Excerpt: Understanding the India China Border by Manoj Joshi

Apr 08, 2023 01:09 PM IST

This edited extract from a new book on the border issue looks at what led to the Galwan clash

The Sino–Indian relationship is actually a complex equation where there are some constants like the boundary dispute, the United States and Tibet, and a number of variables at a given time, like the economic condition, domestic political situation, geopolitical orientations and so on. What happened in 2020 was the consequence of a growing disequilibrium that has been developing for a while in that equation...

A signboard seen from the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in Arunachal Pradesh in a picture dated November 11, 2009. (Adnan Abidi /REUTERS) PREMIUM
A signboard seen from the Indian side of the Indo-China border at Bumla, in Arunachal Pradesh in a picture dated November 11, 2009. (Adnan Abidi /REUTERS)

The two countries had fought a short war in 1962 and now have powerful militaries and nuclear weapons. Though they have not been able to resolve their boundary dispute in this period, they were remarkably successful in managing the border peacefully well into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Through a variety of protocols, mechanisms, as well as border personnel meetings, beginning with the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) of 1993, they had a record of not having had a single shot fired in anger across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that marked their contested 4,000-km border since 1975.

289pp, ₹599; HarperCollins
289pp, ₹599; HarperCollins

In the 2000–2020 period, as they developed the infrastructure along their... border, the friction between them had begun to increase... In some measure it was on account of developments in Tibet that led to a final breakdown of the reconciliation dialogue that had been taking place between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. The India-US entente, which was manifested markedly in the growth of their military ties, played its own role in the situation.

Incidents along the LAC such as those in Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014 and along the Pangong Tso in 2017 and 2019, were managed through standard operating procedures worked out earlier. However, even at the time... news filtered out and was amplified by the media and social media, bringing pressure to bear on the respective governments...

The second India–China informal summit in Chennai in October 2019 was expected to stabilize relations between the two countries...

Then what happened in four months to change all that in March 2020?

It would be simple, if not simplistic, to attribute the blame to Chinese perfidy. And argue that the informal summits were all an elaborate scheme of deception to lull the Indians into a sense of complacency. But Xi Jinping had also invested substantial time as well as political capital in participating in the somewhat unusual informal summits that had been held in 2018 and 2019. In the process he had arguably spent more time with Modi than any other foreign leader. So why throw it all away?

The reality, however, is that things did not change in four months, but had been doing so for nearly a decade. As Shivshankar Menon put it: “roughly since 2012 the basic understanding on which you maintained your border from 1988 onwards was no longer valid.” That was the year Xi Jinping became General Secretary, and “the balance of power had shifted” against India. When the process of detente began in 1988, the economies of the two countries were roughly equal; in 2012, the Chinese GDP was five times larger.

For the Chinese, Indian behaviour on the border, and in general, now became inexplicable. Instead of accepting that it was now irretrievably behind China in almost all aspects of national power, New Delhi insisted on intensifying its efforts to match Chinese capabilities on the Sino–Indian border...

Sinologist M Taylor Fravel has noted that the Chinese have viewed their border dispute with India as a secondary threat that must be “managed,” rather than be overwhelmed or eliminated. India, he said, “has never been China’s main or primary opponent.”... Going by the past record, Fravel said, “China has sought to prevent the dispute from dominating its relationship with India, in order to pursue other goals linked with economic growth and to expand Chinese influence around the world.”

A view of Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh. (Mukesh Gupta/REUTERS)
A view of Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh. (Mukesh Gupta/REUTERS)

Looking back, it would appear that the incidents on the border... were linked to Chinese proposals in the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) and the Code of Conduct on border affairs, to freeze Indian construction in the border areas. But the Indian process... began to move at a much faster pace in the last decade. The completion of the Darbuk Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road in 2019 was an important marker of the Indian determination to maintain some kind of a parity with China.

Another important marker of Indian behaviour was the Doklam episode of 2017 when China was outplayed because its forces found themselves in a militarily disadvantageous position...

It was following this incident that the PLA reviewed its entire posture along the Sino–Indian border and began a systematic build up which involved stationing more forces proximate to the LAC, plugging gaps in the air defence system and hardening airfields and helipads. As part of this, the decision was probably taken to iron out the Line of Actual Control wherever possible... The scope of the action, involving the movement of two divisions of the PLA to positions adjacent to the Line of Actual Control would have been planned over a year, and would have had the approval at the highest level in the Central Military Commission (CMC), which includes its chairman, Xi Jinping.

But this act of strategic coercion went out of control on the icy banks of the Galwan river. The incident which, was triggered by an unexpected Indian action, led to casualties. The Chinese could not have expected that the whole situation would blow up in the way it did. Note that for its part... the government of India has tried its best to limit the fallout of the action, even denying any incursion had occurred. Even now they have not given us a clear picture of the more consequential PLA ingresses in places like the Depsang Plains, the Kugrang valley, Gogra Hot Springs and the Charding Ninglung Nala area, south of Demchok.

Author Manoj Joshi (Tribhuvan Tiwari/Courtesy Siyahi)
Author Manoj Joshi (Tribhuvan Tiwari/Courtesy Siyahi)

But the government of India found it politically impossible to sweep the Galwan issue under the carpet after 20 Indian soldiers died, more than a hundred were injured and a similar number taken prisoner. PLA intransigence in the disengagement negotiations through July and August 2020 compelled them to allow the Indian Army to undertake an operation along the south bank of Pangong Tso that provided India with a lever in the situation. The Chinese options were now stark. They could have escalated the situation, but a favourable outcome was not guaranteed. So they figured it was simply not worth it to do so, especially since India remained, in Fravel’s terms, a secondary direction.

But the move of the scale that the Chinese undertook in April-May 2020 cannot be explained by one causative factor alone. Associated with this was the belief that India was adopting this posture, encouraged by its growing military ties with the United States. Chinese scholar Ye Hailin has suggested that the US is the crucial element that is preventing India from accepting its position in the regional hierarchy as a subordinate power. China led India on almost any parameter of national power, yet, “The US’s rejection of China is enough to offset China’s power advantage over other actors.” He went on to lament that “it is difficult to prove who has the higher absolute international status between the sub-power [India] supported by the hegemony [US] and the power [China] suppressed by the hegemony.”

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