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What do Chinese intrusions across the Line of Actual Control Tell India?

Dr Pushpita Das is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 10, 2009

    A number of Chinese border intrusions across the Line of Actual Control have been reported in recent months. One such event near Mount Gya in the Chumar sector of Ladakh saw Chinese troops intruding 1.5 kilometres inside Indian territory and writing “China” on the rocks with red paint. The intrusion was first noticed by an Indian patrol team on July 31, 2009. An earlier incident of Chinese intrusion in this area reportedly took place on June 21st, when two Chinese M1 helicopters violated the Indian airspace and air dropped canned food at Chumar. While admitting that such an intrusion has indeed taken place, Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor played down the episode saying that the intrusion might have taken place because of navigational error. He also went on to state that such intrusions are not new and have been taking place for years. Minister of External Affairs, S. M. Krishna, also said that the border between India and China in the Ladakh sector is ‘most peaceful’ and such cases of intrusion would be sorted out through the ‘inbuilt mechanism’.

    This ‘inbuilt mechanism’ is the Border Personnel Meetings/Flag Meetings, which take place at regular intervals. The establishment of this mechanism for resolving such border transgressions can be traced to the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the China-India Border Areas of 1993. As far as the recent case of intrusion is concerned, it is reported that the regiment posted in the area under 14 Corps had taken up the matter with their Chinese counterparts during such a border meeting in August and had also lodged a formal protest. The Chinese side, however, denied the charges and maintained that border patrols by Chinese troops were ‘strictly conducted according to the law’ and they had never violated India’s land or air space. Despite Chinese denials, the fact remains that China has been intruding inside the Indian territory all along the LAC. The Indian Army has reportedly recorded 270 border violations and nearly 2,300 cases of “aggressive border patrolling” by Chinese soldiers last year. The point to note is that earlier such intrusions were frequently reported from Arunachal Pradesh, while lately incidences of Chinese border transgression are increasingly being reported from Sikkim and Ladakh, hitherto considered as peaceful sectors of the LAC.

    The reason behind the heightened Chinese incursions has been falsely attributed by many to the on-going strengthening of Indian military capability along the LAC – the deployment of Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter jets in Tezpur, raising of two additional mountain divisions for the defence of Arunachal Pradesh, the landing of AN-32 transport plane at Daulat Begh Oldhi, the proposed deployment of an AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) plane as ‘force multiplier’ in the Ladakh sector, and the construction of 27 strategic roads along the India-China border. It is being argued that Chinese border intrusions are a reaction to these developments. The reality is, however, quite different. China does not need any of these excuses to transgress the LAC. It has been doing so in the past and will continue to do so in future. The unsettled border and these incursions are nothing but a manifestation of the uneasy relationship which the two countries share. The slow and steady emergence of India as a strong power in Asia is not looked upon favourably by China. And this sentiment also adversely impacts on the attempts to resolve the border dispute amicably.

    China has had serious border disputes with many of its neighbours, and it chose to resolve those disputes only when it felt that the concerned neighbour was weak or when the latter acknowledged China’s superior status. In the early 1960s, in a bid to demonstrate to the world that it was a responsible country and a good neighbour, China concluded border agreements with Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These countries were militarily weak neighbours and did not have any serious ideological or political differences with China. Notably, many of those border agreements were preceded by Chinese propaganda and border incursions by Chinese troops. At this time, however, China did not settle its borders with India, Bhutan, Soviet Union, Vietnam and Laos. It even engaged in wars with India in 1962, Soviet Union in 1969 and Vietnam in 1979.

    As is often said, the best indication of strained relation between two countries is tensions across their shared borders. In the case of India, China felt threatened by India’s standing in the international forums and especially by its leadership role among the third world countries. This feeling of unease was compounded by the Khampa rebellion in Tibet and the subsequent flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. The strained relations between the two countries were manifested by Chinese territorial claims and increased skirmishes along the border, which culminated in the border war of 1962. As regards the Soviet Union, the ideological split and China’s attempt to supplant the USSR as the leader of the communist movement led to deteriorating relations, heightened border tensions and border clashes in 1969. Vietnam’s closer affinity for the Soviet Union gradually led to the souring of relations with China, which eventually culminated in the 1979 border war. China could not settle its borders with Bhutan and Laos, which chose to be guided by India and Vietnam, respectively, on the border issue.

    The second phase of Chinese border settlements with its neighbours started with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Negotiations to settle the border with Moscow began in 1987, and China and Russia concluded the border agreement in 1991. China also negotiated separate border agreements with Tajikistan, Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan. Border negotiations with Vietnam had resumed almost immediately after the 1979 border war, and a final agreement on their land border was signed on December 30, 1999. Incidentally, the text of the Land Border Treaty is not available in the public domain. China also signed a border agreement with Laos in 1992. The point to note is that all these border settlements resulted only in minor territorial changes, despite China’s extravagant territorial claims.

    Now, India and Bhutan are the only two countries with which China is yet to settle its border. In the case of Bhutan, news reports hinted that during the border talks in July 2005, Bhutan might have relented to Chinese pressure tactics and accepted a package deal. In 1996, Beijing had proposed the exchange of the 495 square kilometre area of Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in the northern borders of central Bhutan (which China claims) for Sinchulumpa, Dramana and Shakhtoe with an area of 269 sq km in north-west Bhutan. China has also been applying pressure tactics like large scale intrusions by Tibetan herdsmen and also by the PLA to keep Bhutanese border guards in tenterhooks and has also resorted to construction of roads inside Bhutanese territory. It appears that Bhutan is under pressure both from China and its own people to arrive at a final solution to the festering border problem, but till now there is no indication that it has been successful at arriving at an acceptable solution.

    Intrusions by Chinese troops into Indian territory are signals meant to assert China’s growing political and military stature as well as means to test India’s resolve. Given India’s gradual emergence as a powerful military and economic power in Asia, China is unlikely to be keen on settling the border issue till such time India slumps into a period of weakness. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the India-China border is likely to be characterised by tensions, incursions and skirmishes, interspersed with endless border negotiations. Given this, India needs to be prepared for any eventuality and calibrate its responses to Chinese intrusions.