India-China Border Quandary: The Cyclical Conundrum

On 6 June 2020, the regional commanders’ level talks between India and China at Moldo in Chushul sector of Ladakh against the incidents of recent transgressions and intrusions in Eastern Ladakh highlights the maturity between the Armies of the two countries. Being the first formal high-level meeting to de-escalate the ongoing tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)[1] in Eastern Ladakh, the dialogue was carried out between the GOC of Leh-based Corps and Regional Commander of  People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) South Xinjiang Military Region. However, given the sensitivity of the situation, the talks though significant but is unlikely to break the impasse.[2] However, the MEA statement suggests: Both sides agreed to “handle their differences through peaceful discussion bearing in mind the importance of respecting each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations and not allow them to become disputes”.[3]

China Plays by ‘The Three Warfare Strategy’ (San Zhong Zhanfa)[4]

Ahead of the Talks, on 27 May, Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong in addressing the Confederation of Young Leaders stated: “China and India should never let their differences shadow the overall bilateral ties and must enhance mutual trust. Both sides should resolve their differences through communication and adhere to the basic premise that they pose no threat to each other”.[5] However, the Ambassador’s diplomatic approach ran in contrast to Chinese state-led media Global Times’ accusation that the Ladakh incident was was ‘caused by India’s infrastructure construction along with the disputed territory.’ .[6] This highlights the propaganda campaign in China playing the media and psychological warfare. The ‘Global Times’ claim was further reinforced by its exhibition of maps, videos and photographs on social media and TV channels. This can be attributed to two key aims: first, to create political friction and implant doubt in the minds of its adversary, and demoralise and demotivate the troops to fight; and second, to show  India’s infrastructure development, military build-up and preparations for an impending operation in Ladakh. However, India has refuted these allegations as the construction activities were well on its side of the LAC. China’s such actions predominantly reflect its usage of media and psychological operations to build public opinion worldwide and shape the political landscape in its favour. The standoffs in Eastern Ladakh is yet another case of PLA’s information warfare pivoted on blaming India for the conflict situation and serve its own political interests.

What is noteworthy is that in the aftermath of the 2017 Doklam standoff supported by the “Wuhan Spirit”, the LAC  experienced a condition of ‘relative peace’.  However, contrary to the strategic directions to both militaries after the Wuhan Summit, the LAC continued to remain active- as witnessed in the increased cyclical transgressions by the PLA across the LAC since 2019. In light of this, the recent episodes of PLA transgressions in Sikkim and Eastern Ladakh since early May highlight a strategic design. There is a well-planned structure to the transgressions cum intrusions across the LAC, mainly at three areas: northern bank of Pangong Tso Lake, Gogra-Hot Spring and Galwan Valley in Ladakh sector.  With the scale, frontage, depth, and the force levels involved, and most pointedly, at a time when the world is grappling with COVID-19, the decision has a top-down approval. In reviewing the latest encounters along the LAC, Ashley Tellis argues that it is driven by “high degree of Chinese premeditation and approval for its military’s activities from the very top”.[7] Here, the big question is: What calls for China’s unilateral action, mainly in the areas that did not have any ‘perception difference’ since 1962, such as the Galwan Valley?

Taking Stock of Eastern Ladakh: What Needs Attention

Given the current tensions at play, it is important to understand what makes Eastern Ladakh significant. Two significant facets that lie opposite Eastern Ladakh: military power and development of infrastructure.

Militarily, China has upgraded its Tibetan Military Command (TMC), an integral part of the Western Theatre Command (WTC), with a focus on India.  TMC is both active and robust given the strength of the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF), Border Defence Regiments, and two mountain infantry brigades at Nyigchi, and one mechanised infantry brigade at Lhasa.[8] Furthermore, to enhance the manoeuvrability in high altitude terrain, China has deployed lightweight tanks, vehicle-mounted howitzers, effective communication systems, and logistics.  China’s State media outlets have been reporting about military exercises being conducted in high-altitude areas, especially when there is a military-level standoff on the LAC. Incidentally, LAC is the only border of China with her neighbours, where any high-altitude war can take place. Simultaneously, over the last two decades, China has built infrastructure in India’s bordering areas of Tibet and Xinjiang by way of developing roads, rails, airfields, communication facilities, power stations, and logistic warehouses. The roads and essential facilities have been developed right up to the LAC. The map of Eastern Ladakh with areas of Galwan Valley, Hot Spring and northern Banks of Pangong Tso (Lake) refers.

