Reports of a fresh Chinese incursion in India’s Ladakh region surfaced in the first week of July, barely two months after a tense border face-off in mid-April when a Chinese platoon set up camp about 19 km inside Indian territory. Reports of the latest incursion, which took place on June 17, came three days after the July 5-6 visit of the Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony to China.
According to reports, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) patrol in the Chumar sector of southern Ladakh smashed Indian bunkers on June 17 and took away a camera placed on the ground, about 6 km ahead of an Indian Army post. The camera was ostensibly installed by the Indian Army to monitor Chinese troop movements along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de-facto border separating Indian-administered Kashmir from the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin area.
India reportedly raised the issue two days after the incident at a border meeting on June 19. The Chinese returned the non-functional camera in early July. Given that the reports surfaced three weeks following the incident and going by New Delhi and Beijing’s attempts to play down the incident, it seems as if the two countries do not want to see a repeat of the April stand-off.
Reacting to the incident, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying denied the reports saying, “I have seen the relevant reports but I am not aware of the specific situation." She added, “Chinese defence forces have been patrolling along the Chinese side of the LAC of the China-India border. The general situation in the border areas is stable. We have the consensus that pending the final settlement of the boundary question no one of us should change the status quo along the LAC."
However, the Indian government’s attempts to play down the situation did not go well with the opposition, with the Bharatiya Janata Party accusing the government of “suppressing” the information. In the government’s defense, its response may have been guided by an attempt to prevent the situation from snowballing into a raging controversy fuelled by India’s hyper-sensitive media.
Yet the latest incident is a cause of deep concern and raises serious questions about China’s intentions. Even more so, since the incident has occurred against a backdrop of a spate of high-level visits exchanged between the two countries in recent months, including that of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India in May. Interestingly, New Delhi and Beijing held the 16th round of their Special Representatives' talks on the boundary question barely days after the incursion in the Chumar sector, which focused on devising joint mechanisms to avoid repetition of a Depsang-like situation.
However, despite claims by the Chinese interlocutor Yang Jiechi of “breaking new ground”, the two countries seem nowhere close to resolving the boundary dispute. China’s perceived incursions also come at a time when Beijing is involved in territorial disputes with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam – which makes the timing of its territorial row with India all the more curious.
Whichever way one looks at them, these incursions do not bode well for Sino-Indian ties and raise questions about the intentions of the new Chinese dispensation in Beijing, which seems to be potentially testing the waters before forcing the border issue with India. They may also shed light on the multiple factors influencing Chinese decision-making, including domestic constraints and government-military relations, among others. India would do well to expect and be prepared for similar border incursions over the coming months – particularly at a time when the Indian government’s political capital is at its lowest in the lead-up to the 2014 elections.
One way India could strengthen its hand in its dealings with China would be by shedding some of its ambivalence towards the so-called US pivot to Asia and intensifying its diplomatic engagement with other Asian partners like Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.