Tensions between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) escalated seriously on Monday night when an Indian army officer and 19 soldiers were killed in “a violent face-off” involving hand-to-hand combat at Galwan Valley in Ladakh. The death toll is expected to rise as dozens of other soldiers are battling for their lives.
According to an Indian Army statement, both sides have suffered casualties. The Chinese government has not released figures of its dead and injured soldiers yet. Citing “Indian intercepts,” ANI news agency reported that an estimated 43 Chinese soldiers were killed or injured in the confrontation.
In a development of serious concern to India, the Chinese government on Tuesday claimed Galwan Valley as Chinese territory. China has “always” held sovereignty over the area, it said, blaming India for the face-off. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has accused Beijing of trying to unilaterally change the status quo in the area.
While no firearms were used in the fighting on Monday night, the combat was reportedly “savage.” Chinese “assault teams armed with iron rods as well as batons wrapped in barbed wire hunted down and slaughtered [Indian] troops,” Indian sources said. The conditions in the region are also precarious and brutal.
The face-off on Monday night should set alarm bells ringing in New Delhi and Beijing. It is the deadliest between India and China since they skirmished at Nathu La in 1967. It is also the first time since 1975 that soldiers have lost their lives in clashes along the LAC.
The face-off came amid ongoing talks between Indian and Chinese military officials to defuse tensions along their disputed border. Only a few days ago, bilateral tensions seemed to be easing somewhat. The “entire situation” along the LAC “is under control,” Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane said on June 13 after a series of meetings between local-level commanders and corps commanders of the two sides.
That the violent bloodletting happened even as the two sides were claiming that “action” was being taken to “ameliorate the border situation” and that they had begun a “partial disengagement” of troops from some of the standoff points along the LAC in eastern Ladakh indicates how fragile the situation is on the ground.
It reaffirms what a section of Indian security analysts, critical of the Indian government’s mishandling of the crisis at the LAC in Ladakh since early May, have been saying over the past month: There is much to worry about over the situation along India’s northern front.
The entire India-China border is disputed and the LAC is the de facto border between Indian- and Chinese-controlled territory. In the Indian perception the LAC is 3,488 kilometers long, while the Chinese maintain that its length is only 2,000 km. In addition to differences over the length of the LAC or where it runs, India and China also lay claim to sizable chunks of territory under the other’s control.
In the western sector, India claims 38,000 square kilometers of territory in Aksai Chin in the northeastern corner of what was part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, known today as the Union Territory of Ladakh. This is territory that China occupied during the 1962 Sino-Indian war and which remains under Chinese control. India also claims another 5,180 sq km of land in Kashmir that Pakistan ceded to China in 1963.
In the eastern sector, Beijing claims around 90,000 sq km of territory, which roughly approximates the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh or what Beijing refers to as “Southern Tibet.” During the 1962 war, China advanced into this territory but retreated subsequently. The middle sector of the LAC is the least contentious of the three sectors.
The current crisis erupted to the fore on May 5, when Indian and Chinese troops clashed at Pangong Tso, a lake that straddles the LAC in Ladakh. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers reportedly prevented Indian troops from patrolling areas between Finger 4 (the Chinese claim line) and Finger 8 (the Indian claim line). This is territory that both sides had been patrolling until the May 5 clashes, a senior officer of the Indian Army’s Northern Command told The Diplomat.
In the weeks since, the two sides have clashed there and at other points in Ladakh as well as at Naku La in Sikkim in the eastern sector. Not only did Chinese intrusions grow in depth and frequency over the past month, but also the PLA dug in by erecting tents and building bunkers as well as deploying more troops and heavy vehicles in areas it occupied, the Indian Army officer said.
At a meeting in the Chushul-Moldo region between Indian and Chinese military commanders on June 6, the two sides agreed to “peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas in accordance with various bilateral agreements.” Partial disengagement of troops and talk between military officials at various levels followed.
However, as the Monday night face-off indicates, the situation along the LAC is volatile and worrying.
According to Ajai Shukla, a defense analyst and retired colonel of the Indian Army, Chinese troops continue to occupy the area between Fingers 4 and 8 in the Pangong Tso sector of the LAC as well as “the area up to PP [Patrolling Point] 15 and PP 17 and the heights overlooking the Galwan Valley.” Indeed, Chinese soldiers are reported “to have entered the Depsang area, which lies to the north of Galwan, in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector.”