Map: Annotated by the author

While India started building essential infrastructure rather late on its side of the LAC, for both economic development and for strategic reasons. Given the extremely difficult weather conditions and terrain ranging from 14000 feet to 16500 feet, the 255 km strategic road Darbuk-Shyok- Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) was completed after 18 years in 2019. This road’s alignment is closest to the LAC near Galwan Valley- one of the points of recent tensions. To note, the Galwan Valley area had remained peaceful after the last action with China in 1962.

With its move forward in a planned manner, China has signalled two key messages: first, that China is sensitive to Aksai Chin through which runs its Western Highway linking Xinjiang with Lhasa, and areas to the north of Karakoram Pass which is just 20 km north of DBO. Second, India should not develop infrastructure along the LAC, suggesting not to develop laterals from the strategic road up to LAC. India should continue to develop infrastructure on its own side of the LAC.  In addition, China’s sensitivity towards India’s infrastructure build-up is also highlighted along the 80 km long road linking Dharchula with Lipulekh in Uttarakhand, adjoining Nepal, and China.

These tensions further add to the rational that despite 70 years of diplomatic ties, the boundary dispute between India and China since the 1950s is a source of main friction; thus, posing multiple challenges to bring peace and stability in the region. Wherein, even the agreements signed since 1993 like border peace and tranquillity agreement,  confidence-building measures (CBMs) and border management mechanism, the 22 rounds of talks between Special Representatives of both countries on the Boundary Dispute, the border remains unlikely to be resolved in the near future. For cyclical transgressions and military standoffs bring back relationship on the scale of one step forward and two steps back. Thus, making the way forward a severe dilemma.

China’s Current Pulse: Some Pressure at Play

COVID-19 has caused China not just a health emergency but has inflicted greater diplomatic challenges. For instance, China faces tremendous pressure over its handling of the Wuhan epidemic, which has led to: first, an increasing global resentment against Beijing on its lack of transparency and delay in informing the global community about the virus; second, increasing demand by the World leaders for an independent investigation in Wuhan towards finding the source of zoonotic virus and actions thereafter; third, the slowdown in its economy and a sharp increase in unemployment rate due to closed business and companies diversifying business out of China; fourth, the growing internal instability caused due to protests in Hong Kong; fifth, the ramifications of the Sino-US trade war compounded with tensions over virus ‘blame game’; sixth, China’s assertive posturing in South China Sea resulting fresh tensions with Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Taiwan; and finally, the strengthening of Indo-US ties and active approach of the QUAD under COVID-19. All these factors have indeed put China under pressure. Hence, tension with India along the LAC, in two sectors separated by more than 1500 km, acts as a pragmatic tool of distraction to divert the attention of the Chinese population away from Beijing’s own domestic disorder

Diffusing Tensions to Manage a Resolution

To set the tone, MEA’s statement highlighted that: “both the sides have agreed that an early resolution would contribute to the further development of the relationship”.[9] Although an early resolution remains farfetched, constructive steps must continue to be taken at political, diplomatic, and military levels to advance the process. In suggesting so, the four aspects that can be taken into consideration to immediately diffuse tensions, and in the long run to build lasting peace are:

First, to diffuse tensions, both sides should agree to restore the status quo prior to PLA troops’ movement into the Ladakh sector in early May, concomitant with both sides agreeing to withdraw additional troops inducted recently. The communication gap that leads to frequent standoffs and transgressions/intrusions should be bridged. Both sides are aware of the weaknesses that lie along the long-disputed border to take advantage of. The local commanders need to build ‘trust ‘ with the opposite side and use the existing mechanism of hotlines, regular border meetings to ensure local issues are resolved at local levels. By adhering to the earlier protocol, both sides should inform each other of training exercises or movement of additional troops.

