Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2013-05-14 00:00:00 Published on May 14, 2013
Some voices in India had advocated a tough response to the Chinese. This would be untimely and irresponsible. In retrospect, the handling of the situation which involved a symmetrical non-threatening military response by Indian forces, along with patient diplomacy has paid off.
Depsang incursion:  Decoding the Chinese signal
The most important question that arises from People’s Liberation Army’s decision to dismantle its encampment on the Depsang plain in Ladakh is : why did they establish the camp in the first place. Speaking to Indian correspondents in Beijing following his visit there on May 9, Union External Affairs Minister acknowledged that there was still "no clarity" on the reasons behind the incursion of April 15, but he also added that he had not sought any explanation from the Chinese in his talks with them. "I did not look for . We are not even ready with our analysis of why it happened."( )

Whatever be the case, in the opinion of this writer, the clear outcome seems to be that it has created conditions for a full spectrum engagement between the two countries involving not just economic, diplomatic and military engagement, but intensified efforts to resolve their long standing border dispute. (The Hindu, May 7, 2013).

The beginning of the three-week standoff between India and China in the Depsang plain was as sudden as its ending. On April 15, an Indian patrol found that a Chinese platoon had established a camp in what was clearly the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. On the evening of May 5, after weeks of consultations and flag meetings, the Chinese and Indian sides agreed to restore status quo ante in the area, which essentially meant that the Chinese removed the five tents they had set up on April 15.

The fact that their move was clearly non-threatening, yet high visibility, suggests that Beijing was sending some kind of a signal. This was an isolated camp, 19 kms inside what the India considered its side of the LAC. Given the length of time the encampment stood, it was clear that it had assent from the powers that be in Beijing. This is one of the areas of the LAC where the two sides have differences over its alignment, providing a band of 10-15 kms in which both sides patrol, claiming that it belongs to them.


One interpretation is that the Chinese are signalling something. The interpretation, too, is a bit troublesome. In their study Paul H.B. Godwin and Alice L. Miller (China’s Forbearance Has Limits: Chinese Threat and Retaliation Signaling and Its Implications for a Sino- American Military Confrontation INSS, NDU, 2013) note that there is a hierarchy of signals. At the first level are statements of Politburo members, PRC officials, PLA leaders in meetings with foreign guests. At another level are speeches by these leaders at banquets and press conferences and at the third level are interviews of PRC leaders with the foreign media. Then there are official protests by government spokesmen or Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson. At the third level are editorials and commentaries in the People’s Daily and other authoritative newspapers. In the case of the Chinese action on the Depsang plains, the act of establishing an encampment was the signal and the statements and commentaries quite benign. Indeed, at the highest level the statements were quite baffling.

The provocative Chinese action on the Depsang Plain must be taken in conjunction with two statements of Communist Party of China General Secretary Xi Jinping. On 19 March, speaking to BRICS country correspondents in Beijing, Mr. Xi repeated the five proposals for better China-India relations that had originally been mooted by his predecessor, Hu Jintao -- the need to maintain "strategic communication" to undertake "win win" cooperation, foster stronger "cultural ties" and coordination in multilateral affairs and finally to accommodate each other’s "core concerns."

On the border issue, he offered the old formulation: "The boundary question is a complex issue left over from history and solving the issue will not be easy." In the interim, the two sides should work together to maintain peace and tranquility in border areas "and prevent the boundary question from affecting the all-round development in ties (The Hindu March 20, 2013).

On 27 March, speaking at Durban, following his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Xinhua quoted Mr Xi as saying "On the border issue, Xi said China and India should improve and make good use of the mechanism of special representatives to strive for a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible." He also called for China and India should "to broaden exchanges and cooperation between their armed forces and deepen mutual military and security trust."

