As the tug of war in Galwan Valley continues, the adventurism of China in Ladakh and other places along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the resultant standoff between Chinese and Indian forces has highlighted the complexity of the border issue between the two countries. The fact that 22 rounds of talks have taken place and the resolution of the border issue is nowhere in sight, speaks of the magnitude of the problem. LAC irrespective of differing perceptions continues to be a compromise formula, pending the border resolution, which has its own pitfalls, because perceptions can be repeatedly stretched beyond limits, if the intentions change, as has been the case with Chinese so many times. The idea of managing peace and tranquillity through agreements and CBMs has not been effective enough, after 15 June deadly scuffle by premeditated ambush of Indian troops by Chinese, using barbaric methods like nail pinned rods to cause casualties, resulting in hand to hand fights, strong response by Indians, ending up with even more casualties on their side, and embarrassment to avoid declaring them.
Defining the complexity of issue
Few landmarks need to be flagged out of voluminous history on the subject to pinpoint the problem. People’s Republic of China (PRC) refused to ratify the Simla Agreement of 1914, signed between British India and Tibet, initialled by Chinese representative. The Indian stance on Border generally follows Johnson Line (1865) in Ladakh and McMohan Line in East. When Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, Aksai Chin was part of it; hence rightfully belongs to India. There is therefore no mutually agreed border treaty between Independent India and PRC, and China refuses to accept any treaty signed with Tibet or earlier than annexation, when it does not suit it and selectively refers to them when it suits it’s interest, like it referred to a Treaty of 1890 during Doklam Crisis, despite the fact that it was superseded by many other treaties later.
It is often mentioned that it has resolved its border dispute with 12 out of 14 countries, however Chinese argue that it was done on a give-and-take principle. In the China-India equation, giving anything has a heavy political cost, as both sides interpret history as it suits them, having dug their heels into their respective positions, which is unlikely to change easily. Expecting India to give Tawang or China to give back Akshaichin is unlikely to be accepted by domestic constituencies on both sides. It is one of the main reasons for talks on border resolution not being successful.
Why graceful disengagement difficult
LAC term was used by Zhou Enlai in his note to Indian PM in 1959 (Not accepted by India, which resorted to Forward Policy), followed by respective positions in 1960, post 1962 conflict, with some unheld areas in between. LAC was later referred for negotiations since 1993, with a provision that it will not impact respective positions adopted by both countries on unresolved Border Issue. Both countries therefore have their own perception of LAC and in certain areas these perceptions overlap (Pangong Tso). As LAC is not demarcated, Chinese, with scant regards to international agreements and obligations, use non demarcation as an opportunity to pursue their ‘Strategy of Incremental Encroachment’ by laying fresh claims (Galwan Valley) and following it up with troops buildup/ infrastructure development till resisted and stop just short of conflict. An opposing build up by Indian Forces leads to ‘Standoff” each time.
The problem in resolution of standoff is that a graceful retreat becomes extremely difficult due to rising sentiments/ nationalism in respective countries, and media glare, thus increasing the political cost of any compromise by either side. Galwan/Pangong Tso is neither the first nor the last standoff, which will continue to happen, unless the LAC is demarcated. It is doable, provided both sides “Agree to Agree”. Chinese, however, continue to drag their feet in doing so, as they fear that it will become a de facto border, forcing them to forego their claims made in 1959, including Tawang and take away an opportunity to needle India, whenever it has any major divergence in strategic interests. Having developed their infrastructure up to LAC earlier than India, China does not want to let go this comparative strategic advantage, by denying infrastructure development to India.
When can the LAC demarcation occur?
In my opinion, the demarcation of LAC will happen only, when the political/ strategic cost of not doing so will increase for China, in comparison to doing so. The scenario when it could happen is, when China faces insurmountable military pressure on South-eastern seaboard from a group of countries, in response to Chinese adventurism in Indo-Pacific, forcing it to reduce one front for engagement. China, having recovered early from Covid-19, has unfairly used it as an opportunity to make quick gains in claimed areas amidst the pandemic, and unfair profiteering from ‘Health Silk Road’, igniting global anger. Chinese aggressiveness in South and East China Sea, possible blocking of global sea-lane of communication, freedom of flights, coupled with declaration of independence by Taiwan and heightened rivalry with US with accidental triggers, can create such conditions, along with economic decoupling, resulting in internal dissent in mainland and Hong Kong. The geo-political environment is yet to be shaped to that level, which will require global effort.
China on its part will try to stop its adventurism just short of war, in consonance with Sun Tzu’s principle of ‘winning without fighting’. India will have to walk an extra mile in Indo-Pacific engagements like Quad, and target all vulnerabilities of China with likeminded countries, including economic distancing to the extent possible. Till then China and India will continue with tug of war on LAC with tents vanishing and appearing on points like Patrol Point 14 in Galwan Valley. The troops on ground will continue facing the problem of guarding un-demarcated LAC with changed rules of engagement with Chinese, amidst total mistrust. Indian Military is on firm ground, with free hand to local commanders, ready for all contingencies to protect its country despite rhetoric, Chinese “Three Warfare” strategy, coercion and information warfare. India also has to counter Chinese ‘Strategy of Frontline States’ adding Nepal to erstwhile Sino-Pakistani nexus, as a proxy against India, with some smart diplomacy in global platforms.
Major General S.B. Asthana, SM, VSM, is a strategic and security analyst, a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in national and international fields and the UN. A globally acknowledged strategic and military writer/ analyst authored over 350 publications. He is currently Chief Instructor, USI of India, the oldest Indian think tank in the country.