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EFSAS Commentary

India-China border clashes: China’s already beleaguered position presents India with opportunities


It had been concluded in the EFSAS Study Paper titled, ‘The Doklam Standoff: A template for countering Chinese belligerence and expansionism’ that even though the 73-day-long Doklam standoff of 2017 had been resolved without a shot being fired, the possibility of future flare ups between China and India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de-facto border between the two countries, was high. It had also been contended that India’s firm resolve had played as important a role as its military capabilities in eventually breaking the stalemate and getting China to negotiate a solution. 

As per figures released by the Indian government, it had noted 426 Chinese border transgressions in 2017 and 326 in 2018. However, after the post-Doklam decline in 2018, the number of Chinese transgressions increased by over 50 percent in 2019 to 497. Recent reports suggest that the first 4 months of this year have already witnessed 170 transgressions. Disagreement over the precise location of the LAC, the greater capability created by India in recent years to patrol up to the LAC, and an increasingly assertive Chinese posture have all contributed to the escalation of tensions at the LAC.

Indian and Chinese troops have been involved in as many as four unsavoury incidents in recent weeks alone. Troops from the two countries clashed and came to blows on 5 May near the Pangong Tso lake that falls partly in eastern Ladakh and partly in Tibet. Several troops on both sides were injured. A similar incident occurred on 9 May in Naku La in North Sikkim. Separately, the Chinese State-run media claimed on 19 May that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was “tightening control” by putting up tents in one of the flashpoints in Galwan Valley after it accused India of “unilaterally” changing the status quo by “illegal construction”. A build-up was also reported in Demchok.

Of these incidents, the one at Pangong Tso lake was the most significant as it is in the path of the Chushul approach, one of the main approaches that China can use for an offensive into Indian territory. Indian assessments show that a major Chinese offensive, if it comes, will flow across both the north and south of the lake. During the 1962 India-China war, this was where China had launched its main offensive. Also, the May 5 incident near Pangong Lake marked at least the third publicly-reported physical confrontation at the same location in the last four years.

The LAC predominantly passes over land, but at Pangong Tso it passes through water. Pangong Tso is a long and narrow lake located at a height of over 4,000 meters in the Himalayas. The 135 km-long lake sprawls over 604 sq km in the shape of a boomerang and is 6 km wide at its broadest point. The points in the water at which the Indian claim ends and the Chinese claim begins have not been mutually agreed upon. At present, the 45 km-long western portion of the lake is under Indian control, while the rest is under Chinese control. Most of the clashes between the two armies occur in the disputed portion of the lake. As per Indian sources quoted by the media, “Nearly one-thirds of Chinese transgressions in the western sector (of the LAC) happen in Pangong Tso. Not only have they (China) substantially increased the number of boats on the lake, their patrolling behaviour is increasingly more aggressive. It is not a healthy thing when you consider what has been going on in the Finger Area since late April”.

As Indian analyst Sushant Singh described it, the mountains on the lake’s northern bank jut forward in major spurs, which the Army calls Fingers. India claims that the LAC is co-terminus with Finger 8 but it physically controls area only up to Finger 4, while the Chinese claim is that the LAC passes through Finger 2. The Chinese border posts, though, are at Finger 8. Six years ago, the Chinese had attempted a permanent construction at Finger 4 which was demolished after India’s strong objections. The area between the two differing perceptions is the territory which both armies try to dominate through regular patrolling.

Meanwhile, in 1999, when the Indian Army unit from the area had to be moved to Kargil to take on Pakistani invaders there, China seized the opportunity and built 5 kms of road inside Indian-claimed  territory along the lake’s bank. The 1999 road added to the extensive network of roads built by the Chinese in the area, which connect with each other and to the G219 Karakoram Highway. Chinese troops use light vehicles on the road to patrol up to Finger 2, which has a turning point for their vehicles. If they are confronted and stopped by an Indian patrol in between, asking them to return, it leads to confusion as the vehicles cannot turn back. The Indian side patrols on foot and before the recent tensions, could go up to Finger 8. The showdown between the Indian and Chinese soldiers on 5 May took place at Finger 5, when the Chinese troops objected to India’s construction of a vehicle track. Mutually established protocols at the local level were used to diffuse the situation and disengage. Chinese troops, however, have since then been trying to prevent Indian soldiers from moving beyond Finger 2.

Indian media reports have revealed that tension “had been building up over time after aggressive patrolling by the Chinese side”. While both countries have augmented their troop presence in Pangong Tso following the clashes, India initially sought to diffuse the situation by playing it down. Its Army Chief, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, said that, “Temporary and short duration face-offs between border guarding troops do occur along the LAC due to the differing perceptions of the alignment of boundaries which are not resolved”. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), while underlining that India remained committed to the objective of maintaining peace and tranquility along the India-China border, added that, “Occasionally however on account of difference in perception of the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), situations have arisen on the ground that could have been avoided if we had a common perception of the LAC”.

This benign tone, however, gave way to a more serious hue by 21 May, when the MEA accused China of hindering India's normal patrolling along the LAC. It said, “All Indian activities are entirely on our side of the LAC. Indian troops did not cross LAC in the Western Sector or Sikkim. Indian troops are fully familiar with the alignment of the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas and abide by it scrupulously. In fact, it is Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India's normal patrolling patterns. Indian side has always taken a very responsible approach towards border management. At the same time, we are deeply committed to ensuring India's sovereignty and security”.

