Tensions escalated at Galwan and Pangong Tso areas in the Western sector of Ladakh, due to the aggression of Chinese troops resulting in the death of 20 Indian Army personnel and about 43 Chinese troops on June 15. India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar spoke to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to convey India’s strong protest. He also raised concerns over Chinese troops violating the June 6 local commanders’ de-escalation plan. China had tried to change the status quo along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Dr Jaishankar stated that the unprecedented incident in Ladakh will have “serious impact on the bilateral relationship” between the two countries. Both Ministers, however, agreed to address the issue “in a responsible manner”.
The incident in Galwan came along with a series of border incidents that have been rattling regional security since the Chinese troops transgressed in Naku La in Sikkim, Pangong Tso and Galwan areas in Ladakh since May 5. While Naku La incident has been de-escalated, innumerable incidents of fisticuffs and stone-throwing erupted in the Ladakh region when China’s troops and military equipment were placed in the Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC).
While the LAC has not been defined, and is a matter for the Special Representatives of the two countries to discuss, both sides had agreed to maintain status quo on the border. However, in violation of the status quo agreement, China had brazenly conducted a series of unwanted activities on the Indian borders.
China had been transgressing along the boundary unnecessarily. Chinese troops had “intruded” at Depsang Plains on April 15-May 6, 2013 in the Ladakh sector. Subsequently, China’s troops transgressed at Chumar in September 2014 coinciding with the visit of President Xi Jinping to New Delhi. Chumar in the Western sector also witnessed another major transgression in September and November of 2015. China’s transgressions in Barahoti in the Middle Sector of the border in May 2016 surprised India as it was generally acknowledged that this is the least disputed area.
The Doklam incident of June-August 2017, at the Bhutan-China borders trijunction with Indian state of Sikkim was more serious. The 73-day stand-off was in violation of China’s commitment to maintain status quo position with India as mentioned in the 2012 Special Representative meeting but also it’s undertaking with Bhutan on similar lines.
The fact that more such incidents happened later suggests that China’s strategy is to unilaterally change the status quo in the border areas. In 2017 and 2018, Tuting and Dibang incidents occurred in the border areas of Arunachal Pradesh, while in 2019, stone throwing incident was reported from Pangong Tso Lake.
China has been building a number of infrastructure projects like roads, railways, airfields and fibre optics in Tibet and Xinjiang; Beijing also has been trying to change the local dynamics, specifically for facilitating transfer of its troops to the LAC. China has been constructing under-ground defence networks and other military facilities in the border areas. This has substantially changed the regional dynamics as mentioned by India several times.
The latest incident at Galwan comes in the background of the serious violations by China of the bilateral agreements with India. A series of confidence building measures (CBMs) were made since the flag meeting at Chushul in Western Sector in 1978. These include the 1993 Peace and Tranquillity agreement, CBMs in the military field in 1996, the October 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement – these all have laid down specific procedures to address border transgressions and prevent conflict between the troops.
However, the killing of 20 Indian Army personnel upsets all the institutional arrangements assiduously built over decades. Moreover, the incident revived memories of violent clashes in 1962, 1967 and 1975.
Dr Jaishankar’s assertion is not only to remind China about the implementation of the bilateral agreements between the two countries but also against the pitfalls of Chinese troops’ misadventures on Indian borders.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, India wants peace; however, India is also capable of giving a befitting reply.
Script: Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli, Chinese Studies Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University