In a violent clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh on June 15, 2020, 20 Indian Army personnel, including the commanding officer of 16 Bihar, were killed. Ten Indian soldiers detained by the Chinese army were later released on the evening of June 18, 2020 after three days of Major-General level talks between the two sides.
June 15 was the first occasion when blood was spilt on the Indo-China border between the armed forces since the Tulung La incident on October 20, 1975, when a patrol of Assam Rifles Jawans was attacked by the Chinese at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh, killing four. No major military conflict has taken place between India and China since the Nathu La and Cho La clashes in September 1967. The current military confrontation is a sharp departure from a half-century-long stalemate on border issues despite differences over the exact demarcation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is the apparent cause of the current conflict.
Line of Actual Control, unlike Line of Control, is not an actual line on any map that two countries agree upon. India and Pakistan have a mutually agreed Line of Control, which is the international boundary officially separating the two sovereign nations. But India and China have an LAC, which can best be described as a notional boundary that separates areas controlled by the two countries. The disagreements that prompt military conflicts on the border relate to the exact location of the LAC, the definitive ascertainment of which has always been the purpose of all talks on border issues between India and China.
The Indo-China Border
The 3,488 km long LAC (by some accounts 2,100 miles or 3379 km), which China pegs at 2000 km, stretches across Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim (eastern sector, along the McMahon Line of 1914); Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (middle sector); and Ladakh (western sector). In these three sectors, there are some 23 contested areas identified over the years, out of which there are frequent “face-offs” at 13 or so places, which happens when Indian and Chinese patrolling troops run into each other. However, until recently, no significant military engagement had occurred.
It is the western sector where most of the hotly disputed points on the LAC lie.
The LAC in this sector first emerged from the interaction between Jawaharlal Nehru and the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The Chinese Prime Minister spoke of the LAC the first time in a letter written to Nehru on November 7, 1959, in which he referred to the LAC as stretching “from the so-called McMahon Line in the east, and from the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”. The LAC was not precisely identified and was “described only in general terms on maps not to scale”, according to Shivshankar Menon (Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy, 2016).
In 1954 and 1956, Nehru took up the matter of Chinese activity on the Indian side of the boundary and the issue of the incorrect Chinese maps with Premier Zhou, who told Nehru that the issue was being looked into and that the maps were old Kuomintang maps. Zhou further assured Nehru that China had no claims on Indian territory, which was believable, as the 1954 Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between India and the Tibet Region of China included specific mention of several passes to be used for border trade, which was pretty much in line with the Indian understanding of the Indo-China border (Menon: 2016).
Origins of the dispute
In fact, at no time prior to 1960 did China deviate from the understanding, and it was only in 1960 that China took the position that the mention of the mountain passes for border trade did not make them actual boundary passes (Menon: 2016). After the unilateral ceasefire in 1962, the Chinese claim that they had withdrawn 20 km behind the LAC of November 1959 was meaningless for Nehru, who had rejected the idea even during the 1962 war saying, “There is no sense or meaning in the Chinese offer to withdraw twenty kilometres from what they call ‘line of actual control’.”
What is this ‘line of control’? Is this the line they have created by aggression since the beginning of September?Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962
In a letter to Nehru written on November 4, 1962, Zhou Enlai clarified LAC as follows: “To put it concretely, in the eastern sector it coincides in the main with the so-called McMahon Line, and in the western and middle sectors it coincides in the main with the traditional customary line which has consistently been pointed out by China” (Menon: 2016).
It seemed that China was willing to settle the LAC in terms of the status quo that had emerged from the 1962 war, but the persistent problem with the Indo-China LAC has been a lack of certainty with regard to the clear demarcation of the areas under the control of India and China. Up to which point does each of the two sides exercise actual control in the bordering areas between the two countries is far from settled at many places along the LAC owing to different “perceptions” of the LAC between the two countries. Since the idea of LAC is grounded in the actual control of regions along the border, the LAC has remained fluid, which makes the LAC referred to in 1959, 1960, and 1962 incompatible with each other, and that has been the source of both confusion and conflict.
Watch: Nehru receives Zhou in India
Towards a consensus
Finally, in 1993 when the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, or the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) for short, was signed between India and China, the agreement did not refer to the LAC of any particular time, which meant that the LAC referred to was the LAC as it stood on the day the agreement came into force. The agreement does contemplate possible differences of perception regarding the LAC, and in that regard states:
“When necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the line of actual control where they have different views as to its alignment.”
The agreement of 1996 on confidence-building measures was signed on November 29, 1996, pursuant to the 1993 agreement, and provides that “pending an ultimate solution to the boundary question, the two sides reaffirm their commitment to strictly respect and observe the line of actual control in the India-China border areas. No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control.” Article X of the 1996 agreement reflects the agreement to “speed up” the process of “clarification and confirmation of the line of actual control”, and states that “as an initial step in this process, they are clarifying the alignment of the line of actual control in those segments where they have different perceptions. They also agree to exchange maps indicating the irrespective perceptions of the entire alignment of the line of actual control as soon as possible.”
The process of clarifying the LAC by the exchange of maps has been at a standstill since 2002 when China abandoned the exercise of exchanging maps in the western sector.
However, despite differences of perception in the western sector, the areas of Galwan and Hot Spring, where the Indian and Chinese armies are currently in conflict, were considered settled positions and do not figure on the list of 23 disputed positions on the LAC.
There is a clear distinction that is often ignored or not well understood between the territorial claim (or claim line) and the LAC. The LAC is where the de facto control is exercised by each side whereas territorial claim is the entire territory with respect to which a territorial claim is made by a nation. For instance, India claims all of 38,000 sq km on the other side of the LAC across Aksai Chin; but observes the LAC that passes through the valley leaving the territory under the control of China.
Similarly at Pangong Tso, which is another point of conflict currently, India’s territorial claim extends to Finger 8 whereas China’s claim extends to Finger 4, the “fingers” being mountain spurs running from west to east on the northern bank of the river. Both India and China have patrolled this area up to their respective LACs at Finger 8 and Finger 4, but of late Chinese troops have put up tents effectively disallowing Indian troops from accessing the area between Finger 4 and Finger 8 resulting in a military conflict.
It seems China is trying to redraw the LAC unilaterally and has violated all the bilateral agreements aimed at maintaining peace at the Indo-China border in the process.
It is not very clear why China has chosen to jeopardize its relations with India for a border dispute that was giving little trouble to either side.
What is clear is that the current conflict is not a minor skirmish and has the potential to snowball into a serious military confrontation.