India-China Standoff : Contracting Options in Ladakh
Lt Gen AS Bedi (Retd.)

The India-China border dispute spreads over more than 800 kms in the Western Sector, extending from a little West of Karakoram Pass till Gaya Peak on the Ladakh border with Himachal Pradesh, in the South. India claims 38000 Sq km of the territory presently under Chinese occupation. While the border has been managed peacefully for the past so many years, efforts to come to a common understanding on the LAC have not yielded any results. Exchange of maps, depicting their respective claims by both sides, in the Joint Working Group remained limited to only the Central Sector. Both sides have since endeavoured to patrol and exercise control till their perception of Line of Actual Control.

Over a period of time, developments in Ladakh have been limiting the options for both sides to exercise this control. While one side may have a ground advantage in one area, the other side enjoys the same in another area. China’s continous efforts to improve the infrastructure in forward areas in the garb of creating facilities for the civil residents, and India’s measures to do the catching up have been changing the ground dynamics. How does this augur for the boundary dispute in the Western sector?

The updated official data ontrangressions show a seventy five percent jump in Chinese trangressions in Ladakh from 2018 to 2019. Even during 2020, there has been a substantial jump in trangressions over the same period as last year. However, these numbers are much less in the Eastern and Middle Sectors leading to a conclusion that the Chinese are focusing their efforts in the Western Sector. Two plausible reasons can be attributed to this. Firstly, the LAC along the Macmahon Line in the Eastern Sector is comparatively better identified as it follows well-defined geographical features, barring a few places. As compared, in the Western sector, historical shifts and counter claims have rendered the same nebulous. Secondly, the Chinese believe that they have an advantageous position in larger number of areas in Ladakh, and thus this area presnts more opportunities to jostle and enhance their control here. The Chinese also feel that they can gain the maximum advantage in Ladakh Sector as compared to Sikkim—where the border is relatively settled— or in Arunachal Pradesh.

As per the common understanding by both parties, dispute in Ladakh exists in only two areas, The Trig heights area in Depsang and Demchok. In other places, there are differing perceptions of the LAC. Starting from the North, Chinese sense opportunities to enhance their control in some of the areas like Samar Lungpa, Depsang plains, Galwan River Valley, Chip Chap River Valley, Pangong Tso, Dumchelle and Demchok. The existence of overlapping areas of influence, extending from a few hundred meters to tens of kilometers in such places suit the Chinese designs of slowly creeping forward and enhancing their control over these areas. One of the reasons for Chinese to enhance their trangressions in Ladakh can be attributed to this factor.

India has been slowly and steadily ramping up its capabilities in the Western Sector. As a consequence to enhanced trangressions, and the resultant increased patrolling, frequent meetings by both parties has lead to hardening of attitudes on both sides. The well-established norms of border management have tended to get diluted because of over-exuberance by the Chinese to achive their objectives, any which way, of enhancing their control in such grey areas. It is in this context that, the face-offs of 2013 in Depsang, 2014 in Chumar and the current one is taking place.

The face-offs, as well as enhanced patrolling by both sides have had their attendant fall out. To meet the challenges posed by ground conditions, both India and China have been stationing additional personnel and equipment, more and more forward. While at places it has been temporary, at others it has resulted in permanent deployment of larger strengths in the forward areas. This deployment is for keeps and is unlikely to be modified in future by either party to accomodate the claims of the other country.

So, is this the new norm being followed by the Chinese to define the LAC? These dynamics, on the ground, have been slowly and steadily defining the control exercised by either party in a more concrete manner, as compared to the overlapping areas of influence which have existed in the past. As a result, while the Chinese express reluctance to a dialogue mechanism in order to come to a common understanding of the LAC, the same is increasingly being defined by their physical actions on ground.

How does this strategy suit India? India has been following a well-caliberated approach to the management of the LAC in the Western Sector. Following the time-tested standard operating procedures, as per the common agreements between both the countries, has been the basic premise of the activities by military personnel from India. They have refrained from undertaking any measures which would instigate the situation and raise the tensions on the LAC. Taking advantage of this approach, the Chinese have steadily become bolder in their attempt to redefine the LAC by physical means.

So what does the future hold in store? A condition exists wherein developments on the ground are likely to overtake the dialogue mechanism between the two parties. China is unlikely to change its ambiguous stance to the consultations, so as to come to a common understanding of the LAC. Ground conditions and physical control are likely to steer the future contours of the agreement, when reached, between the two sides rather than claims based on historical factors and justifications. Neither side would be able to make concessions on the prevalent ground conditions, given the sensivity of the subject in the domestic dynamics.

India would do well to be alive to these issues and Chinese duplicitious behaviour in the Western Sector. While undertaking various activities along the LAC, appropriate modifications suitable to the ground conditions, need to be incorporated and counter strategy devised to the defeat the Chinese designs. The future is likely to hold more tense moments, if the Chinese continue to follow the current policy.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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