Second, given the impending permanent resolution, cyclical recurrence of such military standoffs and physical violence between the two militaries should be prevented. Both sides should identify the LAC alignment related to features on the ground so that each one does not transgress beyond the mutually accepted alignment. At this stage, China will not agree to delineate the LAC on the map or even discuss the alignment on the map. In such a scenario, it may be preferable to declare a demilitarised zone of minimum two km on either side of an ‘acceptable alignment on the ground’ to prevent crashes. If not mutually agreed to, both sides should at least restore routine patrolling up to the mutually accepted alignment. Wherein, India should continue to patrol up to Finger 8, as hitherto fore.

Third, the permanent resolution of the border dispute should be done by analysing the dispute in its entirety. Although it would be a prolonged process, it would at least begin to address the prominent causes and not the symptoms of the dispute. This can be done only at the political level and that too after shaping the perceptions of the population at large in both countries. The road to settlement looks long, but a beginning should be made in right earnest.

Fourth, with regard to infrastructure development, both sides should not pose any form of objection as long as it is confined to one’s own side of the border.

In view of the cyclical incidents, India should, like China, continue to build its own capacity and capabilities, both soft and hard military power, to take care of its core values and security interests. Greater focus should be on developing Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to maintain battlefield transparency and situational awareness and to be forewarned of such ingress in time to be able to take corrective steps. Besides having a ‘summer strategy’, India should also use its soft power and its information warfare strategy to build perception and project correct narratives. Therefore, the time calls for the Indian forces to always remain operationally prepared for the contingencies that may arise during the restoration of the status quo of May 2020. Last but not the least, the overall aim in the interim should be to prevent differences from turning into disputes. To do so, both sides should act wise by choosing joint dialogues and constructive engagements.

End-Notes

[1] To state briefly, the disputed border in the Ladakh sector with China, called LAC, it is neither delineated on a map nor demarcated on the ground. Unlike India’s border with China in the Eastern and Middle Sectors, where it largely follows well defined geographical features like watershed or a ridgeline or the course of a river, it is not so in the Western Sector (Eastern Ladakh). Hence, besides the strategic significance of the region and apprehensions thereof, the difference in perception of the LAC is one of the major reasons for the greater number of transgressions/intrusions across the LAC and periodic large-scale military standoffs.

[2] China is unlikely to immediately accept India’s demand for restoration of status quo on the LAC and more likely to offer its rationale of intrusion/transgressions across the LAC.

[3] Quoted in Subhajit Roy and Sushant Singh (2020), “Border meeting over Ladakh tensions: Delhi, Beijing work the lines, commanders to hold LAC talks today”, 06 June 2020, The Indian Express, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-china-lac-border-ladakh-meetings-6444798/, accessed online 07 June 2020.

[4] On realising the significance of information warfare, China upgraded its earlier ‘work regulations’ policy of December 2003 to ‘The Three Warfare Strategy ’ in 2010, with three important components: public opinion warfare, psychological warfare and legal warfare, with the primary objective to influence perceptions of the domestic and international audience against its adversaries.

[5] Quoted in Seshadri Chari (2020), “Ahead of talks with China, the question for India: Settle geography or wait for history to unfold?”, The Print, 05 June 2020, https://theprint.in/opinion/ahead-of-talks-with-china-question-for-india-settle-geography-or-wait-for-history-to-unfold/435955/, accessed online 06 June 2020.

[6] See, “India should not be instigated by US or media hyping: Global Times editorial” 06 June 2020, and “China-India border tension flares up in Galwan Valley, won’t lead to another ‘Doklam standoff’: experts”, Global Times, 18 May 2020,.

[7]Ashley J. Tellis (2020),  “Hustling in the Himalayas: The Sino-Indian Border Confrontation”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 04 June 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/06/04/hustling-in-himalayas-sino-indian-border-confrontation-pub-81979,

[8]Amrita Jash (2019), “Tibet Military Command: People’s Liberation Army’s Combat Role in High Altitude”, CLAWS Issue Brief, No. 181, May 2019, pp. 1-8, https://www.claws.in/publication/tibet-military-command-peoples-liberation-armys-combat-role-in-high-altitude/,

[9] Quoted in Rezaul H. Laskar (2020), “‘India, China agree early resolution would contribute to further development of relationship’: MEA”, Hindustan Times, 07 June 2020,