Originally Published 2020-05-27 10:03:02 Published on May 27, 2020
Border crisis with China: Does India face a fait accompli?

There is still a lot of difficulty in understanding what is happening on the Sino-Indian border because of patchy and contradictory reporting, mostly based on sources in New Delhi  Thus any analysis has necessarily to be quite preliminary and tentative.  As of today, citing government sources, one media report said, “there are close to 10,000 soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on Indian territory.”  It should be noted though that other reports have suggested fewer numbers.

The current series of incidents started on 5 May, when around 250 Indian and Chinese military personnel clashed at Pangong Tso, a large lake in eastern Ladakh region.  These were reportedly violent clashes, injuring several soldiers on both sides.  Quoting a senior bureaucrat, one Indian media report said that some Indian troops were detained, but then released. But the Indian Army promptly denied this, though the detention story has continued.

In addition to Pangong Tso, there is also reported to be Chinese forces crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) further to the north, near the junction of the Shyok and Galwan rivers, though there have been no reports of confrontations here.  A newly constructed Indian road runs along the Shyok river to the north, a critical supply line for Indian forces. Quoting an unnamed military source, China’s state-run newspaper, Global Times, said that it was India who crossed the boundary in Galwan and entered Chinese territory.  Meanwhile, on 9 May, clashes also reportedly took place at Naku La Pass in North Sikkim, much farther to the east.

If China has indeed moved forward and built roads and checkposts beyond where it has traditionally had such facilities, India faces a fait accompli.  New Delhi faces the choice of either escalating or accepting the new reality on the ground.

Initially, even the government assumed that these were merely fisticuffs and that the two sides were possibly engaged in the usual stand-offs that happen between these forces every summer.  The Indian Army Chief even said, possibly to reduce tensions, that “aggressive behaviour by both sides resulted in minor injuries to troops post which both sides disengaged.”  But it seems clear now that three different confrontations, hundreds of kilometres apart, is unlikely to be an accident.  The large number of Chinese forces included also suggest some prior planning.  In fact, a knowledgeable former Indian ambassador to China, Ashok Kantha, referred to these “incursions at multiple locations” as “worrisome.”  He argued that China appears “to be physically changing the ground situation.”

Indian analysts are at a loss to understand China’s behaviour.  A former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, suggests that China was warning India about its policies on COVID, Taiwan and foreign investment (India had recently changed foreign investment rules that may affect Chinese investments).  Ambassador Gautam Bambawale, who was formerly Indian ambassador in Beijing, meanwhile argued that the current incidents could be related to India’s actions with regard to Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, when India split the Jammu and Kashmir state to form a new province for the Ladakh region, administered directly from Delhi.  Ambassadors Saran, Bambawale and Kantha appear to also suggest the closer India-US strategic engagement as a factor.  Most Indian analysts also suggest that China’s response was at least partly a response to India’s faster infrastructure building along the LAC.  China has already built excellent infrastructure on its side, and India’s is still wanting, though it has dramatically improved in the recent past.

There have not been much of an formal response from India to the ongoing crisis.  Commenting on the situation, on 14 May, India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said that both countries see enormous importance in maintaining peace and tranquillity along the entire border.  The spokesperson added that the problem is the difference in perception of the alignment of the LAC, suggesting that this “could have been avoided if we had a common perception of the LAC.”  India has long suggested this, but China has balked, apparently fearing that this could lead to additional problems.  What is worrying is that existing mechanisms to resolve such disputes do not appear to be working.

India and China have signed several agreements, including the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas (September 1993), the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas (November 1996), and most recently, the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (2013), none of which appear so far to have helped in the current tensions.  Even though these agreements are significant, there have also been problems with their implementation because many clauses in these agreements require both sides to limit their activities in reference to the LAC.  In the absence of clarity on where the LAC is, it is very difficult to execute these agreements, even in the best of times.

India’s options are also severely constrained in dealing with this crisis.  In the Doklam crisis, India moved to block China’s actions, forcing China to choose to either escalate or back down.  China backed down, helped by India also backing away on the promise that China would desist from continuing with its road-building.  This time, the shoe is on the other foot: if China has indeed moved forward and built roads and checkposts beyond where it has traditionally had such facilities, India faces a fait accompli.  New Delhi faces the choice of either escalating or accepting the new reality on the ground, or possibly offering concessions (halting infrastructure development in the region, for example) in order to get China to recall its forces.  New Delhi is not going to be happy with any of these choices.  Irrespective of how this plays out, one thing is certain: India’s attitude towards China will only harden.

This commentary originally appeared in 9Dashline.

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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