As high level signalling, the statements seem to be somewhat at variance with each other. What changed between March 19 and 27th, or do we need to take the two statements in conjunction ? Since on April 15, the Chinese established their camp on the Depsang plain, we could, perhaps, hazard a guess that the action itself was a carefully thought out means of signalling. And the signal sent was an intent to take up the issue of the LAC, and the steady rise of its militarization once again. In other words, a return to the issues of maintaining peace and tranquility which had been the subject of the 1993 and 1996 Sino-Indian agreements, and which were supposed to have been superseded by the April 11, 2005 "Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question." Though, the two sides did sign an additional protocol for implementing the 1993 and 1996 military confidence building measures on the same date as well. The "Political Parameters and Guiding Principles" agreement was a higher level move whose next step is to work out an agreed framework for a border settlement and then to move towards it through the process of definition and delimitation.

The signalling from the lower level Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, too, was been somewhat benign. The first statement of the Chinese foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying was April 22, 2013 and it was the most elaborate (

This and the statements in the subsequent days noted 1) that Chinese forces strictly observed the LAC 2) Sino-Indian relations were in good shape and there was peace and tranquillity in the border area. 3) The two sides have a mechanism to consult and coordinate border issues and that the channels of communication remained unimpeded.

Subsequently, on May 7, the spokesperson said that the two countries had "reached agreement on proper solution of the incident" through consultation. Since the occurrence of the incident, China and India, with the larger interest of bilateral relations in mind, have taken a constructive and cooperative attitude, exercised restraint and maintained close communication and consultation through the border-related mechanism, border defense meetings and diplomatic channels. Maintaining peace and tranquillity in the China-India border areas serves the common interests of both sides. China is ready to work with India to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution to the boundary question at an early date." (

Signalling what ?

The Chinese action can be seen at three levels- one as a straightforward land grab, and two instances of signalling. The first is an established pattern where the PLA keeps nibbling at Indian territory to create new "facts on the ground" or a "new normal" in relation to their claimed LAC. They do this, as they have done in the past-- occupy an area, then assert that it has always been part of their territory and offer to negotiate. In this very sector, Chinese claim lines have been varying since 1956. At that time, for example, the entire Chip Chap and Galwan river valleys were accepted by China as being Indian territory. But in 1960 China insisted that these areas were within their claim line and they occupied them following the 1962 war. The April 2013 Depsang encampment seemed to be pushing even further westward.

The fact that the border is neither demarcated nor inhabited, and there is no agreement on the alignment of the LAC in many areas, aids this process. We need to keep a sharp watch in the coming months to see if this pattern is repeated in other parts of LAC where there are differing perceptions as to its location between India and China.

Second, China could be signalling its unhappiness over the Indian military build up on the Sino-Indian border. In the last five years, India has activated forward airfields in the Ladakh sector, completed important road building projects in the Chumar sector, begun work on the road to link DBO with Leh, and moved high-performance fighter aircraft to bases proximate to Tibet. In addition, it has raised two new mountain divisions, plans to establish two armoured brigades across the Himalayas and may raise a new mountain strike corps. In other words, the Indian posture is moving from the purely defensive vis-à-vis the PLA in Tibet, to one which could also include offensive action. In addition, India’s strategic forces have begun to mature with the test of the Agni V and the launch of the Arihant.

According to a report in the Indian Express, a month before the Depsang incursion, China had mooted a draft agreement with India calling for a freeze or limits on the troop levels on the LAC. The proposal also had other suggestions to keep the peace in the border areas. The report says that the initial move was made during the annual defence dialogue between the two countries in January, and was followed up by a draft proposal in early March. India had since conveyed to the Chinese side that it was studying the proposals. (Pranab Dhal Samanta "Freeze troop levels at border, says China in draft pact" Indian Express April 24, 2013)

If you faced a country with whom you have a disputed border, you would not be happy about its growing military profile. But China seems to have developed some amnesia here. After all, its own infrastructure and military build up have outpaced that of India by at least a decade and a half. In this period, China has developed a railway, an extensive road network in Tibet and Xinjiang. In addition it has deployed powerful forces, which include armour, rocket artillery and battlefield support missiles. They have developed new airfields and have conducted as many as four major military exercises in Tibet in 2012.

At a third level, China could be signalling its unhappiness over the India, Japan, US entente. What their message could be is that even if the Chinese are involved in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayou islands, they will not shy away from taking a forward posture with regard to India. According to a report in the Hindustan Times, India pulled out of the planning for an trilateral exercise with Japan and the US off the island of Guam in April because it was concerned at how the action would be viewed in Beijing. The report added that for now, India would exercise with the two countries on a bilateral basis.

