By Lieutenant General S. L. Narasimhan
Starting from 2013, India-China boundary has had a few incidents. Prior to that, only two incidents of importance had occurred post the 1962 war between India and China. They were at Nathu La in 1967 and Sumdrong Chu in 1986. Almost 27 years later, both Indian and Chinese armies stared down on each other in Daulat Beg Oldi and a year later in Chumar. These high profile incidents were followed by the incident at Dolam Plateau in 2017. During the Dolam incident, another incident took place in Pangong Tso where in both Indian and Chinese armies were involved in a scuffle that resulted in pelting of stones.
Boundary between India and China has some areas that are agreed upon as disputed and sensitive by both the sides. Generally, the face-offs have been taking place in these areas. Starting from 2007, a few issues started coming up in Sikkim. The Chinese broke a temporary bunker in November 2007 in the general area of Dokala. The area of Finger in North Sikkim started becoming a bone of contention.
Post Dolam incident, Wuhan summit took place between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. This meeting brought stability to the bilateral relationship. There were very few incidents along the border that were reported after the meeting. Mamallapuram summit took place in 2019. These two meetings were expected to usher in a new era in bilateral relationship. This year also happens to be the 70th year of establishing diplomatic relationship between both the countries. A total of 70 events were planned to be conducted in both the countries to commemorate the same. COVID-19 has acted as a dampener to these celebrations. However, as many events as possible, may still be conducted.
India converting the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh as Union Territories, which is a domestic matter, did not go down well with China, as the latter felt it is a threat to its claims on Eastern Ladakh. Moreover, due to China’s close relations with Pakistan, Beijing felt compelled to raise the issue of Jammu and Kashmir in the United Nations Security Council many times. These actions of China queered the pitch in the bilateral relations between India and China. However, no major adverse implications were felt due to the same.
While everything appeared to be going smoothly, a few incidents have been reported in the recent past that seem to raise questions about the state of relations between India and China. There were reports that Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had a face off in Naku La (It is different from Nathu La) in North Sikkim. During that incident, it was reported that there was scuffle between the two sides resulting in injuries to a few on both sides. This was followed by another report saying there was another face off in Ladakh. On May 12, further reports appeared stating that Indian Air force has scrambled its fighters a week before because some PLA helicopters were seen near the border. All these reports seem to suggest that all is not well between India and China. Before one comes to that conclusion, he or she needs to consider a few things.
- India-China boundary question is yet to be resolved. The Line of Actual Control (LAC), which came into existence after the 1962 war, is also not demarcated. Therefore, both China and India have their own perceptions of the LAC. This has given rise to areas that both sides claim to be their own and resulted in the disputed and sensitive areas mentioned earlier. Whenever patrols of both sides enter these areas at the same time, face-offs occur.
- The period between May to September every year has better climatic conditions along the LAC and therefore, both the countries’ armed forces increase the patrolling. Therefore, a greater number of face-offs take place during this season. As a corollary, this also explains the least number of face-offs during the winter.
- From 1967 onward, not a single round of bullets has been fired across the India-China boundary. Whenever face-offs take place, these are resolved locally between commanders on either side.
- Many agreements have been signed between India and China to maintain the peace and tranquillity along the border. Based on these agreements several Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been agreed upon by both the sides to deescalate the face-offs whenever and wherever they occur.
- Border personnel meetings take place at regular intervals at Spanggur Gap, Nathu La, Bum La and Kibithu. Border personnel meetings also take place in Kepang La. Issues along the border that are faced by both sides are resolved in these meetings. Moreover, flag meetings are held whenever there is a need to resolve issues that may arise in between the border personnel meetings.
The LAC between India and China is 3,488-km long. It is the world’s largest unresolved boundary. Long stretches of this LAC run through inhospitable terrain and both sides endeavour to keep their territory under observation and control. That effort can be considered to be normal. However, when one side does not adhere to the SOPs agreed upon, the face-offs occur. Often, the Chinese side seems to be the one that does not follow them.
Having seen the arrangements in place to deal with the situations that may arise on the ground, the incidents that take place along the LAC, we need to look at what needs to be done.
- Both sides should adhere to the standard operating procedures. This will ensure that face-offs are resolved at the first instance without escalation.
- The LAC should be clarified at the earliest. There was an effort towards this about 20 years ago. The maps with markings of the respective perceptions of the LAC were exchanged for the central sector. When the maps were to be exchanged for the western sector after that, the Chinese refused to go ahead. If the maps are exchanged for the other sectors, it will indicate where on ground each side perceives the LAC and thereafter, efforts can be made to device ways and means of reducing the face-offs.
- The sensitivity to incidents along the LAC needs to be reduced. The moment any incident comes to notice, the reaction goes out of control. Moreover, threats of one kind or the other is perceived without ascertaining the facts on the ground.
- Technology may be deployed increase the surveillance on the border. This will enable less human interaction and reduce the face-offs. The use of technology will also enable maintaining a check on developments of roads and tracks closer to the LAC.
- Leaders and governments of both countries understand that a conflict, for any reason, affects everyone adversely. Both the countries and their armed forces need to ensure peace and tranquillity along the boundary.
(The article first appeared on Dainik Bhaskar Digital in Hindi. The writer is a retired Army officer, a member of the National Security Advisory Board and Director General of Centre for Contemporary China Studies)