Over the past year or so, especially after Galwan Valley Skirmishes, there has been a wave of mainstream and opinionated writings on Indo-China border disputes. Indeed, this has invigorated the talks, now in progress between India and China. However, standstills in themselves put forward no resolutions and, for that matter, can be taken as unchallengeable. Furthermore, foreign policy is dictated by national interests, not by ideologies. So while dealing with China, we must keep our national interests at the highest level, and border disputes are undoubtedly an integral part of the Indo-China relations. China can not and should not overlook this fact of India. We must remember that in history, as in life, we can not plough back in time.
Though Indian maps under the British Raj had their lacune and some inconsistencies, at Simla in July 1914, Ivan Chen(rep of China) substantiated the maps and sketches discussed by India, Tibet and China. “ The real dilemma China has on the McMohan Line stems from the uncomfortable truth that at Simla, the credentials of Tibet plenipotentiary were accepted without any qualification, that he took part in the conference deliberations as an equal.” ( Parshotam Mehra, Essays in Frontier History, India, China and the Disputed Border, Oxford, 2007, p. 31).
On 5 May 2020, Indian and Chinese troops were involved in vicious brawls, confrontations and skirmishes at various locations along the Indo-China border. The areas include near the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), near Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region(TAR). Further clashes also took place at numerous places in eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Later in May, Chinese forces opposed the legitimate Indian road construction in the Galwan River Valley. According to Indian sources, commotion fighting on 15/16 June 2020 resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and casualties of 43 Chinese soldiers. (Wikipedia). Though India accepted the number of Indian soldiers martyred yet there is no official confirmation from the Chinese. Nevertheless, Indian troops gave a bloody nose to the Chinese troops.
Media reports expressed that soldiers imprisoned on both sides were released in the coming days, but there was no official confirmation from India and China. However, partial disengagement from Galwan, Hot Springs and Gogra happened in June–July 2020, while complete disengagement from Pangong Lake north and the south bank took place in February 2021. Part of the disengagement deal at Pangong Lake was the withdrawal of Indian troops from positions they had occupied between 29 August to 3 September in the Chushul sector overlooking Chinese military stations at Spanggur Gap and Spanggur Tso. Position as of 31 March 2021 indicates that there has been no change in the posture of the India Air Force(IAF) or People’s Liberation Army Airforce(PLAAF) since the Galwan clash took place. (Rahul Singh, Hindustan Times 31 March 2021). Amidst the impasse, India strengthens the region with nearly 12,000 additional workers, who would support India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in carrying out the development of Indian infrastructure along the India- China border.
What may have led to this situation?
Several reasons could be cited for the present stalemate. One reason could be the Chinese technique of territory grabbing, notoriously known as ‘salami slicing’, which involves encroaching upon small parts of enemy territory over a considerable period. Secondly, successive Indian governments neglected the border areas for decades and turned a “blind eye” to Chinese land grabbing in the region. Likewise, in mid-June 2020, BJP member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh Tapir Gao acknowledged regular Chinese patrols inside north-east India. Another reason could be developing Indian infrastructure in Ladakh, particularly along the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road. Finally, it was a display of power for China amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which had damaged the Chinese economy and its international reputation—may be ascribed to internal problems within China and the international pressure being exerted on China over COVID-19. Current border tensions can also be linked to India’s decision to abrogate Article 370.
Furthermore, Sh. Amit Shah, Home Minister of India, could have irked China by mentioning Aksai Chin- a disputed region administered by China, was part of the Indian-administered Ladakh Union Territory. Other analysts linked the skirmishes to India’s growing alliance with the US as India has been active in the many US plans that target China especially QUAD, and the presence of India in the South China Sea.
