Ripples in India-China relations

Col B S Nagial (Retd)
On 09 Dec 2022, the Indian Army (IA) troops encountered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops who had crossed over the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This was an attempt by Chinese troops to change the status quo of LAC unilaterally. But they couldn’t succeed in their sinister design due to the timely intervention of IA troops. This transgression took place in the Yangtse area of the Tawang Sector.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said on 13 Dec 2022 in the Indian Parliament that our troops contested the Chinese attempt firmly and resolutely. The ensuing face-off resulted in a physical scuffle with IA troops, who bravely pushed back the Chinese troops. He further added that this scuffle didn’t cause any casualties, but troops from both sides sustained minor injuries.
However, it was reported on 13 Dec 2022 in the Global Times (the Chinese English daily) that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops were on patrol duty on the Chinese side of the LAC in the eastern section of the China-India border. On Friday when Indian troops illicitly crossed the line and blocked the Chinese forces. It is pertinent to mention that patrol only consists of a few troops, not 300 or 400 soldiers. Also, they came in the later half of the night, that too in the month of December. This is the blatant lie of our adversary to hide the actual intent. This move of the Chinese troops could have been a Battalion level attack, and an area chosen by it indicated the intent of the Chinese. And this is a serious matter, and India must take note of this and plan its future strategy.
This skirmish took place in the early hours of the morning when the troops of the PLA crossed the LAC and tried to storm the Indian Post in the Yangtse region, which is located 25 km away from Tawang. IA troops confronted Chinese troops. Also, the Indian Air Force (IAF) came into action and scrambled their fighter jets to counter the increased activities of the Chinese Air Force. It is reported that there were aerial deployment platforms, including drones, preceding this incident.
The situation has been diffused after the talks between military commanders on the ground, but IA and IAF are monitoring the situation very closely. India has also raised the issue diplomatically with China.
In June 2020, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a fray in the Galway River valley, which resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers. International media claimed more than 40 Chinese soldiers were killed. However, the Chinese authorities didn’t confirm any casualties.
In June 2017, Indian and Chinese troops clashed in Doklam. In this area, Chinese troops started constructing the road in disputed territories and tried to change the status of LAC unilaterally. In 1987 there was the Sumdorong Chu standoff, Chao la clash in 1967 and Nathu La in 1962.
India and China have historically maintained their peaceful relations for thousands of years. However, the harmony of this relationship was disrupted when the Chinese Communist Party came into power in 1949 and annexed Tibet unilaterally. This move of China created one of the longest-delineated borders in the world. The adjacency of the Chinese military presence so close to the newly self-created frontier caused considerable discomposure in New Delhi. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Girija Shankar Bajpai impelled the then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to augment the military and administrative presence along India’s northeast region. However, Nehru and India’s ambassador to China, K.M. Pannikar, were unwilling to upset their northern neighbour and affirmed that India would not actively follow the border dispute with Beijing but would overtly announce their endorsement of the McMahon Line as India’s border. On the other hand, Beijing was less worried by the position of the shared border as the new communist regime was more involved in consolidating its authority at home, suppressing uprisings, poverty alleviation, agriculture crises, and fears of invasion by the US and the nationalist government of the Republic of China in exile in Taiwan.
Consequently, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership saw it appropriate to put the boundary issue on the back burner until they were well-prepared to address it. Thus China came up with the policy of ‘salami slicing’, which in military parlance, is described as a strategy that involves a divide-and-conquer process of threats and alliances to overcome opposition and acquire new territories. The occupation of Tibet, the illegal occupation of Aksai Chin and the annexation of the Paracel Islands are some glaring examples of Chinese expansionist policy. China follows a particular pattern in acquiring territory in its neighbourhood.
So the recent Chinese move in Twang should not be attributed to the issues such as the ongoing Indian Parliament session, the proposal for construction of the 1800 kms long road along with the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh, the presidency of G-20, robust economic growth or even for that matter the recent joint military exercises conducted by India and the US in Uttarakhand, which is very close to LAC.
China has a bundle of grave domestic crises like the drying up of rivers, power shortage, economic slowdown, demographic crisis, protests, particularly the aftermath of Zero-Covid restrictions and rising unemployment among youth.
The border dispute remains one of the significant issues affecting India-China relations. There are numerous factors at present which linger on the border dispute:
Firstly, the geographical composition of the disputed areas. The ruggedness, featureless terrain and extreme weather conditions make the task difficult to determine the exact position, hence the border issue remains elusive.
Secondly, there is an asymmetry in the urgency level for the border dispute settlement. In divergence with New Delhi’s efforts seeking a quick settlement, Beijing has repeatedly avoided any acceleration of the resolution process, stating that the border dispute is an intricate issue and should be negotiated only when conditions are favourable. The primary reason for this approach is different is that the disputed border does not posture a security threat to China. Therefore Beijing is willing to wait for a more beneficial resolution. In contrast, New Delhi sees the border dispute as a source of instability and worries and that China would use the unresolved border to bully India.
Thirdly, inhibiting the resolution of the border dispute is intense nationalism in both countries. For China, the border dispute is intrinsically linked to Tibet and the Dalai Lama. Since the CCP has always projected the Tibetan government-in-exile in a negative light, territorial concessions involving Tawang will not only endanger China’s own rule in Tibet but will also be seen as domestically a sign of weakness. As far as India is concerned, no political party could propose a territorial exchange with China without risking its electoral prospects. The memories of the 1962 India-China war continue to haunt the Indian national psyche.
Lastly, new issues have begun to stir trouble in India-China bilateral ties and the boundary dispute. India’s concerns regarding China’s diversion of the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra river water, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and China’s growing influence in South Asia have emerged as new irritants for Indian policymakers. Similarly, Beijing too is annoyed by India’s increasing proximity to Southeast Asian countries and its diplomatic-military exchanges with the US, Japan, and Australia. These issues further erode political will in both countries. Hence the territorial exchange by swap or political settlement appears discouraging.