India-China Border Issue: Stable Yet Sensitive – Analysis


By Manoj Joshi

The Sino-Indian standoff since 2020 has had a lasting negative effect on not only their diplomatic relations but also the management of their 4,057 km Line of Actual Control (LAC). Speaking to the media on the eve of Army Day, which falls on 15 January, Indian Army chief Gen. Manoj Pande spoke of the situation  being “stable but sensitive.”

On the other hand, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told a meeting in Nagpur recently that unless there was a solution on the border where the forces were “face-to-face”,  you cannot “expect the rest of the relations will go on in a normal manner.”

The narrative that India and China have been having repeated rounds of talks at the diplomatic and military levels to resolve the eastern Ladakh situation created by the Chinese actions on the LAC in 2020 is more complicated than it appears. Reports now suggest that even while the two sides continue their dialogue, tensions along the LAC remain high with attempts by the Chinese to ingress into new areas while the Indian side proactively counters them.

The LAC, which is a notional line not drawn on any agreed map, was peaceful and stable on account of a series of bilateral agreements between the two sides signed in the last 30 years, however, since 2020, when some 20 Indian jawans and four People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel died in the clash in Galwan, not only has the border management been destabilised, but it is unclear as to which measures have kept the peace remain in force and which are no longer tenable. Fortunately, one key agreement—that of not using guns within two kilometres of the LAC remains in place, else, the Sino-Indian situation could have been much worse.

 Last week, an intriguing report stated that the Indian Army has taken down videos of investiture ceremonies of the Western and Central Army commanders from YouTube because the citation of some awardees revealed how “live” the LAC has been since 2020.

This is apparent from the accounts that have been pieced together from the now deleted videos where soldiers have received gallantry awards for dealing with the situation in the period September 2021-November 2022. As such, it does not cover the major incident at Yangtse, northeast of Tawang, that transpired on 9 December 2022 when 300 Chinese soldiers tried to overwhelm Indian positions. Both sides used clubs studded with nails which led to injuries to dozens of the Indian Army and PLA personnel.

Just where on the 4,057-km LAC the incidents took place is not clear—or deliberately withheld for security purposes. A soldier may get an award in a particular sector, but the investiture takes place in the Army Command he is serving at the time. On 7 January 2022, several PLA personnel tried to swarm an Indian post in Shankar Tekri, reportedly on the Himachal-Ladakh border. Sepoy Raman Singh and his colleagues in the 8th Sikh Light Infantry (LI) managed to best the Chinese and push them away, seizing their guns.

In September 2022, Lt Col Yogesh Kumar Sati of the 31 Armoured Division elements of which are located in Ladakh carried out a task as part of Operation Snow Leopard (the name of the Indian military response to the Chinese actions in the summer of 2020). He was able to avoid detection and completed the mission successfully. The details of the operation have been withheld.

In November 2022, more than 50 PLA personnel tried to capture the Atari Post, and Naib Subedar Baldev Singh led his men to take them on and injured over 15 Chinese personnel. In the process, Singh himself was injured.

The date of the third operation has been withheld, but it relates to an award to Lt Col Pushmeet Singh of the 19 J&K Rifles for conducting a patrol that prevented a major standoff with the PLA. The situation was de-escalated through two days of talks between the Indian and the Chinese sides.

The last award mentioned is to Major Sourav Kumar of 15th Kumaon who carried out multiple covert missions into Chinese-held territory and established a covert surveillance post for the defence of the Siliguri Corridor. This was under Operation Dorji. Hav. Pradeep Kumar Singh was given a Sena Medal (gallantry) for establishing the covert post in Chinese territory for surveillance purposes.

India and China have so far held Corps-Commander level to resolve the situation in Eastern Ladakh, with the last round being held in October 2023. Through most of 2020, the Army and the government claimed that the Chinese established blockades in three places—Kugrang Nala, Gogra post and the north bank of Pangong Tso, they did not acknowledge the more serious ones at the Depsang Bulge and Charding Nala.

The PLA also massed troops near the LAC in violation of existing agreements. India responded with a counter-mobilisation and placed its forces atop the Kailash range overlooking the Chinese positions in Spanggur Tso.

Through the military-level talks, blockades at three places have been removed and the area under contention has been designated as a “no patrol zone.” But two important places remain to be dealt with—the Depsang Bulge and the Charding Nala near Demchok.

Laxness on the part of Indian security forces resulted in India losing access to 30 out of the 65 patrolling points in Ladakh as a result of the 2020 moves by China. Now several of them have been converted into no-patrol zones through mutual consent. However, the most affected area arising from the 2020 blockade is the Depsang Bulge where agreement seems to be eluding the two sides.

The current situation is not only “sensitive” as the Army Chief has noted, but also unstable. Both sides are clearly viewing the LAC from the point of view of obtaining military advantage along it. While the prohibition on the use of guns still seems to be observed, we don’t know how they view the other confidence-building measures. For one thing, the soldiers are armed and you never know in which circumstances they could be used leading to greater casualties and a deeper crisis.

The Chinese may have gained the first-mover advantage in eastern Ladakh, but the Indian Army now seems to be determined to ensure that it is not taken by surprise again. And as the investiture accounts suggest, they are adopting a proactive posture against the Chinese.

All this is happening even as the two sides are building up on both sides of the LAC. The Indian side is concentrating on its communications link, while the Chinese have built permanent billets, ammunition dumps, and helipads. This is not a situation conducive to either stability or peace. The entire confidence-building measures regime has collapsed, but to rebuild it requires trust, and for that, as the Indian side insists, there must be a return to the status quo ante in eastern Ladakh followed by an entirely new set of diplomatic negotiations.

  • About the author: Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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