By Rajeswari Lillai Rajagopalan
Following the Galwan conflict in June 2020, China-India relations have gone through one of their worst phases. Despite several rounds of military and diplomatic talks, progress in military disengagement has been painstakingly slow, and there is a deployment of 50,000-60,000 troops on each side of the line of the actual control (LAC), the temporary border between India and China. Even though talks are continuing between the two sides, China has been engaged in the construction of villages near the border areas. There have been reports for close to a year about such activities, but this has once again risen to the attention of the Indian policy community and the media following the U.S. Department of Defense’s recent annual report on China’s military power.
Back in January this year, China claimed that its village construction in Arunachal Pradesh was “beyond reproach” since it “never recognized” Arunachal Pradesh.
According to the Pentagon report, “Sometime in 2020, the PRC built a large 100-home civilian village inside disputed territory between the PRC’s Tibet Autonomous Region and India’s Arunachal Pradesh state in the eastern sector of the LAC.”
India faces a quandary. On the one hand, as several Indian commentators have pointed out, the construction of the village is in territory that has been under Chinese military control since at least 1959. There is little that India can do to prevent such construction short of taking military action. As a parallel, China has developed infrastructure along other parts of the territory that India claims but which China controls.
But with the latest development, India’s previous diplomatic efforts also appear to have come to naught. India and China had agreed previously that any final resolution of the border issue would not disturb settled populations. By constructing new villages and populating them, China is creating new facts on the ground that would make any future agreements even more difficult. Whether these are purely civilian villages or whether they are populated by civilian militias is also an issue. China can always claim that these are civilian population even if they have a security purpose, giving it an excuse for claiming that the village can not be removed and that the territory can no longer be negotiated.
India’s official response has been muted.
The key question in India is whether Chinese actions have changed the status quo on the border and whether India has lost more territory. Critics of the Indian government have made such arguments. On the other hand, supporters of the Indian government have pointed out that this doesn’t involve loss of any new territory since the construction is taking place in territories that have already long been under Chinese control.
Clearly, this is likely to be unresolved because there is an element of truth in both positions. While it is true that this is territory already under Chinese control and India could not have done anything to stop it, short of taking military action, it is also true that such construction does change the complexion of the territorial dispute. India could have complained more vociferously about such actions because it is always possible that China might repeat this tactic along other parts of the disputed territory. While no Indian complaint is likely to have much impact on Chinese behavior, not complaining is also tantamount to accepting such changes and legitimizing China’s control over these territories.
This also raises general questions about India’s overall approach toward the dispute with China over the last year. India’s behavior has been defensive in both diplomatic and military spheres, while China has adopted an extremely aggressive tone and engaged in similar military behavior. India did take an offensive approach once, when it conducted a military action in the Kailash range that put China on the defensive and forced it to come to an agreement on the Pangong Tso. Other than that, however, while India has not been shy about stating that China is to be blamed for the crisis, New Delhi has not raised the costs for China in any significant way.
A more serious loss for India has been the fact that it has lost access to a significant number of patrol points in Ladakh. A senior Indian defense analyst, Lt. Gen. Panag, has listed out at least nine patrol points in the fingers area and south of Demchok that India is no longer able to access. While India did not control these areas, it was also an area that China did not control. It would appear now that India is no longer able to patrol these areas because China has moved its forces forward and cut off access to Indian patrolling. This is definitely more important than the village construction in Arunachal Pradesh. This would appear to be a much more significant loss of territory by India to China.
All in all, it doesn’t seem likely that the latest phase of Sino-Indian tensions that began last year will end anytime soon. Despite India’s efforts, it would also appear that China is not particularly keen on finding a middle ground either.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).