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India-China Border Dispute

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    30th May, 2020

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army clashed in Ladakh and Sikkim along the border recently in separate incidents, spiking tensions between the Asian neighbours.

Context

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army clashed in Ladakh and Sikkim along the border recently in separate incidents, spiking tensions between the Asian neighbours.

Background:

  • Tensions between India and China are not new. The two countries—which share the world’s longest unmarked border—fought a full-fledged war in 1962 and have since engaged in several small skirmishes.
  • Not since 1975 has a bullet been fired across their shared border. As a result, the theory that Sino-Indian clashes are flashes in the pan and unlikely to lead to more extensive fighting has become a widely held consensus.
  • Recent events, however, suggest that escalations are highly possible. Both sides have substantial—and growing—military deployments along a mostly disputed border.
  • And for more than a decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been testing India’s military readiness and political resolve along several strategic areas.
  • The last major stand-off between the two sides took place at Doklam in 2017 when the two armies faced off against each other for 73 days.
  • The development comes as India, like most of the world, is focused on arresting the spread of the novel coronavirus, which first surfaced in China in December.

Analysis

Marking the India-China border

  • The border between India and China is not clearly demarcated throughout.
  • Along certain stretches of its 3,488-km length, there is no mutually agreed Line of Actual Control (LAC).
  • India, following Independence, believed it had inherited firm boundaries from the British, but this was contrary to China’s view.
  • China felt the British had left behind a disputed legacy on the boundary between the two newly formed republics.
  • The India-China border is divided into three sectors
    • Western: The boundary dispute in the Western Sector pertains to the Johnson Line proposed by the British in the 1860s that extended up to the Kunlun Mountains and put Aksai Chin in the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
    • Middle: In the Middle Sector, the dispute is a minor one. It is the only one where India and China have exchanged maps on which they broadly agree.
    • Eastern: The disputed boundary in the Eastern Sector of the India-China border is over the MacMahon Line.



  • Nearly six decades have passed since then, but the border issue remains unresolved. It has turned into one of the most protracted border disputes in the world.

The current issue

  • On May 5, Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed near the Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh.
  • It is believed that the skirmish took place because the PLA had objected to Indian military patrols in the area.
  • Most of these clashes apparently stemfrom differing assessments of the location of the so-called Line of Actual Control—the de facto international border.
  • And then on May 9, at an altitude of 15,000 feet, in the Naku La region near Tibet, soldiers from both sides came to blows and threw stones at each other mostly in efforts to induce the Indian troops to move back from the areas they were patrolling.
  • No arms were used but several dozen soldiers were injured, including a senior Indian officer who was required to be airlifted to a hospital.

Reason behind such face-offs

  • Face-off and stand-off situations occur along the LAC in areas where India and China have overlapping claim lines.
  • The LAC has never been demarcated. Differing perceptions are particularly acute in around two dozen spots across the Western (Ladakh), Middle (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), Sikkim, and Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors of the India-China border.
  • The boundary in the Sikkim sector is broadly agreed, but has not been delineated. Face-offs occur when patrols encounter each other in the contested zones between overlapping claim lines.
  • Protocols agreed to in 2005 and 2013 detail rules of engagement to prevent such incidents, but have not always been adhered to.

Why the LAC is not clarified?

  • India has long proposed an exercise to clarify differing perceptions of the LAC to prevent such incidents.
  • Maps were exchanged in the Middle Sector, but the exercise fell through in the Western Sector where divergence is the greatest.
  • China has since rejected this exercise, viewing it as adding another complication to the on-going boundary negotiations.
  • India’s argument is rather than agree on one LAC, the exercise could help both sides understand the claims of the other, paving the way to regulate activities in contested areas until a final settlement of the boundary dispute.

The conflict ahead

The likelihood of settlement appears remote. At present, the most realistic solution would involve only minor adjustments along the Line of Actual Control. Though, neither side would be willing to part with territory already held.

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