By Jeff M. Smith*
The China-India border is simmering again. Less than two years after Chinese and Indian forces engaged in an unprecedented standoff on the Doklam plateau, this May tensions erupted at several junctures along their disputed, 2,167-mile border. Fists were thrown. Blood was shed. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) was crossed. Artillery and heavy equipment was moved to forward positions near the border. Then, in early June, a ray of hope: negotiations between senior military commanders on 6 June appear to have begun a de-escalation process at several standoff points, though Chinese and Indian troops remain embroiled in a standoff at Pangong Lake. Even if, like its many predecessors, this border crisis is peacefully resolved, the trends at the LAC suggest the disputed boundary is growing more volatile.
Over the past decade, China has been deploying coercive tactics along four territorial fronts: in the East China Sea, South China Sea, China-India border, and toward the US on the question of freedom of navigation. The China-India border was once thought to be among the more stable of these fronts. It may be time to revisit that thinking.
The latest saga at the China-India border began in early May, with reports of a pair of fistfights between Chinese and Indian border patrols at two separate locations. The first occured along the banks of Pangong Lake in Ladakh on 5 May, in one of two-dozen volatile stretches of the border where there’s no mutually agreed LAC. The second, more peculiar, fistfight erupted on 9 May where the Indian state of Sikkim meets Tibet. Notably, that section of the border was ostensibly settled in the mid-2000s and no longer considered disputed by India, although there have been periodic reports of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) transgressions across the Sikkim border since then.
By mid-May, reports revealed Chinese and Indian forces were engaged in additional and ongoing standoffs and military buildups at four distinct points in Ladakh, including near the Galwan river, Hot Spring, and Gogra areas, while the sparring at Pangong Lake was still ongoing. By month’s end, videos surfaced of a violent confrontation between Chinese and Indian forces at Pangong Lake, and the Indian media seized on speculation that China had crossed the LAC with an invasion force 10,000 strong.
Chinese and Indian officials initially offered very little commentary on the LAC standoffs. In mid-May China accused India of “trespassing” and “illegal” infrastructure work near the LAC. India’s Ministry of External Affairs stressed: “All Indian activities are entirely on the Indian side of the LAC. In fact, it is [the] Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns.”
China’s senior leadership avoided broaching the topic in speeches. Its ambassador to India stressed the two countries “pose no threat to each other” and should “seek understanding through communication.” China’s Ministry of Foreign affairs claimed the ” situation is overall stable and controllable.” Only China’s hyper-nationalist mouthpiece, the Global Times, took a predictable swing at Delhi. It insisted India planned the crisis in advance, blamed the border standoffs on the US, warned India not to be used as “cannon ash,” and urged Delhi to “improve [its] understanding and research on China” and “make correct and strategic judgments.”
In early June, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh offered some public comments that on one hand sought to emphasise a diplomatic resolution but also presented a warning: “India does not want to hurt [anyone’s] self-respect, nor will it tolerate under any circumstances anyone harming India’s self-respect.. if anyone tries to get us to bow our heads, there is no doubt that we can give a befitting response.”
A clearer picture emerges
So, what on earth has been happening in the Himalayas? As is often the case at the LAC, our understanding of events is hindered by imperfect information, conflicting accounts, and a steady stream of anonymously sourced speculation. Nevertheless, the release of new reports, government statements, satellite imagery, and informed analysis paint a better, but still incomplete, picture of recent events in Ladakh.
First, there appears to have been a substantial and concerning massing of military forces in Ladakh to positions near the LAC at three standoff points near the Galwan River, Gogra, and Hot Spring. Near Gogra, Chinese positions were reinforced with heavy artillery. Near the Galwan river, there are credible reports the PLA made a limited incursion beyond the LAC in May, but was either evicted or returned by choice to its side of the LAC.
Other accounts have suggested the PLA was encamped beyond the LAC at some of these locations but those claims have yet to be verified. For its part, India rushed troops, equipment, and supplies to reserve positions near the LAC, drawing from forces previously stationed near the Line of Control in Kashmir. Accounts suggest roughly 10,000 soldiers from each side may be involved.
