The ongoing border tension with China at multiple points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is more serious than past incidents, indicating China’s planning and the likelihood of a protracted stand-off, two senior former generals said on Wednesday.
Unlike previous LAC incidents that were localised, the current stand-offs were spread over at least four points along the LAC and involved more troops than before, which complicated the possibility of an early disengagement and return to status quo, they said.
“The fact of the matter is some kind of planning has gone through before these multiple face-offs,” said Lt. Gen. (retd) S. L. Narasimhan, Member, National Security Advisory Board. “Earlier, they used to take place in one place. This time there have been multiple face-offs and geographically spaced out, in Sikkim, Pangong Tso and Galwan. The kind of numbers we see is also not what we saw earlier, and the aggression has been more than normal.”
“Normal face-offs happen every year, they don’t lead to these kind of incidents,” added Lt. Gen. (retd) D.S. Hooda, former Northern Army Commander. “This is much more serious. They have come completely well prepared and prepared to do things by force. We have never seen this level of violence,” he added. Both were speaking at a webinar organised by the Institute of Chinese Studies.
Stand-offs in at least four locations along the LAC remain unresolved, with reports of a build-up in Galwan valley, Pangong Tso and Hot Springs in Ladakh, and Naku La in Sikkim, with Chinese troops present on India’s side of the LAC in some of these spots. Talks at the level of Lieutenant Generals are set for June 6.
Gen. Hooda said a key difference was that past incidents, including in Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017, were localised, triggered by road-building activity. “We were absolutely clear of the red lines and demands of two sides. One wanted to build, the other said no. Therefore, we knew the steps towards resolution. I am not sure we know that in this case. What is it the Chinese want, and why [are there incidents] in so many areas? Will they ease off and go back having invested so much and come into these areas? That adds to risk and possible difficulty in resolving it. We are in for tough hard negotiations and maybe a protracted stand off.”
Also new in this instance is the stand-off at Galwan valley, which is not one of the points on the LAC where there have been differing perceptions of alignment. In Pangong lake, face-offs had occurred in the past, as India has been patrolling up to its LAC at Finger 8 while China would come up to Finger 2 — the “fingers” from 1 to 8, running from west to east, refer to mountain spurs on the lake’s northern banks. Here also the stand-off is different, as Chinese troops are now present in the area between Fingers 4 and 8 and are preventing India from patrolling up to Finger 8, effectively altering the status quo.
Gen. Hooda suggested that clarifying the LAC in all key areas needed to be done “on an urgent basis” to prevent recurring incidents.
He suggested following the example of Chumar in 2014, where the stand-off was resolved on the basis of a moratorium in patrolling into contested areas for a certain number of days, which was observed for almost two years with transgressions coming down to zero. A similar arrangement could be considered, he said, as “the current protocols are not working”. The solution to the current stand-offs would be to return to the status quo as of May 3, before the first incidents were reported, he added.
The former Northern Army Commander said reports suggesting China had over the recent years “nibbled away” at parts of Indian territory were incorrect, and that the Indian Army had ensured it had continued access to patrolling points on the LAC. “In the past 15-20 years, there has been no real change in what we felt was the alignment of the LAC. Those [points] are sacrosanct to the Indian Army.”
Gen. Narasimhan said if it was not possible to clarify the entire LAC — the process has been stalled since 2002 after China objected to exchanging maps in the western sector — both could at least start doing so in the disputed and sensitive areas. “This would go a large way in reducing face-offs in the border,” he said. While enough protocols were in place — from 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012 — to regulate patrolling, the problem was ensuring they were followed, he said. “If LAC can be clarified, [we] can work on modality to address face-offs.”
He said one possible reason for the current stand-off is that the Chinese “aren’t clear why infrastructure is coming up” on the Indian side. “They are unsure of what we are doing in our area,” he said. With continued engagement through both military and diplomatic channels, he hoped “there will be a disengagement”. “I have the feeling this will get resolved amicably over a period of time,” he added.