In an article in the July issue of the Chinese embassy magazine China-India Review, Chinese ambassador Sun Weidong has squarely blamed India for the events of the past months in eastern Ladakh. But he said China is ready to work with India to uphold peace on the border.
But a hundred days after the first incident on the Sino-Indian border in the finger area of Pangong Tso, the Indian officers negotiating with their Chinese counterparts are finding their attitude anything but cooperative. While three-km buffer zones have been created in the Galwan Valley (Patrolling Point 14) and Hot Springs area (PP15), there has been no change in the situation in Pangong Tso, the Gogra (PP 17 and 17 A) area and, crucially, the Depsang Plains.
It may be recalled that a clash in the Galwan river at PP14 had led to the deaths of 20 Indian Army personnel, and 10 being taken prisoner but released shortly thereafter. The number of Chinese killed or wounded remains a matter of speculation.
The seriousness of this event was underscored by the fact that these were the first casualties along the Line of Actual Control since 1975. This was despite the fact that the LAC is not marked on any mutually agreed map, and there are known points of difference along its 4,000 km length. This is because the two sides had built up an elaborate regime of border management through which each patrolled to the limits of its claim of the LAC and dealt with confrontations through elaborate protocols.
Now all that has gone up in smoke and what we have is a tense confrontation along the entire length of the LAC. Behind the frontline troops, both sides have built up significant concentrations of war-waging materiel – tanks, artillery guns, missiles, fighter jets and so on.
Ambassador Sun’s article gives us an indication of the Chinese position. It is built on post-facto rationalisation. He maintains the current Chinese official line that the LAC runs along the estuary of the Galwan river, that is, either where the river has a confluence with the Shyok river flowing north to south as the term estuary is commonly understood) or near the ‘Y-bend’ in the Galwan river where the two sides clashed on June 15, as at least one Chinese map suggests. He claims that on June 6, India had agreed they would not cross the estuary of the river and both sides would build observation posts on either side of the mouth of the river. The facts are that the LAC is a good 5-6 kms away from the mouth of the river. Chinese officials had themselves given their Indian counterparts the latitude 78° 13’E, 34° 46’N as the point where it crosses the Galwan river. That is a good 0.5 km from the bend of the river where PP14 is located.
The Patrolling Points we have referred to are not new. They were set up in the late 1970s by the Government of India’s China Study Group. Which means Indian patrols have been going there routinely all these years and the Chinese could not have but known about them. In turn, India is familiar with where the Chinese patrol, and hence claim. And while there is an overlap of claims in Depsang and Pangong Tso, there was none in Gogra, Hotsprings and Galwan river valley. As the Indian spokesman noted on June 25, “Indian troops are fully familiar with the alignment of the LAC in all sectors of the India-China border areas and abide scrupulously by it.”
Ironically, Ambassador Sun has cited Article 1 of the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement and Article II of the 1996 Agreement on CBMs and claims that they prohibit either side from overstepping the LAC, which is true. But he ignores the latter part of Article I of the 1993 agreement which says that the two sides will jointly work together to clarify the LAC, wherever “they have different views as to its alignment.” Or Article X of the 1996 agreement that calls on two sides “to sped up, the process of clarification and confirmation of the line of actual control.”
Despite urging by India, especially personally by Prime Minister Modi in 2014 and 2015, that the two sides clarify the LAC to prevent the kind of incidents that have now occurred, the Chinese have ignored these commitments. Even now, they show no inclination to clarify the LAC.
Ambassador Sun’s case is built on the specious argument that the Indian side crossed the LAC and therefore the onus is on India to set things right. But that is simply untrue. For reasons of its own, China has raised temperatures along the LAC, and as we have shown in the case of Galwan they are making a retroactive claim. Perhaps the Chinese want the LAC to be at the estuary, because that will give them a clear view of the Daulat Beg Oldi-Darbuk road. But wanting to be somewhere is not the same as having the right to be there.
As for the Government of India, it continues to waffle because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ill-considered statement to the all-party meeting on June 19 that “neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our posts captured”. On June 28, Modi doubled down on the claim by declaring grandiosely in his Mann Ki Baat broadcast that “those who cast an evil eye on Indian soil in Ladakh have got a befitting response”.
The Ministry of Defence’s now withdrawn note of early August made it very clear that the prime minister was clearly being economical with the truth. According to the note, “Chinese aggression has been increasing along the LAC and more particularly Galwan Valley since 5th May, 2020.” The Chinese side, the note added, “transgressed”, which is the MoD terminology for Chinese incursions, “in the areas of Kugrang Nala (near Hot Springs, Gogra and north bank of Pangong Lake on 17-18 May, 2020”.
As per the note, “the situation in eastern Ladakh arising from unilateral aggression by China continues to be sensitive.” Part (iii) of the note says that despite diplomatic efforts, “the present standoff is likely to be prolonged”.
As winter sets in, two months from now, both the Chinese and the Indian side will be fighting General Winter who dictates his own schedule. Meanwhile diplomacy between the two countries is now in uncharted waters since an element of trust that is always needed in bilateral relations has melted away.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.