I. The Big Story: De-cluttering the recent Sino-Indian Border Scuffles
Multiple events have happened over the last three weeks along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), leading to the current tensions between India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This section first explains what has happened between the two countries, and then ventures into speculating reasons.
The first incident occurred at Eastern Ladakh near Pangong Tso on the night of May 5 as several soldiers were involved in a scuffle. The Hindu’s Dinakar Peri reports that the issue was resolved locally by the next morning. Pangong, in the past, has witnessed multiple such events, especially in 2017 and 2019, he writes. The second incident happened on May 9 at Naku La Pass, ahead of Muguthang, at an altitude of over 16,000 feet, Sikkim. A large number of troops were involved in this face-off, but, here too, the dispute was resolved locally based on the established protocols. The Press Trust of India (PTI) reports that there were over 150 troops involved in the latter event.
The Quint’s Subir Bhaumik had an interesting article on how things escalated in Sikkim when an Indian Army Lieutenant punched a Chinese PLA major. The officer’s infantry unit had stopped the intruding Chinese PLA at Muguthang last week, and was furious at the Chinese commissar for shouting, “This (Sikkim) is not your land, this is not Indian Territory… so just go back.” The young officer shouted back, “What Sikkim not our territory? What the hell!” Then, as one PLA major moved menacingly towards his senior officer, a captain, the lieutenant flew into him and punched him in the face.
Meanwhile, the New Indian Express reports that these events cannot be seen in isolation. “The PLA took an offensive posture since end April and began a moment of the vehicle inside the Indian side of the LAC on 27 April. The Indian Army confronted the PLA personnel, and the issue was resolved.” The Print and New Indian Express also reported that the Indian Army and the PLA were involved in a similar face-off in Ladakh near the northern bank of Pangong Tso in September 2019.
The Economic Times’ Rahul Tripathi and Manu Pubby report that the PLA had stepped up its presence by building tents close to Galwan river area, sub-sector north. At the same time, PTI reports that the Chinese military helicopters were spotted flying close to the un-demarcated Sino-India border area during the face-off with the Indian Army. In response, the Indian Air force also deployed Sukhoi 30 MKI jets to do “routine flying.” Certainly, deploying SU-30s in response to Chinese helicopters was a bit of a stretch on the tactical front by the Indian Air force.
Meanwhile, Nepal handed over a diplomatic note to the Indian envoy protesting against the construction of Lipulekh pass with Darchula in Uttarakhand. The 80 Km new road inaugurated by the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is expected to help pilgrims visiting Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet. The Lipulekh pass is a far western point near Kalapani, a disputed border area between Nepal and India. The Border Road Organisation had constructed this 80-km road. (More on BRO and its work in upgrading the infrastructure on the Sino-Indian border in the latter part of this story).
India’s Army Chief, General M M Naravane, in response to Nepal’s note, said that Nepal’s protest is probably at some other country’s behest. In other words, Nepal was suddenly acting as the PRC’s client state. It was fine if the statement came from India’s foreign ministry, but coming from the Army chief, who also holds an honorary rank as the General of Nepal army, was a bit of an overkill.
You could read an explainer by Nirupama Subramanian in the Indian Express on why is Nepal protesting and the strategic importance of this area!
You could also watch Shekhar Gupta’s cut the clutter Lipulekh Pass & why is Nepal protesting over in India’s new road to Kailash-Mansarovar.
Coming back to the Indian Army and the PLA, The Economic Times’ Manu Pubby reports that India deployed additional troops to the river Galwan flashpoint in Ladakh and constructed defensive positions after the PRC increased its military presence. The Indian Express’ Sushant Singh reports that the Chinese have also stepped up the patrol and increased the number of boats-three times- that they had earlier been using for patrolling Pangong Tso. Meanwhile, India’s CDS pitched in by saying that India’s proposed northern theatre command that borders with the PRC should have naval elements.
You could read this perceptive explainer by Sushant Singh on the importance of Pangong Tso.
The tensions have started building up as both the countries have resorted to the additional deployment of the troops. On the Indian side, the situation is closely monitored by the current National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval. The US has also jumped in by criticising China’s behaviour in its periphery. “The flare-ups on the border, I think, are a reminder that Chinese aggression is not always just rhetorical. And so whether it’s in the South China Sea or whether it’s along the border with India, we continue to see provocations and disturbing behaviour by China that raises questions about how China seeks to use its growing power.”
Simultaneously, India’s Defence Secretary also reacted by saying the Indian Ocean, after the South China Sea, is becoming a new hotspot for military activities. India has also upped its ante by speaking out on the South China Sea issue. “This has been clear and consistent that the South China Sea is a part of global commons, and India has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the region. We firmly stand with the freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in these international waterways, in accordance with international law… India also believes that any differences, be resolved peacefully by respecting the legal and diplomatic processes, and without resorting to threat or use of force,” said an MEA spokesperson.
For now, the meetings between Indian and Chinese middle-level military officials over the past two days have failed to achieve any breakthrough, and the tensions continue to simmer between the two sides along the LAC in eastern Ladakh. Troops on either side have been holding on to their respective positions along the north bank of the 135-km glacial lake Pangong Tso at an altitude of over 14,000 feet.
Global Times published an article claiming India has made illegal constructions across the border in the Chinese territory in the Galwan valley region. But the latest border friction “started by India” wouldn’t lead to a stand-off as it’s merely seeking domestic diversion impact of COVID-19 on its economy. That’s why it has purposefully instigated conflicts and attempted to unilaterally change the current border control situation.
MFA PRC has also responded to the US’s statements claiming that it has no business in getting involved in the two countries. It also claimed that the Indian Army had crossed the line on the western sector and in Sikkim to enter the Chinese territory. It urged India to immediately withdraw the troops and restore the status quo.
Speculating reasons for the on-going face-off
There are multiple ways in which the on-going face-off could be interpreted. First, and the most important reason, increasing Chinese insecurities due to India’s improving border infrastructure. Nitin Gokhale writes that the recent Chinese flexing of muscle has origins in India’s improving its infrastructure in the border areas. BRO is constructing 61 India-China Border Roads with a total length of 3346 km across the Himalayan frontier. Indian air force’s operational capabilities in this region have also improved. This means no free run for China anymore. Ananth Krishnan’s latest piece for the Hindu also argues that a greater capability by India to patrol up to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) coupled with an increasingly assertive Chinese posture is fuelling new tensions along the border. Manu Pubby’s latest article argues specifically about the strategic importance of the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road, which connects Leh to the strategic Karakoram pass. He argues that the construction of this road is a thorn in China’s flesh.
Second, the continuation of the PRC’s post-pandemic opportunism on its periphery. This newsletter, among others, has constantly highlighted PRC’s activities in its neighbourhood since the COVID-19 outbreak. Sushant Singh’s latest article for the Indian Express shows that the first four months of this year, according to official data, witnessed 170 Chinese transgressions across the LAC, including 130 in Ladakh. There were only 110 such transgressions in Ladakh during the same period in 2019.
“Officials contend that the transgressions occur because both the militaries try to patrol the area up to their respective perceptions of the LAC. But these officials also agree that the high numbers indicate that Chinese soldiers are coming to the Indian side more often,” he argues.
Some analysts have also related the sudden flare-up in the activities to India’s leadership role at WHO and the Taiwan question. Besides, certain analysts have also maintained that these are regular events happening on the Sino-Indian border after the melting of the snow in summers.