There were serious clashes between India and China at Depsang in 2013.
Tensions along the LAC erupt from time to time. Because of the different perceptions of where the LAC runs, patrolling teams of the two sides run into each other on occasion. These run-ins trigger face-offs, prompting each side to accuse the other of transgressions.
However, this time around, the problem is not just one of “transgressions” or confusion over the LAC. What happened in Pangong Tso or the Galwan Valley were not incidents of patrolling teams bumping into each other but the outcome of China working to redraw the LAC unilaterally.
China’s moves in the Galwan Valley lay bare this strategy. In late April, China began building up troops along the LAC and then sent them across into the Indian side.
The LAC at the Galwan Valley is clearly defined and accepted by both sides, Shukla points out. Still China sent in its soldiers 3-4 km across the LAC, thus violating “its own claim line here and occupied territory that Beijing has traditionally acknowledged to be Indian.” It triggered conflict in an area that was tension-free since 1962.
Then on Tuesday, the Chinese government took this to the next level by claiming sovereignty over the Galwan Valley in its entirety.
Unlike in the past, when small teams were involved in the clashes with Indian soldiers, this time the PLA has “sent in thousands of soldiers” across the LAC. China’s tents, bunkers, and other infrastructure in the “territory it is occupying” on the Indian side of the LAC indicates that “they are here to stay,” the Indian Army officer said. They have moved armored vehicles near the Galwan Valley and “seem to be digging in for a longer confrontation.”
While China’s territorial ambitions and use of aggression to unilaterally alter the LAC are to blame for the escalating crisis between India and China, the Indian government cannot absolve itself of responsibility for the disadvantageous situation it is in today.
Intelligence input in late April of the Chinese buildup in Ladakh should have prompted New Delhi to beef up its own military muscle in the area. It did not. Indeed, even after the May 5 clashes the Indian government downplayed the magnitude of the Chinese aggression. In fact, Army Chief Naravane described the incidents in Ladakh as “temporary and short duration face-offs.”
So why was New Delhi downplaying the looming crisis along the LAC all these weeks?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have long been strong advocates of chest-thumping nationalism and of adopting a muscular approach in dealing with India’s neighbors. Having claimed to be the strongest guardians of India’s national security and territorial sovereignty, they were caught in a difficult situation.
They were “caught napping” at the border. Hence their “obfuscation on unfolding events at the LAC,” the Indian Army officer said.
Preoccupied with finding ways to save face vis-à-vis the Indian public, the BJP government sought to deflect uncomfortable questions over its mishandling of the border crisis by stressing its commitment to “national pride.”
The death of 20 Indian soldiers in the confrontation with Chinese troops on Monday night brings the Modi government’s response into sharper question.
Ending his long silence on the border issue, Modi warned China on Wednesday that India was “capable of giving a fitting reply, when provoked.” He has called for an all-party meeting on Friday to discuss the border situation.
How his government will respond to the Chinese occupation of Indian territory remains to be seen. Its mishandling of the border issue with China could culminate in India losing control over territory to China.
According to Lt. Gen. Panag, who was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Northern Command between 2007 and 2008, the Chinese have occupied an area of 35-40 square km in recent weeks. By denying the loss of territory to the Chinese, the Modi government seems to have played into Chinese hands by endorsing the Chinese position.
Even more dangerous is the government’s explaining away of the border tensions. “Face-offs between border guarding troops do occur along the LAC due to the differing perceptions of the alignment of boundaries,” Naravane said in late May.
Such explanations could “open Pandora’s box,” writes Panag. It could encourage China to use a similar strategy to take control of other territory that is currently under Indian control. It could “result in loss of more territory, possibly at Chumar, Demchok, Fukche, Kailash Range, Hot Springs, along the Shyok River and in Depsang Plains.” Success in the western sector could tempt China to implement a similar strategy at Tawang in the eastern sector of the LAC.
Indian officials have said that their aim in the current talks is to get the Chinese to restore the status quo ante, as of April. Will they be able to convince the Chinese to do so? There is little reason for Beijing to heed India’s requests. After all, it is in an advantageous position on the ground along the LAC. The alteration of the LAC appears to be a fait accompli.
At best, India can expect the Chinese to pull back a bit but only after they have wrung out major concessions from New Delhi.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.