India and China have agreed on disengagement at Pangong Lake, which has been at the heart of the recent tensions at the border. Both sides have settled to a withdrawal of frontline personnel, armoured elements and wished to create a buffer zone to pause on patrolling in the disputed lake temporarily. China is also asking India to vacate its occupied heights in an effective countermove in the Kailash Range. This disengagement process encouraged reinstating peace in the border areas, but China seems reluctant to move further on these talks. Nevertheless, there are many other issues desired to be fixed to create lasting peace in the region.
- The current disengagement is restricted to Pangong Lake and Kailash’s north bank to the south Pangong. Still, there are three other sites of dispute on the Ladakh border where the PLA had come in — Depsang, Gogra-Hot Springs and Demchok.
- The Depsang plains, due to their proximity to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road, the DBO airstrip, and the Karakoram Pass, holds strategic importance for India when it comes to dealing with China.
- There are worries that the creation of proposed buffer zones would lie majorly on the Indian side of the LAC, thus converting a hitherto Indian-controlled territory into a neutral zone.
- Last year’s events have left massive distrust, which remains an obstacle, and China’s actions on the ground have not always matched its promises. Further, China is suspicious of India’s closeness to the US and QUAD. Furthermore, due to the border’s disputed nature and a lack of trust between the two sides, any perceived violations of ‘no patrol’ zones can lead to deadly outcomes, as seen in Galwan valley in 2020.
What is Way forward?
After the 1962 conflict, India and China restored diplomatic relations in 1976. The first Prime Ministerial visit to China was in 1988 after 1954. The reconstruction of our ties was both laborious and strenuous. India was among the early nations to recognise the People’s Republic of China. Nevertheless, the quality of India-China relations in many ways was dented, both by the border conflict and time lost after that.
However, for the last about 30 years, relations between two countries had improved, interactions and exchanges grew steadily in many areas. China became one of our largest trading partners, a very significant source of investment, even of technology, a participant in projects and infrastructure building and a significant destination for tourism and education. As for the border areas are concerned, negotiations were conducted to solve the boundary dispute. The improvement of ties was predicated on ensuring peace and tranquillity along the borders; sorry to say that China has not respected this. The last loss of life before 2020 was, in fact, as far back as 1975. The unfortunate events in Galwan Valley last year have so deeply disturbed the relationship between the two countries. For the reason that they not only gesticulated an indifference for promises about reducing the troops’ levels but also exhibited an inclination to break the peace and tranquillity. The question before India is which posture China takes, how it develops, and its consequences for the future of our relationship.
India saw trade growth with China dramatically, but it was one-sided in nature made it increasingly controversial. Staple visas, China’s opposition to India’s seats in United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and Nuclear Suppliers Group(NSG), unwilling to block the terrorist Organisations funded by Pakistan, violation of India sovereignty by laying projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir(POK), etc. All these issues can not be neglected and will affect our relations with China in the days to come.
India has many options to put pressure on China to come to terms. India’s naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean block the chokepoints, especially around the Malacca Strait, which connects the Indian Ocean to the Western Ocean Pacific. These waters hold much importance for China since it is a crucial route for energy and trade as 80% of China’s oil import come through Malacca Strait. India had threatened a naval blockade of Pakistan previously during the 1971 war. New Delhi has never issued any such threat against Beijing. However, the Indian navy was reportedly placed on high alert following the Galwan Valley clash. China’s disadvantage in the high seas becomes all the more grave in the South China Sea, where China is fighting six countries and India plays a role in the region. Also, the Tibetan issue is not dead so far, and India has leverage in this; a world opinion can be roused to restore the legitimate rights to the Tibetans. It is a matter of time that China is holding Tibet under her heels.
Thus far, India has cemented a close defence tie-up with the US. By signing the basic agreements, the interoperability between the Indian and US forces has enhanced. India has also become less cautious in engaging with the QUAD. Analysts in China and Russia interpret these developments as a definite tilt in the Indian policy towards the US. With the unfolding of an ambitious vision for the Indian Ocean, India is positioning itself in the Great Power Game unfolding in the region of great strategic importance.