Sumdorong Chu episode

It would be useful at this point to look back at the last major crisis which took place in 1986-1987 crisis over Sumdorong Chu. This coincided with Exercise Chequerboard involving the movement of forces from the plains of Assam to the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh. When the panicked Chinese moved forward their forces, India began Op Falcon and used its heavy helicopter lift capability to build up rapidly across the entire LAC and even deployed Infantry Combat Vehicles and tanks in some areas.

The result was the 1993 and 1996 confidence building agreements. They are far reaching and important and yet they have never been seriously implemented. For example, clause 2 of the 1993 agreement accepted that there should be ceilings on forces on either side, that the two sides would reduce their forces along the LAC and that the "extent, depth, timing, and nature of reduction of military forces" would be determined through mutual consultations. Article 3 of the 1996 agreement specified that the major category of armaments such as tanks, infantry combat vehicles artillery guns, heavy mortars, surface to surface and surface to air missiles would be reduced with the ceilings to be decided through mutual agreement.

However, to implement such an agreement required one key step spelt out in Article 10 of the 1996 agreement-that the two sides would work out a common understanding of the alignment of the Line of Actual Control. But the Chinese have baulked in working this out and so the key clauses of the agreements remain in a limbo and the undefined LAC becomes the cause of occasional tension.


Some voices in India had advocated a tough response to the Chinese. This would be untimely and irresponsible. First, we are in the middle of our modernisation cycle, lacking vital elements such as artillery, air defence systems and heavy lift helicopters. Second, an over-the-top military response to what was a non-threatening military action on the part of the PLA would have needlessly escalated the situation. In the last count, there appeared to be five tents and seven men and a dog in the Chinese position. In retrospect, the handling of the situation which involved a symmetrical non-threatening military response by Indian forces, along with patient diplomacy has paid off.

This can hardly be decried as lack of firmness. As a report in the Indian Express on Sunday has pointed out, this is not the first time such confrontations have occurred on the LAC in the past decade, and this is certainly not the worst. In none of them was India bested and it was able to calm the situation through firmness and patient diplomacy. We have made it clear that we will not accept any "new normal" on the LAC at our cost. (Pranab Dhal Samanta, Indian Express May 5, 2013)

There is nothing in Chinese actions suggesting that they are looking for a fight. The message from China right now seems to be that it is ready to engage India across the entire spectrum, which includes the disputed border. In New Delhi on May 13, the Director General of the Information Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang spoke to Indian correspondents and the tenor of his remarks made it clear that the border issue had regained its salience. Mr Qin was in New Delhi to prepare for the visit of Chinese premier Li Keqiang, beginning May 19. Mr. Qin observed that the Depsang incident was an "isolated" event and that there was need now to "redouble efforts to push forward negotiations for a framework agreement on the boundary settlement." (Times of India, May 14, 2013 p. 12)

In an article in The Hindu on May 10, 2013, Mr. Wei Wei, the current Chinese ambassador to India, has observed that in their talks since the 2005 "Political Parameters and Guiding Principles" agreement was reached, the two sides have "reached an 18-point consensus on the resolution framework." (

With regard to the March 2013 Chinese proposal to freeze troop levels on the LAC, New Delhi needs to firmly tell the Chinese not to put the cart before the horse. It cannot and will not freeze its border dispositions before the Chinese are willing to accept a common LAC alignment. Once this is done, the draw down of forces will take place as per the protocols that are built into the 1993 and 1996 agreements in any case.

The upcoming visit of Chinese premier Li Keqiang would be a good occasion to provide the necessary push to the two sides to move ahead on the long pending exchange of maps detailing the Chinese and Indian versions of the LAC, which could, in turn, aid the two sides to work out a common alignment of the LAC in a time-bound manner. Only this will ensure peace and tranquillity on the Sino-Indian border and open up the possibility that two sides could move on the 2005 "Political Parameters and Guiding Principles" agreement come up with, to use Xi Jinping’s phrase, "a fair, rational solution framework acceptable to both sides as soon as possible."

(Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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