during a scuffle at night could have led to fratricide due to absence of clear distinction between own troops and adversary. Moreover, artillery cannot be used during scuffles due to lack of long safety distances.”
High-Stakes for China in the Border Standoff
It is important to note a few points —
First, India is today strongly committed to improving its border infrastructure. The country will not come under any external pressure to halt its infrastructure construction as these activities are being carried out well within its own side of the LAC. In fact, China has also developed roads, rails, airfields, communication facilities, power stations and other essential facilities right up to the LAC. Will China ever stop developing infrastructure on its side of the LAC? Considering this, India’s border infrastructure for strategic and economic reasons does not weight as a unilateral action. Defusing tensions must be based on mutual trust and conviction.
Second, China is currently engaged in confrontations on multiple fronts and internally is dealing with the second wave of COVID-19. At this time, can the country afford further escalation or an all-out war with India? After, losing 20 of its soldiers, business as usual is difficult for India. Still, diffusing tensions and restoring the status quo ante is mutually beneficial. This needs comprehensive diplomatic and military engagements. However, it must be understood that India’s resolve to maintain healthy bilateral relations in its neighbourhood must not be regarded as a sign of weakness or appeasement policy. As pointed out by the Prime Minister (PM) of India on 19 June, though India desires peace in the region if provoked, Indian Armed Forces have been given full autonomy to take appropriate actions at the operational level. As a result, new RoE has also been issued by India especially concerning the use of firearms and these have been communicated to China through diplomatic means.
Third, China’s credibility is today in question internationally. This is because of a number of reasons including countries seeking an investigation into China’s alleged mishandling of the outbreak of COVID-19, transgressions by China in the South China Sea, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong against China, the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act 2020 passed by the United States condemning human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslims, Chinese incursion into Taiwan’s airspace and an alleged role of China in the recent spike in cyber-attacks in Australia. Such aggressive behaviour by China is increasingly isolating it globally. On the contrary, India through its medical diplomacy during the pandemic and upholding its diplomatic principles and ethos since independence has been successful in garnering the support of the international community. A case in point is India getting elected overwhelmingly as a non-permanent member at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) with 184 out of the total 192 votes. In such a scenario, any further escalation in tensions at the LAC and provocations by China will add to its aggressive behaviour, isolating it further.
Today, India is grappling with a pandemic and its economic ramification. A border dispute demands a show of strength and unity from each and every citizen of the country. At this time of crisis, the country must rest assured that the brave and valiant Indian Armed Forces is at the forefront to prevent any attempts of transgression and will handle all forms of contingencies as protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation is their dharma.
With respect to the future of India-China border standoff, the PM on 19 June ensured that consequent to the skirmish between the troops on 15 June, no Chinese troops have entered the Indian territory nor is any Indian post at the LAC under Chinese occupation. Disengagement and de-escalation between the two militaries at the LAC is the need of the hour since a long-standing military standoff is unfavourable for both the countries. Both sides need to understand the gravity of the situation, resolve their differences, avoid any further escalation and maintain peace and tranquillity in the region.
 Kalyan Das and Rahul Singh, “India and China disengaging in a phased manner along LAC, says Army chief”, Hindustan Times, 17 June 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-and-china-disengaging-in-a-phased-manner-along-lac-says-army-chief/story-FmrubIGvZOJETWUdWIp3uL.html#:~:text=Disengagement%20of%20Indian%20and%20Chinese,Mukund%20Naravane%20said%20on%20Saturday.&text=The%20army%20chief%20said%3A%20%E2%80%9CBoth,disengaging%20in%20a%20phased%20manner.
 Vikram Sharma, “Valiant Jawans broke neck of PLA soldiers”, Deccan Chronicle, 19 June 2020. https://www.pressreader.com/india/deccan-chronicle/20200620/281505048473076
 Ministry of External Affairs, “Phone call between External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar and Foreign Minister of China, H.E. Mr. Wang Yi”, Government of India, 17 June 2020. https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/32765/
 Ministry of External Affairs, “Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Border Defence Cooperation”, Government of India, 23 October 2013. https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/22366/Agreement+between+the+Government+of+the+Republic+of+India+and+the+Government+of+the+Peoples+Republic+of+China+on+Border+Defence+Cooperation#:~:text=Signed%20in%20duplicate%20in%20Hindi,the%20English%20text%20shall%20prevail.
 Rahul Singh, “‘No restrictions on using firearms’: India gives soldiers freedom along LAC in extraordinary times”, Hindustan Times, 20 June 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/no-restrictions-on-firearms-india-gives-soldiers-freedom-along-lac-in-extraordinary-times/story-pCcFAcSAkMRschq50Tom1L.html