Where Does the India-China Border Dispute Stand Now, and What Can We Expect?

The impasse on the LAC will soon become a battle of survival on the Himalayan heights, where both sides are bedding in for winter.

The standoff astride the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh is in a stalemate since the stand-still agreement between military commanders on September 21 (next round of talks is on October 12). There has been no breakthrough in the disengagement and de-escalation process (DDP), which had collapsed soon after the Galwan clash.

As speculated, China has unilaterally promulgated its 1959 claim line annexing nearly 1,000 square km of Indian territory. An anonymous member of the Chinese Foreign Office has acknowledged an ‘earnest pursuit’ of the 1959 claim line to an Indian newspaper. India responded with a barrage of angry official rejections of such claims.

This is the fait accompli that many had feared. It has not only prevented the Indian Army from patrolling up to its claim line but also pushed it back from positions it earlier held from some places. At one level, India is still in denial by not acknowledging the five-month-long multiple intrusions, still referring to them as transgressions and lately as trespassing, the term Chinese used for Indian intervention at Doklam. Its faith in dialogue and diplomacy remains steadfast.

During the ongoing confrontation, all the heavy lifting has been done by the Army and Air Force as the top political leadership has opted for discretion, leaving valour for soldiers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made abstract statements on the border without naming China; foreign minister S. Jaishankar, otherwise loquacious, has been reticent and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval conspicuously silent.

Only defence minister Rajnath Singh has done the talking about transgressions and bleak prospects of a positive outcome from DDP. He made a sanitised parliamentary statement which was high on rhetoric but skirted ground realities. Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, who has relegated Army Chief M.M. Naravane to the margins, and Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria have been baiting the enemy. India’s autonomous diplomacy has been unable to revive the comatose DDP, and extra-regional force multipliers like the Indo-Pacific and Quad have not materially influenced the military balance along the LAC in India’s favour.

From Day 1, it was clear that the military option was never on the table, certainly not for the eviction of People’s Liberation Army intrusions. A counter-intrusion immediately after multiple encroachments were detected – like a Chumar, after Depsang in 2013 – was feasible but not attempted as New Delhi seriously misread Chinese intention, believing Beijing would honour existing protocols and agreements and ultimately vacate aggression, as in the past. But this time around, restoration status quo ante (RSQA) was never on the Chinese mind. Still, India made much of the arrival of 5 Rafale aircraft of which three were trainers, IAF edge in local air superiority, conduct of multiple missile tests, and the seasoned Indian Army’s supremacy in the mountains over Chinese conscripts lack of it, were the latter to test Indian defences on the Ladakh range.

Also read: As LAC Standoff Forces Deployment of More Troops, Winter Presents a Daunting Challenge

Prudently, the government realised that given the power differential, the best course of action was dialogue, but only after blocking in strength the multiple intrusions, especially the one opposite Depsang in order to shield the strategic Daulat Beg Oldie airfield and garrison. The preemptive occupation of Kailash Range and Chushul heights has given India a bargaining chip. The government’s failure to provide a factual and official account of Chinese ingress has led to avoidable multiple stories about PLA military activities along the LAC, including the Galwan clash. A Chinese military source has finally admitted that its casualties at Galwan were five soldiers killed, including the commanding officer, which corresponds to the account in circulation immediately after the clash. If this is true, the disparity in casualties is astounding: 20 Indians killed including a CO, 76 wounded and 10 including three officers held in custody but later released. The Galwan memorial, a traditional tribute to martyrs, will not tell the true story but the Court of Enquiry will.

The Ministry of Defence has been particularly inept in the suppression of information. First it took down from its website the specifications of intrusions it had displayed for 72 hours; secondly, it removed from the website the military’s account of its operational readiness: “Indian Army is fully prepared and more than capable to fight full-fledged war even in winter in East Ladakh. Indian Army has more experience in Siachen where conditions are more demanding than frontiers with China.”

This was a riposte to a Global Times bait that the Indian Army will not be able to withstand the harsh conditions in Ladakh. Persistence in denial on the situation along the LAC was best illustrated when Rajya Sabha chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu not once but twice requested Singh to brief a select group of parliamentarians, which was never done. Truth is, the Indian forces are currently deployed far behind the LAC India proclaimed in 1993 after the agreement on peace and tranquility between Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao and Li Peng.

The Chinese, on the other hand, have shown marked deftness in land-grab facilitated by sharp and smart military action, supported by an information war, psy war and influence peddling. China has achieved its political objective of securing the 1959 historic claim line. Still to be accomplished is converting the de facto into de jure and preserving  the military gains. The challenge for China is in maintaining its 1959 claim line as well as normal bilateral relations with India.

Jaishankar has been exceptionally eloquent about choices India has to make in an uncertain world where disruptions are causing  agreements to be replaced with convergences. While Jaishankar is advocating taking risks and being more proactive, calling China a threat is marked with strategic hesitation. Over the last decade and more, India has leaned towards the US and its strategic vision of Indo-Pacific and its adjunct Quad – a clear concept of containing China regardless of the spin given to it.

Modi’s articulation of the Indo-Pacific at the Shangrila Dialogue contradicted the idea of containment. As Jaishankar recently said during the release of his book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, “strategic autonomy must not become strategic ambiguity”. India is trending that way. During this week’s second Quad ministerial conference in Tokyo, where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Chinese actions along LAC a gross aggression, Jaishankar was guarded and talked about “respect for territorial integrity, sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes”. India is not ready and willing to take the risk of making a choice yet. New Delhi worries endlessly about how Beijing will react as it believes a border settlement is achievable through dialogue and that could end India’s China challenge.

Watch: ‘By Standing Up to China’s Bullying, India’s Image Has Risen Several Notches’

Former NSA Shivshankar Menon said recently that the strategic framework constructed in 1988 with China is past its use-by date. A new compact is needed. He also said that between 2014 and 2019, Modi and Xi Jinping met 18 times including two summits which contained the Wuhan Joint Strategic Guidance. And yet, seven months later, the PLA  carried out premeditated multiple intrusions inspired by a history of ingress starting 1986 to 2013 to 2014 and 2017 – the last two under Xi-Modi watch. There is a message there. It used to be said that healthy trade relations are conducive to resolving political differences. The India-China border dispute has not eased one bit despite the nearly $100 billion two-way trade slanted in China’s favour.

The impasse on the LAC will soon become a battle of survival on the Himalayan heights, where both sides are bedding in for winter. Withdrawal of troops and RSQA appear most unlikely without India accepting China’s 1959 claim line, which will be political hara-kiri for the Modi government. Equally, Xi cannot do in 2020 what he did in 2014 and 2017 – order the PLA to return to the barracks. If by some miracle a deal can be struck between Xi and Modi at the virtual meeting on the margins of the BRICS summit to be hosted by Moscow in mid November, it will at best be an uneasy truce.

Unfortunately, by then India will not be able to withdraw its troops due to closure of passes. The best-case scenario looks something like this: Chinese PLA sitting pretty on a forcibly claimed LAC confronted by Indian forces. India will be seen sitting on the fence, unable to make strategic choices ironically due to its highly coveted strategic autonomy.

General Ashok K. Mehta was part of the monitoring team of Defence Planning Staff in MoD of the year long PLA intrusion at Sumdorong chu in 1987/88.