The story so far: The India-China border has been witnessing tensions over the past month, with incidents reported in at least four different locations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). On May 14, Indian Army Chief General Manoj Naravane said incidents at the Pangong lake in Ladakh on May 5 and at Naku La in Sikkim on May 9 had led to injuries, caused by aggressive behaviour on both sides. He said the two sides had disengaged. Stand-offs at two other spots in Ladakh, in the Galwan valley and in Demchok, have reportedly escalated with a build-up of troops by both sides. On May 22, General Naravane visited the Leh-based 14 Corps headquarters in Ladakh to assess the situation.
Why do face-offs occur?
Face-off and stand-off situations occur along the LAC in areas where India and China have overlapping claim lines. The LAC has never been demarcated. Differing perceptions are particularly acute in around two dozen spots across the Western (Ladakh), Middle (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), Sikkim, and Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors of the India-China border. The boundary in the Sikkim sector is broadly agreed, but has not been delineated. Face-offs occur when patrols encounter each other in the contested zones between overlapping claim lines. Protocols agreed to in 2005 and 2013 detail rules of engagement to prevent such incidents, but have not always been adhered to.
What is behind the latest tensions?
The stand-off in Galwan valley, according to reports, was triggered by China moving in troops and equipment to stop construction activity by India. Delhi says this was well within Indias side of the LAC. The LAC was thought to be settled in this area which has not seen many incidents in the past, but China now appears to think otherwise. The northern bank of Pangong lake has, however, been a point of contention where there are differing perceptions of the LAC.
The incident in Sikkim is somewhat unexpected as the contours of the LAC are broadly agreed to in this sector. The broader context for the tensions appears to be a changing dynamic along the LAC, as India plays catch-up in improving infrastructure there. China has enjoyed an advantage in infrastructure as well as terrain that is more favourable to mobilisation. Previous agreements between the two countries have recognised both sides need for mutual and equal security, implicitly taking into consideration the different and more difficult terrain on Indias side that hinders mobilisation from depth.
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Why has not the LAC been clarified?
India has long proposed an exercise to clarify differing perceptions of the LAC to prevent such incidents. Maps were exchanged in the Middle Sector, but the exercise fell through in the Western Sector where divergence is the greatest. China has since rejected this exercise, viewing it as adding another complication to the on-going boundary negotiations. Indias argument is rather than agree on one LAC, the exercise could help both sides understand the claims of the other, paving the way to regulate activities in contested areas until a final settlement of the boundary dispute.
What is the state of boundary negotiations?
The 22nd round of talks between the Special Representatives, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chinas State Councillor Wang Yi, was held in Delhi in December 2019. Both agreed that an early settlement of the boundary question serves the fundamental interests of both countries and resolved to intensify their efforts to achieve a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution. In 2005, an agreement on political parameters and guiding principles completed the first of three stages of the talks. The current, and most difficult, stage involves agreeing a framework to resolve the dispute in all sectors. The final step will involve delineating and demarcating the boundary in maps and on the ground.
What are the prospects of a settlement?
The likelihood appears remote. The main differences are in the Western and Eastern sectors. India sees China as occupying 38,000 sq km in Aksai Chin. In the east, China claims as much as 90,000 sq km, extending all across Arunachal Pradesh. A swap was hinted at by China in 1960 and in the early 1980s, which would have essentially formalised the status quo. Both sides have now ruled out the status quo as a settlement, agreeing to meaningful and mutual adjustments. At the same time, the most realistic solution will involve only minor adjustments along the LAC, considering neither side will be willing to part with territory already held.
The 2005 agreement said both sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in border areas. One particular sticking point appears to involve Chinas claims to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, which has been increasingly referenced in public statements in recent years. Dai Bingguo, Mr. Wangs predecessor, said in 2017 that the disputed territory in the eastern sector, including Tawang, is inalienable from Chinas Tibet in terms of cultural background and administrative jurisdiction.
The Tawang demand is, however, more a symptom than the root of the problem. In truth, China knows ceding Tawang will be impossible for any Indian government to consider. The broader issue appears to be a fundamental difference in how both sides view the boundary question.
As one Chinese scholar put it in 2018, Chinas experience indicates that resolving border disputes is usually the result, rather than the cause, of improvement in relations. But India insists that its relations with China wont improve fundamentally until the border dispute is resolved. Therein lies the crux of the problem. In some sense, Beijing appears to view an unsettled border as holding some leverage with India, one of the many pressure points it could use to keep India off-guard. Until that strategic calculus and Chinas broader view of its relations with India changes, the stalemate will likely endure.