After several rounds of inconclusive talks between local- and division-level military commanders, on 6 June the two sides held corps commander-level talks conducted in a “cordial and positive atmosphere.” Those talks, coupled with diplomatic negotiations, have reportedly prompted a step-by-step de-escalation at Galwan, Gogra, and Hot Spring, with both sides agreeing to pull back from forward positions along the LAC. The Chinese foreign ministry insisted the two sides “reached a positive consensus…to take actions to ease the situation along the borders.”
The troublesome lake
Further south in Ladakh, a more complex standoff is still unfolding at Pangong Lake. For years trouble has been brewing along the banks of the lake, which is bisected by the LAC: India controls the western third, China the eastern two-thirds. According to Indian government figures, between 2015 and 2019 Pangong Lake saw more Chinese transgressions than any other point along the border, a full quarter of the well over 1,000 LAC violations in that period.
In 2017, the same year China and India were engaged in an unprecedented standoff 500 miles southeast on the Doklam plateau, videos surfaced of the two countries’ forces engaged in a rare bout of physical violence, exchange blows and rocks along the banks of the river. This May, China reportedly tripled the number of boats patrolling the disputed lake, where naval transgressions of the LAC are not uncommon.
Why is Pangong Lake so problematic? The lake’s northern bank hosts several geological protrusions — eight mountainous “fingers” grasping toward the water. India’s territorial claims extend east to Finger 8. China’s claims extend west to Finger 2. The problem at Pangong Lake isn’t the overlapping claims; it is the fact China and India don’t agree on the location of the LAC. China argues it belongs at Finger 4. For India, the LAC lies several miles east, at Finger 8.
India enjoys sovereign control of the territory leading up to Finger 4, with a military outpost on its western flank. The problems lie east of Finger 4, between the two perceived LACs. China has been regularly patrolling the area for decades and built a road there in 1999. Indian forces also patrol the area up to their claim line at Finger 8, although they’re forced to do so on foot as vehicles can’t traverse the difficult terrain around Finger 4. This grey zone between Finger 4 and Finger 8, between the perceived LACs, has been the source of frequent Indian confrontations with the PLA, with reports of Chinese forces “blocking” Indian patrols as far back as 2013.
Last month, as tensions were unfolding further north in Ladakh, a Chinese force roughly 200 strong advanced to Finger 4, even temporarily crossing the LAC at one point. It appears the PLA has established a structure near F4, and smaller outposts east of it, in an attempt to alter the status quo.
The Indian media is now embroiled in a debate over whether China has seized “Indian territory.” The answer is complicated: India claimed and patrolled the area, but never exercised sovereign control over the space between Finger 4 and Finger 8, where China enjoyed better road access and arguably a stronger presence.
Concerning trends at the LAC
There hasn’t been a single death from hostilities at the LAC in over 40 years — a fairly remarkable feat given the volume of interactions among hostile parties in contested territory. India records several hundred Chinese LAC violations annually and the vast majority of confrontations between border patrols result in fleeting, ceremonial interactions.
However, in the spring of 2013 something changed. Dozens of Chinese soldiers crossed the LAC in Ladakh in the Depsang Valley and set up camp, objecting to Indian construction of new military bunkers and listening posts near the border. They remained camped there for three weeks until negotiations brokered a withdrawal agreement and a commitment to dismantle at least some of the new military outposts. Chinese forces had briefly crossed the LAC to dismantle makeshift facilities before, including in 2011, but their prolonged encampment in 2013 was a departure from the status quo.
More concerning, the PLA employed the same tactic the following year, on the eve of President Xi Jinping’s inaugural visit to India. In September 2014, hundreds of Chinese soldiers crossed the LAC near Chumar prompting a sixteen-day standoff. The two sides eventually negotiated a withdrawal agreement that reportedly committed India to destroying a recently built observation hut and several bunkers near the LAC, and China to halting the extension of a road toward the LAC. In 2015, Ladakh witnessed yet another, briefer, standoff when Indian forces sought to prevent China from constructing a watch tower near the LAC.
