Line of no control: The heightened threat of Indo-China military escalation
India Today Editor-in-Chief talks about why the LAC needs to become a settled international border if India and China are to pursue the well-being of their people, in the August 9, 2021 edition of the India Today Magazine.
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“Friends can be changed, not neighbours,” Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said in the Lok Sabha nearly two decades ago. He was speaking about Pakistan. The same could apply to China too. China’s invasion and annexation of Tibet in 1950-51 turned the two nations into neighbours for the first time in their post-colonial history. They inherited the unsettled boundaries bequeathed by the colonial British and Imperial China, which regarded Tibet as a vassal state. India lays claim to all of Aksai Chin, which connects the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. China lays claim to all of Arunachal Pradesh as ‘Southern Tibet’. For over seven decades, a solution has eluded both sides.
These differing perceptions of the boundary triggered off a border conflict in 1962. But apart from two skirmishes in 1967 and 1975, the border was quiet for 45 years. That changed in May 2020 after China’s sudden and inexplicable intrusion at multiple points across the LAC (Line of Actual Control) was backstopped by a heavy military mobilisation. It resulted in a brutal, medieval clash in the Galwan Valley on June 15 last year, where both sides fought with clubs and stones, leading to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and, according to the Chinese army, at least four of their personnel.
To India’s credit, it did not buckle under China’s military coercion and responded resolutely by moving men and materiel towards the border. It has indicated that the relationship cannot be the same without full restoration of the situation on the LAC as it was before May 2020.
India Today Magazine August 9, 2021 cover, ‘Line Of No control’.
After a nine-month standoff, both armies pulled back from the brink at the north and south banks of the Pangong Tso this February. However, a chill has descended on the relationship. There have been foreign minister-level talks, and the 12th round of corps commander-level talks is expected shortly. But the calm is deceptive. On the ground, the militaries have hardened their positions. The Indian Army has moved over 50,000 troops away from the Pakistan border towards the northern frontier with China. China has beefed up its military aviation infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau, expanding existing airfields and building new ones. Neither side is looking at the other with great optimism. The biggest casualty has been the loss of trust—border protocols built up over 30 years of negotiations were shredded by China’s military move.
Over most of the past three decades, China had followed Deng Xiaoping’s ‘hide your strength and bide your time’ philosophy. This meant postponing territorial disputes in favour of building economic muscle. This year, China’s GDP of $14 trillion is just behind that of the United States and could, in fact, overtake it before the end of this decade. Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, believes it is time for his nation to seize its place in the world order and resolve all its territorial disputes. Besides its claims on the LAC, the prominent disputes are with Taiwan, which Beijing calls a renegade province, and the maritime antechamber of the South China Sea, all of which Beijing now claims as its territorial waters.
China has begun the largest military expansion by any country since the Cold War and has indicated it is not averse to using force to settle its territorial disputes. This is bad news for India. The now-abandoned informal meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi, which began at Wuhan in 2018, were perhaps India’s version of biding time, fortifying our neglected border defences and modernising our military. That process must now be accelerated. An unsettled frontier will not only claim additional military resources in a time of budgetary strain but also divert the attention of the political leadership. No economy can grow under an overhang of military conflict.
Dealing with an assertive China will be a national security challenge and an economic worry given India’s continued dependence on China. The India-China bilateral trade was worth $87.6 billion last year, heavily slanted in favour of Chinese imports. That dependence grew this year, with the bilateral trade hitting $57.48 billion in just the first six months of 2021, up a staggering 62.7 per cent. But while India is heavily dependent on Chinese imports, the reverse is not true. India accounted for just over 2 per cent of China’s exports last year.
On the border, however, it is not business as usual. Indian and Chinese soldiers stepped back from only one location this February. They continue to eyeball each other in at least three other spots. Both sides once sent out lightly-armed patrols to stake their boundary claim. They have now positioned heavily-armed strike formations, with battle tanks, artillery, fighter jets and helicopter gunships. The loss of trust and the absence of fresh military protocols to deal with misunderstandings mean there is every danger of a miscalculation spiralling into conflict. Worse, we could be looking at two hot borders with Pakistan and China, countries that share a strategic alliance. This is a perilous situation no country can afford. It explains why India is now an enthusiastic participant in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the United States, Australia and Japan. All four democracies share a mutual loathing of China’s belligerence, particularly in the South China Sea.
We have the LOC (Line of Control) with Pakistan and the LAC (Line of Actual Control) with China but cannot afford to add another acronym now to our diplomatic lexicon: LONC (Line of No Control). This is our cover story, written by Managing Editor Sandeep Unnithan, which looks at this perilous state of play along the boundary. Even if it remains confined to the border, a war between India and China is clearly not an option. The LAC needs to become a settled international border if two of the world’s largest developing countries are to pursue the wellbeing of their people. That is the only endgame both countries need to be working towards.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, ‘Line of No Control’, for August 9, 2021)