Defending a historically undefined border line | Opinion
In my younger days, I led a couple of long-range patrols along the McMahon Line. One patrol was to go to Khang La, located on the watershed. We were late and lost a lot of daylight hours, but we pressed on to finish our task. We then strayed across the line by almost a kilometre. With no Chinese troops in sight, we divided our patrol into two teams and located Khang La only the next morning. As a young subaltern, this was my introduction to the Line of Actual Control (LAC). I later commanded the division on LAC in Arunachal Pradesh and then 14 Corps in Ladakh a few years ago. I have flown over the Galwan Valley several times. The ridge lines on the watershed are a maze with hardly any posts close to the line or any demarcation.
The current boundary, LAC between India and China in eastern Ladakh, is an outcome of bloody battles fought in 1962 between the two countries in this most rugged and inhospitable of terrains. These battles were fought in October-November at Daulat Begh Oldi (DBO), Galwan, and Hot Springs, areas astride Pangong Tso lake, Razangla and Demchok. Due to severely low temperatures and high casualties, these battles came to a halt and the Chinese withdrew to their bases. Similarly, the Indian Army also moved back to nearby bases. Since then, both militaries are present there in the absence of a formal political boundary settlement. Twenty-two rounds of boundary talks have taken place between the two nations, without any worthwhile outcome. India continues to claim the entire Aksai Chin and China claims areas along a line, best described by India as the line of “Chinese perception”.
The British left these boundaries un-demarcated. Its maps showed several lines, one running along the Kun-lun mountains, referred to as the Johnson-Ardagh line showing Aksai Chin as a territory within Jammu and Kashmir. Another is marked closer to the Karakoram Range described as the Macartney-MacDonald line and yet another line further west is called the Foreign Office Line. Post-Independence, these were left to the interpretation of stakeholders such as the rulers of Jammu and Kashmir, Tibet and the Indian and Chinese governments. Haphazard historical records, differing perceptions, and the machinations of cunning political leaders, left these lines to be deciphered by experts from both sides, albeit unsuccessfully. Meanwhile, the militaries of both sides have been left to hold ground that is divided by this history.
While India published its map in 1954, with the international border (IB) showing Aksai Chin as Indian territory, the Chinese built the western highway through Aksai Chin in 1955 linking Tibet with Kashgarh and Xingjiang. With India’s claims as they stand, the Chinese would have considered it prudent to secure the area west of this sensitive highway. This was to be best achieved by dominating the ridge lines that run along the Karakoram Range between the watersheds of the Chip-Chap river and Galwan river, and then, moving further south-east along the ridge lines west of the Chang Chenmo Range. The Chinese concept of defending these areas is to keep the Indian forces at a stand-off distance from this highway. With the increasing ranges of artillery and surveillance resources, China seems desperate to push its claim lines further to the west. The Indian Army has a clear mandate to prevent any encroachment and alteration of LAC by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), not allowing the Chinese to unilaterally change the status of the boundary. The expression LAC was first used by Chinese Prime Minister Chou en-Lai himself in a letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959.
Today, the boundary in eastern Ladakh is over 800km with LAC being approximately 550km. Chinese patrols ensure they keep the passes off the watershed under domination so as not to allow the Indian troops to occupy the ground beyond. They continue to build tracks that generally emanate from the western highway and progressively move westward towards LAC to dominate the passes or crossing points. Hot Springs and Galwan are areas where both sides have been making roads and tracks. The Chinese have an advantage of terrain which is more open, plain and served by the western highway. Chinese patrols are fresh when they reach points of patrolling, often using centrally-heated vehicles.
LAC has neither been surveyed nor marked on the ground. It is a line drawn with a thick pen on the map. This could translate into anything like 100 metres on the ground. A tent pitched a few metres this way or that way along this line can create trouble. However, the tents that the PLA erected along LAC was from where it can see straight into the Galwan Nala, leading to the sensitive Indian Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road and, therefore, unacceptable to India, just as the PLA is sensitive to Indian domination of the western highway. Since 1993, many agreements have been signed between the two countries to resolve such matters peacefully and according to laid-out protocols. The agreement of 1996 mentions that military means shall not be used while dealing with such border situations.
In the absence of any boundary settlement, both sides have come face-to-face several times resulting in clashes, with recent ones being in 2013 at Depsang, Demckok and Chumar in eastern Ladakh. The incident at Galwan is a flashpoint of the worst kind in recent times. It can have serious ramifications when both nations have large conventional forces backed by nuclear weapons. Can the two countries afford to go to war that too when the world is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic? Why China would choose to display such belligerence at this time is open to a larger debate.