The good news is, the current crisis in Ladakh bears some resemblance to these prior standoffs, all of which were peacefully resolved. The bad news is, they also differ in some important and concerning ways, with mounting evidence to suggest the LAC is entering a new, more volatile chapter.
First, Chinese violations the LAC in all sectors are growing in frequency. The Indian government recorded over 660 LAC violations by the PLA in 2019, a surge of over 50% from 2018 and a contemporary record. (Recorded aerial transgressions of the LAC have also spiked, from 47 in 2017 to 108 in 2019.)
Second, the recent standoffs erupted across several non-contiguous sectors of the LAC at the same time, an unusual occurrence. Third, they involved an uncommon level of hostility, including several bouts of fist-fighting and rock throwing that were rare prior to 2017.
Fourth, they erupted in some sectors that were not traditionally viewed as contentious or volatile, and where there was no disagreement on the location of the LAC. This includes the Galwan river, Gogra, Hot Spring, and Sikkim (which have recorded roughly one PLA transgression of the LAC annually the past few years, versus over 100 per year in Pangong Lake).
In aggregate, these trends suggest LAC standoffs are growing more hostile, more frequent, longer in duration, and are receiving more media coverage and international attention, potentially restricting both sides’ room for manoeuvre.
For a while it appeared as if the disputed China-India border was stabilising. The last major crisis at the LAC, the Sumdorong Chu incident, dates back to 1987 and involved a major military buildup by both sides. That crisis was resolved without any casualties but it was alarming enough to galvanise diplomatic efforts to create a framework for managing the border dispute, producing a series of productive agreements between 1993 and 2005.
Momentum was lost shortly afterward. China refused to exchange maps delineating its precise territorial claims and began emphasising its claim on the sensitive border town of Tawang, an issue India believed had been settled by prior agreements. Meanwhile, the broader relationship witnessed a gradual slide toward more competition and rivalry as China adopted a more assertive approach to its territorial disputes.
Nevertheless, the border remained relatively stable until the prolonged standoff in Ladakh in 2013. Ironically, that episode prompted the two sides sign a modest Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in late 2013 but in the seven years since, tensions at the LAC have only worsened.
The current crisis, and the elevated tensions along the LAC more broadly, are likely the product of two complementary trends. The first is the well-documented sharpening of Chinese foreign policy under President Xi Jinping, particularly along China’s territorial fault lines.
The second trend is an acceleration of Indian infrastructure development near the LAC in an attempt to close a substantial deficit with China there. Roughly a decade ago the Indian government took a decision to reverse a decades-old policy of intentional neglect at the border, a naïve attempt to deter advances from a potential invader. After years of delays and glacial progress, the Modi government reinvigorated efforts at road building along the LAC. Work on a network of 61 “strategic roads” has accelerated in recent years, with an expected completion date of December 2022.
It is perhaps no coincidence that in April 2019 India completed work on the critical DSDBO road running parallel to the LAC in Ladakh, stretching all the way to its northernmost outpost at Daulet Beg Oldi. More recently, India began building east-west feeder roads from DSDBO to its forward outposts near the LAC, including a new road and bridge near the Galwan river. This year, India was also reportedly engaged in efforts to improve road infrastructure at Pangong Lake.
With infrastructure development near the LAC the proximate cause of the Ladakh standoffs in the mid-2010s, the most likely explanation for recent events is that China is again attempting to pressure India to halt infrastructure activities. Indeed, that is exactly how the Global Times characterised the recent crisis: “China-India border tensions flared up after India recently illegally constructed defense facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley region, and Chinese border defense troops countered.” When Chinese and Indian military commanders met for negotiations on 6 June, India reportedly requested a return to the status quo as of April 2020. China’s request? A halt to Indian infrastructure near the LAC.
