Additional troops rushed to Ladakh’s Pangong Tso and Sikkim’s Muguthang by both India and China remained deployed , though no fresh incidents were reported after last week’s clashes from these areas.
Indian Sukhoi fighters mounted air patrols in Ladakh after sighting of PLA helicopters were reported close to LAC.
Military sources said the tension was still palpable but ‘well under control.’
On May 9, Indian and Chinese troops clashed in north Sikkim (Muguthang near Naku La) on the 3,448-kilometer Line of Actual Control (LAC) that informally marks the disputed Sino-Indian frontier.
At an altitude of more than 16,000 feet, Chinese and Indian troops engaged in hand-to-hand fighting and stone-pelting, with many on both sides sustaining “minor” injuries. The Indian Army’s statement claims the incident left 11 injured on the Indian side.
Reports of similar scuffles in the eastern Ladakh theater on the night of May 5-6 in the “Finger-5” on the northern bank of the 134-km Pangong Tso (lake).
This was where one of the fiercest battles was fought in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. More than 400 troops were involved in a primeval clash before mutually established protocols helped control the situation and disengage.
Assumedly as a precautionary measure, both sides have chosen to substantially reinforce the deployment of armed forces for the time being.
In January this year, Indian Army Chief Gen M.M. Naravane had already stated India’s desire to “rebalance” its deployment and strategy along the western, northern, and northeastern borders to deal with any kind of threat that might emerge from either Pakistan or China.
In an interview to Easternlinks and some other media this week, Gen Navarane said Integrated Battle Groups would soon be deployed on the China and Pakistan border, after successful ‘test bedding’ of these units in “Operation Himvijay’ during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s India visit .
Both China and India have downplayed the clashes .
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian stated: “Chinese border troops have always been upholding peace and tranquility along our border areas. China and India stay in close communication and coordination concerning our border affairs within existing channels.”
Easternlinks carried a report from Beijing, quoting leading Chinese analysts as saying that the successful management of the present tensions have proved the effectiveness of the mutually established border defence cooperation protocols ” in controlling tensions.”
The Indian Army’s statement also downplayed the flare-up, claiming that such “temporary and short duration face-offs” were bound to occur between border troops as long as the boundary remained un-demarcated.
The basic framework for dealing with such issues has been laid out in a 1993 “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas”, says Ameya Pratap Singh, researching the issue at Oxford .
The two sides agreed to “peaceful and friendly consultations” to resolve the boundary dispute and disclaimed the threat of force as a legitimate bargaining tool.
Further, until such an agreement could be reached the sanctity of the LAC was to be maintained. Any “contingencies or other problems arising in the areas” were to be dealt with “through meetings and friendly consultations between border personnel of the two countries.”
However, the number of confrontations on the Sino-Indian border seem to be intensifying, says analyst Ameya Pratap Singh.
In June 2017, Indian Army executed “Operation Juniper” and positioned 270 armed troops in the Doklam area of Bhutan. This mobilization was intended to deter a team of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers from constructing a road that would have given the Chinese access to Indian territory.
The road would have circumvented Indian posts in Dokala, and provided the Chinese access to Jampheri Ridge and a clear line of sight to the narrow Siliguri Corridor. The Corridor is commonly referred to as the “chicken’s neck” as it vitally connects seven states in India’s northeast to the rest of India.
The Doklam standoff brought both armies face-to-face, leading to a tense 73-day military stand-off. Eventually, the Chinese decided to back down and halt their road preparations, though without abandoning their claim to the territory.
“Understood within the larger scope of bilateral ties, these measures signal an incremental deterioration in bilateral ties and the emergence of an enduring rivalry,” said Ameya Pratap Singh.
In light of China setting up a military base in Djibouti, increasing its operations in the Indian Ocean Region, increasingly interfering in border states such as Nepal and Bhutan, and deepening its ties with Pakistan through the Belt and Road Initiative, India has ramped up its emphasis on deterrence and the need to signal “resolve.”
In a new paper titled Looking Beyond Doklam, the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), a think tank set up by the defence ministry a decade ago, said it is crucial for India to demonstrate strength as peace along the disputed border or Line of Actual Control (LAC) will be “constantly and continuously” under stress with “increase in frequency, intensity and depth of (Chinese) transgressions leading to more and more standoffs”.
“Doklam was definitely different from Chumar (2014) and Depsang (2013), as China resorted to an information war, exploiting both the Chinese media and also investing in the Indian media,” wrote CENJOWS director, lieutenant general (retd) Vinod Bhatia in the paper.
Bhatia was the director general of military operations when India and China were locked in a tense border standoff at Depsang in Ladakh . He has also commanded the Siliguri-based HQs 33 Corps that controls the Sikkim sector.
The paper credited India, China and Bhutan for peaceful resolution of the standoff “at politico-diplomatic and military levels”.
So Doklam and the present spate of clashes on the LAC at Muguthang and Pangong Tso are the new normal — as are the invoking of the mutually agreed protocols to control tensions.
“Both sides would jab and probe each other like tactical boxers in the ring, looking for an opening. This is inevitable because both armies seek to strengthen their bargaining clout before a final settlement of the border dispute. But the referee, in such cases senior officers, would stop the fight just as it tends to get bloody,” said retired Intelligence Bureau officer Benu Ghosh, who has served long tenures in the Himalayan frontier and is an expert climber.
He said both armies seek to control important mountain passes and strategic choke points and are sensitive to perceived vulnerabilities.
“At the tactical level, junior commanders always push hard for getting better ground for his future defence. So these clashes are going to continue, despite the high level summits and occasional diplomatic bonhomie at the higher level. You don’t allow your neighbor to push his fence on your plot, though you may be attending his social functions and giving away gifts,” said Ghosh.
A Carnegie report says the way to guarantee “peace and tranquility” on the Sino-Indian border is to focus on military-to-military communication, which would “allow the two sides to immediately clarify any relevant issues at a more senior directive level.”
“For India, it is also important to focus on improving military deterrence to ensure China’s ceasing of provocative border activities. The failure of the Indian deterrence on this front in the 1950s had much to do with the inability to construct roads along border areas that could match China’s penetration in Tibet,”says analyst Ameya Pratap Singh.
” During the 1962 war, this meant that India was unable to mobilize large concentrations of troops in these regions or ensure a steady supply of ancillary military resources to sustain a prolonged conflict. Until shifts in material power stabilize, and structural incentives in favor of formalizing the “status quo” present, only deterrence and diplomacy can guarantee stability between two intensely nationalistic states on the Sino-Indian border.”