THE CHINESE MOVE on the Thang La post on December 9 was not a surprise, being part of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) standard toolkit, often described as ‘salami slicing’, aimed at altering the status quo on the India-China border to its advantage. The idea is to nibble at Indian positions, intimidate Indian Army units and keep the unsettled border on the edge. The response of the Indian Army to the attempted siege showed how things have changed since the bloody Galwan clash of June 2020 in eastern Ladakh. Any endeavour to alter ground positions or patrolling routes unilaterally is being vigorously contested. The Indian objective is to ensure squatters do not become de facto landlords. Having refined its defences, the Indian Army detected the Chinese troop movements on time and quickly massed soldiers to firmly repel the PLA onslaught.
The fresh clash—a little more than three months after the final disengagement in the 28-month Ladakh faceoff—according to the official account, saw “fierce hand-to-hand” combat that resulted in injuries on both sides. The questions that arise immediately are:
– Is the Tawang incident a portent for more frequent intrusion attempts?
– What are the gains, if any, of the buffer zones established at the Ladakh faceoff sites?
– Can China’s lead in building border infrastructure be countered?
– Will China focus on the border with India ahead of its “core” concerns over Taiwan?
In the Chinese telling of tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, as also the Tawang incident, India is to blame for “illegally crossing the LAC” and obstructing Chinese troops on routine patrol. In the months that followed the Ladakh flareup, articles in Chinese official media and papers published in Western media offered a curious explanation for the military tensions. It was India that had “backstabbed” China on several counts, leaving it with little option but to protect its interests, it was argued. The primary act of “betrayal” on the part of India was to build roads and upgrade infrastructure close to the LAC in defiance of China’s strategic interests in the Karakoram region. India’s decision to support a call for an investigation into the origins of Covid at the World Health Organization was also seen as provocative. Those familiar with the 2020 developments feel that while China had watched with growing unease India’s bid to close its infrastructure deficit along the LAC, the construction of a road in the Galwan area, in particular, was a red rag. The sum of Chinese arguments was that it was time to remind India of its vulnerabilities and drive home the point that a burgeoning partnership with the US should not lead it to underestimate China. So, India building border roads within its territory to safeguard its defence interests was treacherous behaviour because this amounted to a refusal to accept Chinese suzerainty! After having long been generally dismissive of India, China felt the need for more proactive interventions. In response, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it clear that peace on the border is central to normal bilateral ties.
India has no alternative to developing its border infrastructure and must do so at an increased pace with the possible involvement of agencies apart from the Border Roads Organisation. Leaving forward areas unconnected will turn border contests into a one-sided show. The gaps identified by the Shyam Saran report of 2013 are being addressed but the continuing imbalance needs careful handling
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There are no clear answers to whether the fight at Tawang means more recurrent intrusion attempts. The standoffs, pushing and shoving, are basically due to overlapping claim lines with incidents becoming public more often than before. Sources said it was mystifying why the PLA chose a point that is closely watched and has good force levels. It might be a case of a local commander’s error and while the Indian account clearly makes the point that the PLA was thwarted, there is a disinclination to stress the matter further. It is pointed out that Tawang is a historical flashpoint and will remain so and does not represent a new area of contestation. It is hard to fathom if there are additional reasons, such as a bid to undercut India’s presidency of G20. There may be. Since the events unfolded when Parliament was in session, it was unsurprising that an unofficial video showed Indian troops pushing back the PLA. The official account emphasises that Chinese troops were “overpowered and battered” and fired upon to dissuade them from pursuing Indian soldiers. With the opposition demanding a discussion and questioning the government’s response, social media provided a medium for setting the narrative. The PLA spokesperson downplayed the developments saying there were minor injuries to personnel of both armies, and that troops had disengaged. As things stand, the eastern stretch in Arunachal Pradesh, with dense forests and difficult terrain, might be subject to probing incursions. The Indian policy so far—voiced plainly by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar—has been not to soft-pedal in articulating India’s position while supporting the need for dialogue to resolve issues. This is unlikely to change.
A key aspect of the disengagement in the Pangong Tso finger area, Galwan and the Gogra-Hot Springs is the agreement on no-go or buffer zones to keep troops apart. The thinking here is that separating troops will ensure they do not clash while also ruling out unilateral squatting operations. The criticism is that this amounts to India “ceding” its right to patrol and that this advantage to the Chinese needs more careful examination. The fact is that there is no defined LAC, with each side having its perceptions. There have been informal agreements about either side patrolling the same areas but without putting up structures that amount to a physical marker. It is when these unsigned protocols fray, sometimes due to deliberate intent, that a showdown occurs. Creating buffer zones is a time-tested method of de-escalating tensions with no prejudice to respective claims. It also means the PLA is stepping back from its claim lines and vacating positions it had taken on the LAC. In fact, the need for buffer zones and continuing confrontations mean that the 1993 and 1996 border protocols, along with additional mechanisms to prevent incursions inked during former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in 2013, have pretty much run their course. There is an urgent need to revise the inherited approach to managing the border and resolute responses to incursions need to be complemented by engaging with China at the military and diplomatic levels. There is no substitute for boots on the ground but it may be time to nudge Beijing to consider that its border tactics are no longer as effective.
India has no alternative to developing its border infrastructure and must do so at an increased pace with the possible involvement of agencies apart from the Border Roads Organisation. Leaving forward areas unconnected will turn border contests into a one-sided show. The gaps identified by the Shyam Saran report of 2013 are being addressed but the continuing imbalance needs careful handling. Indian commanders have been tougher in responding to aggression on the LAC but have avoided escalation that might lead to firefights. Economic stress due to Covid shutdowns and emerging coalitions of its adversaries will give China’s communist rulers some food for thought. This presents India an opportunity to draw its red lines while steering clear of escalation that both sides may not be able to control.