Past experience and Occam’s razor suggests wolf warrior diplomacy has seized the day: if India refuses to heed China’s calls to desist with its infrastructure, the PLA will apply military pressure and force upon India a fait accompli. It closely resembles China’s playbook from prior standoffs in Ladakh, only this time on steroids: more troops, more equipment, more locations, more pressure, and one potentially bold attempt to change the status quo at Pangong Lake.
A dubious strategy?
If China is drawing from a familiar playbook at the LAC, it’s important to ask why its efforts appear supercharged this time around.
With China under economic duress and facing greater international scrutiny over the COVID-19 pandemic, it would seem an inopportune time to open a contentious new front with India. Yet, since the outbreak of the pandemic China has sparred with Malaysia and Vietnam in the South China Sea, threatened Taiwan, revoked Hong Kong’s autonomy, chased Japanese fishing boats, traded barbs with the US and is now challenging India at the LAC. The Chinese leadership appear to be willing to accept the costs of heightened tensions with their neighbors in order to broadcast an aura of strength to domestic audiences. (Although it’s worth noting India doesn’t figure prominently into the CCP’s domestic messaging so it would appear to have limited domestic propaganda value.)
Others have speculated that China is irritated with: recent moves by Delhi to restrict Chinese investments in the Indian market; calls by Indian voices to hold China to account for its responsibility in the COVID-19 pandemic; India’s accelerating partnerships with the US; and the Indian government’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s statehood in August 2019. That decision, which created the new union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, had no material impact on India’s territorial claims or the border dispute with China. Beijing objected to the move at the time, though its complaints were believed to be more symbolic in nature and in deference to its all-weather friend, Pakistan. Although it’s still unclear precisely how that decision was interpreted by Beijing and how it may be influencing China’s calculus at the LAC.
Even as we contemplate Beijing’s potential motivations, there’s good reason to question the wisdom and efficacy of China’s coercive strategy at the LAC. First, India appears to be on firmer legal ground. There is a general consensus that the Indian infrastructure construction along the DSDBO road and elsewhere has been proceeding on its side of the LAC.
Second, India also has a history of resisting Chinese coercion tactics, staring down the PLA less than two years ago near the Bhutan-China-India border and refusing budge under threat of eviction. Indian officials are already signaling privately there will be no halt to planned infrastructure improvements near the LAC.
Third, while China clearly has some interest in maintaining a favorable military balance at the border, its tactics directly undermine its broader strategic objectives with India. It is no coincidence Delhi agreed to the revival of the Quad three months after the 2017 Doklam crisis. India signed a key military agreement with the US the following year, with negotiations reportedly invigorated by the standoff. If history is any guide, China’s actions at the border are likely to entrench feelings of distrust and hostility already rampant in India, and strengthen the impetus to partner with other Indo-Pacific democracies.
With signs of de-escalation at several points along the LAC, the focus will soon shift to the ongoing standoff at Pangong Lake, with India seeking a return to the pre-May status quo. If China remains entrenched in its forward position India has numerous avenues to respond horizontally. It has a major decision pending on the development of its 5G telecommunications infrastructure and the Chinese Communist Party is desperate to see its loyal telecom firm Huawei gain access to one of the world’s largest markets.
Elsewhere, India has numerous policy options, from deepening engagement with the Quad to welcoming Australia’s participation in Malabar, helping to hold China accountable for its responsibility in the COVID-19 pandemic, elevating engagement with Taiwan, and more vigorously supporting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. There are also outstanding questions regarding the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama’s succession. The ball is now in China’s court.
*About the author: Jeff M. Smith is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, focusing on South Asia. He previously served as Director of Asian Security Program at the American Foreign Policy Council. Smith has testified as an expert witness before multiple congressional committees, served in an advisory role for several presidential campaigns, and regularly briefs officials in the executive and legislative branches on matters of Asian security. He is the author of ColdPeace: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the 21st Century (Lexington Books, 2014); and the author and editor of the forthcoming Asia’s Quest for Balance: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).