Several views have been put forth regarding the reasons behind China’s aggressive posturing on the LAC at a time when the country faces possibly an even more challenging diplomatic and economic environment than it did after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. China’s inability to come to terms with India’s efforts to secure a certain degree of parity vis-à-vis China’s long-standing infrastructural and military advantage along the LAC by building more roads, deploying more troops, and more intensely patrolling the areas of the LAC that it perceived to be within its territory is seen as a major cause. Rather than interpret India’s actions as being motivated by legitimate security concerns, China regards India’s aforementioned steps as a threat to Chinese military posture.

As for the latest flare-ups, some analysts believe that Chinese belligerence at the border has coincided with India’s turn to assume a leadership role at the World Health Organization (WHO) by taking over as the chair of the WHO Executive Board on 22 May. As the head of the board, India’s nominee will have considerable weight in decisions impacting China such as the opening of a probe into the origins of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and Taiwan’s participation in future sessions of the World Health Assembly.

China is deeply embroiled in conflict and controversy literally the world over, and it is viewed with deep suspicion. Serious doubts about its credibility and place in the international order have been raised on account of its dubious role in the COVID-19 outbreak that has affected millions and killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. It has also not been lost on most countries that China is a repeat offender on this count, with multiple viruses emerging from the country in recent years.    

The United States (US), Australia, several European Union (EU) members, and a host of other nations have called for China to be held accountable for the COVID-19 outbreak. Australia was the first nation after the US to call for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Some 120 countries backed a resolution tabled by the EU at the virtual WHO assembly earlier this week that called for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response to the COVID-19 crisis. Although the references to China and Wuhan were removed and other clauses diluted from the original draft as China only agreed to sign in if that was done, the country that the evaluation should actually focus on is amply evident to all.

European leaders are increasingly frustrated at the way Beijing has handled the coronavirus crisis. China’s unleashing of its “wolf warrior” ambassadors with messaging of China’s strength and Europe’s weakness amid the pandemic were viewed as particularly distasteful in Europe. “Over these months China has lost Europe”, Reinhard Buetikofer, chairperson of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, said last month.

The US, which has been at the forefront of efforts to pin China down on COVID-19, has upped the ante. President Donald Trump tweeted on 20 May that, “It was the 'incompetence of China', and nothing else, that did this mass Worldwide killing”. Earlier, when asked in an interview with Fox Business about how the US could respond to China, Trump had responded that, “There are many things we could do. We could do things. We could cut off the whole relationship. Now, if you did, what would happen? You'd save $500 billion if you cut off the whole relationship”. Trump, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping, had added, “I have a very good relationship (with Xi), but I just — right now I don't want to speak to him. I'm very disappointed in China. I will tell you that right now”.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been equally scathing in his criticism of China. Alleging that China was led by a “brutal, authoritarian regime”, Pompeo averred at a recent news conference that the COVID-19 crisis had ended US illusions of close ties with China. He added that the US “greatly underestimated the degree to which Beijing is ideologically and politically hostile to free nations. The Chinese Communist Party's response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan has accelerated our more realistic understanding of Communist China. Today, as we all sit here this morning, Beijing continues to deny investigators access to relevant facilities, to withhold live virus samples, to censor discussion on the pandemic within China and much, much more”.

The US earlier this week also accused Chinese hackers of trying to steal Covid-19 vaccine research. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said in a statement that, “China’s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation’s response to Covid-19”. Meanwhile, a report on the Taiwan News portal claimed that the US and British intelligence agencies were investigating a report that purports to have found evidence of a “shutdown” and “hazardous event” allegedly taking place at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in mid-October 2019.

On China’s aggressive conduct at the LAC with India, Alice Wells, the head of the US State Department's South and Central Asia bureau, was severely critical of China. She said on 20 May that, “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”. She added, “What we want to see is an international system that provides benefit to everyone and not a system in which there is suzerainty to China. And so I think in this instance, the border disputes are a reminder of the threat posed by China”.  She also reminded that China's actions have led to a “rallying of like-minded nations, whether it's through ASEAN or through other diplomatic groupings - the trilateral that the US has with Japan and India or the quadrilateral with Australia - and conversations that are taking place globally”.

The likelihood of more frequent clashes taking place between Indian and Chinese troops along the LAC in years to come is very high. As Ashok Kantha, India’s former Ambassador to China, summed it up, “With more intensified patrolling on both sides, the open space available has shrunk, so face-to-face situations will occur; what is different is the aggressive manner in which Chinese troops behaved and prevented Indian troops from patrolling. There is a larger pattern that the Chinese are becoming more assertive in pursuing their territorial claims in contested areas, that is happening both in the South China Sea and along the India China border”.

India, in recent years, appears to have woken up to the need for improving military deterrence along the LAC in order to counter provocative activities by China at the border. China, whether it is justified in doing so or not, will make every effort to thwart or stall the progress of such building up of deterrence by India. India, however, would do well to not fall into the Chinese trap by slowing down its pace of infrastructure development, troop and weapons build up, and intensified patrolling, for fear of skirmishes breaking out. India will also benefit from keeping in sharp focus the fact that China has erred tactically by opening up too many fronts for it to meaningfully tackle. Whether it is COVID-19, the escalating confrontation with the US and other Western countries, the Taiwan and Hong Kong underbellies, the South China Sea issue, just to name a few, China has its work cut out for quite some time to come.

This should give India valuable time and space to consolidate, which it needs to capitalize fully upon.