On May 5, thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers crossed the LAC into the Galwan River valley scuffling violently with Indian troops as they forced their way five kilometres (km) along the valley to the Galwan’s junction with the Shyok River. From here, the PLA dominated the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road, a newly-built artery to northern Ladakh. Simultaneously, PLA troopers also crossed the LAC at two other points, including a 3-5 km ingress at Gogra, near Hot Springs.
A second PLA ingress occurred on May 9, some 2,000 km away, at Naku La pass in Sikkim. Here, PLA troops crossed a formal international border. With the Indian Army
having blocked the PLA about two km inside India, hundreds of soldiers from both sides remain in a tense face-off.
A third PLA intrusion happened on May 17/18 at Pangong Tso lake, where Chinese troops and heavy vehicles crossed the LAC and seized unoccupied territory along the lake’s northern bank. Indian border patrols, which traditionally went up to a mountain spur called Finger 8, were now blocked by the PLA at Finger 4, eight km inside the Indian-claimed LAC. Simultaneously, the Chinese occupied the Finger Heights — a mountaintop that dominates the lake all the way up to Finger 4.
At all five ingress points in Ladakh — three in the Galwan valley, one at Pangong Tso and one further south at Chushul, the Chinese have fortified their positions with clear intentions to stay.
This week, PLA troops have also crossed the LAC at another point in Ladakh, ingressing several km into the Depsang Plains near Daulat Beg Oldi. Here, they are building two roads on the Indian side of the LAC.
To comprehend these events, it is essential to understand the nature of the Sino-Indian frontier, where there is no agreed border. The LAC, which is the de facto border based on actual control of territory, has been neither delineated (settled on a map) or demarcated (marked on the ground). Both India and China have different interpretations of where it runs. Chinese and Indian border forces assert their territorial claims by patrolling up to their claimed boundary line. In areas where there are conflicting claims, Indian and Chinese patrols sometimes cross each other while going up to their respective claim lines. Despite the potential for clashes, five major Sino-Indian agreements have — until now — largely kept the peace. The first of these, the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement, signed in September 1993, is termed the “mother agreement.” It was supplemented in 1996 with an agreement on confidence-building measures; a 2005 agreement on standard operating procedures for patrols that come into contact; a 2012 agreement that sets out processes for consultation and co-operation; and, most recently, the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013.
Both Beijing and New Delhi realise that a mutually delineated LAC would end the uncertainty that causes troop clashes. The 1996 agreement explicitly notes the need for a “common understanding of the alignment of the line of actual control in the India–China border areas”. It states that the two sides “agree to exchange maps indicating their respective perceptions of the entire alignment of the line of actual control as soon as possible”. However, China stonewalls the exchange of LAC maps, keeping alive the window for clashes.
However, this time round, it appears China has bigger plans: It is taking advantage of an Indian patrolling lacuna to shift the LAC. The lacuna is this: While Chinese border guards have always patrolled right up to their claimed LAC, Indian troops have stayed short of the LAC, walking only up to a line of “patrolling points” (PPs) that are some way short of the LAC. An official who was involved in drawing up the PPs says the aim was to “avoid provoking the Chinese”.
A high-level government body, the China Study Group drew up the first set of PPs in 1975, soon after Indian satellites completed their first survey and metric maps of the border areas became available. That initial line of PPs was moved closer to the LAC after the BPTA was signed in 1993 and finalised in 1995-96 when the current PPs were laid down. But, in most sectors, there remains a gap of a few km between the PP and the LAC.
Mapping PLA actions over the last few months, their game plan appears to be to usurp this unpatrolled gap. The PLA intruders have constructed roads close to PP14, PP15 and PP17. In Depsang, they have advanced up to PP12 and PP13. True, at the Pangong Tso they have occupied territory well inside Finger 8, where Indian patrols regularly went. But this could be because Finger 8 is uncomfortably close to the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, for which the PLA is creating a territorial buffer.
Alternatively, it may be the plan to eventually withdraw from here, tossing India a face-saver while retaining the tactically crucial heights overlooking the DBDSO road.
What are India’s options? New Delhi must mount a full-court press incorporating all elements of India’s national power — military, strategic, diplomatic and economic. In 1986, after the PLA occupied Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh, India not just massed forces at the intrusion point but also designated Arunachal Pradesh a full-fledged Indian state. In handling the current crisis, New Delhi must reverse years of subservient behaviour towards China. Beijing would have noted that, since the Wuhan summit in 2018, Delhi has avoided criticising China over Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. New Delhi rightly upbraided Pakistan’s envoy for detaining two Indian embassy employees in Islamabad. However, the Chinese ambassador to New Delhi has not been summoned even after the barbaric killing of 20 Indian soldiers. It is time to shed the kid gloves.