Following recent tensions on their border, ground forces from China and India are set to join for drills in October as part of a confidence-building measure. Tensions arose as a result of the construction of a watchtower by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a disputed region along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This is the demarcation line between Indian and Chinese controlled Kashmir. A stand-off occurred on the night of Friday, September 11th and was only resolved on Tuesday. Such confrontations are typical and Beijing and New Delhi have taken steps to ensure that they do not escalate into skirmishes or worse.
India And China: The Dispute
The Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police discovered a PLA watchtower in Burtse, northern Ladakh last Friday. The watchtower was located 1.5 kilometers in Indian claimed territory close to the “border patrolling line”, a term referring to the parts of the un-demarcated LAC that are still disputed in Ladakh. Though it is an informal un-demarcated line, troops from both sides regularly patrol the territory which they perceive as their own. On Friday evening, Indian Army forces demolished the watchtower which consisted of a monitoring camera and solar-panel mounted on the hut of a roof.
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Top sources in the Indian Army told The Tribune that additional forces were being sent as reinforcements to a believed PLA buildup. Indeed following the destruction of the watchtower, 90 PLA troops took position nearby and India responded with its own reinforcements. Both sides by Saturday night had moved an additional platoon of troops to the area. By Monday though, a small-scale pullback took place though forces stayed in the area into the following day as efforts were undertaken to defuse the situation.
Typically, when troops from either side come into contact with each other along the “border patrolling line”, they withdraw as per established protocol. There is a standard drill where banners are shown by opposing troops asking for a withdrawal to their respective territory. Additionally, there is a mutually-accepted principle that no new defense-construction should be undertaken in disputed areas.
Reports in Indian media of a standoff were denied though by China. At a regular Chinese Foreign Ministry briefing on Monday, spokesman Hong Lei stated, “As far as I know, there is no such face off in the border area. Chinese troops are performing their duties on the Chinese side of the border.” China had also requested that the Indian government work to clarify the situation. Hong added, “[the] Indian side can make clarification on this matter in order to maintain peace and tranquility in the area.”
The existence of the watchtower has been somewhat acknowledged by the Chinese as Hong refused to deny it, instead stating that China is entitled to carry out “relevant activities” on its side of the border.
Mediating the Dispute
On Tuesday, September 15th, India and China engaged in flag meetings along the LAC to defuse tensions. Opposing commanders met at the border personnel meeting (BPM) points at Daulat Beg Oldi and Chushul from 3pm to 5pm while both sides agreed to maintain the existing peace. Ultimately the situation was resolved without any further incident.
Since the meetings between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping early this year, a mechanism had been agreed on for cross-border consultation to avoid disputes between border personnel. The effectiveness of this mechanism has now been called into question though as a result of this incident.
The area where the dispute occurred lies east of Daulat Beg Oldie, an Indian military base and the site of the world’s highest airstrip at an altitude of 17,000 feet. The Burtse area forms part of the vast Depsang plains which India claims as its own. In recent years China has been claiming part of the territory to gain a tactical edge over Indian forces.
In August, the Indian Army and PLA established their fifth BPM point at Daulat Beg Oldi. This is in addition to existing BPM points at Chushul (Ladakh), Nathu La (Sikkim), Bum La, and Kibithu (Arunachal). The reason for so many BPM points is due to the unstable nature of the region and is an attempt to close the “trust deficit” between the Indian Army and PLA along the 4,057 kilometer LAC.
The most recent standoff is not an isolated case as they do happen regularly due to differences in perception of control. In the Ladakh region, India claims 15-23 kilometers ahead of its holding point, a claim rejected by China. Ladakh has emerged as a major flashpoint between the two armies in recent years.
In April and May 2013, a 21-day standoff erupted after PLA forces pitched five tents near Daulat Beg Oldie. India claimed that the PLA intruded 19 kilometers into Indian territory and it was only defused after four flag meetings were held, just days before a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to India. Nearly one year ago in September 2014, another standoff occurred following an incursion by over 200 PLA troops into Indian territory. Ultimately around 1,000 soldiers from each side confronted each other at Chumar and Demchok. This standoff occurred as Xi was on a three-day trip to India. In the first 216 days of 2014, the Indian Home Ministry claimed 334 “transgressions” by PLA forces into Indian territory.
As a confidence-building measure, China and India are set to conduct another bilateral “Hand-in-Hand” (HiH) military exercise. This exercise will be held at Kunming in China from October 11 to the 23rd. India will be sending a detachment of soldiers from its famed Naga Regiment to the exercises. This will be the fifth annual HiH exercise to be held since 2007. In addition to the joint training benefits gained, the HiH exercises also serve to promote positive military-to-military ties between the Indian Army and PLA. This is fairly beneficial when incidents occur along the LAC.
Fortunately, stand-offs along the LAC have not resulted in casualties on either side in recent years. Still such flare-ups are a concern, one that is acknowledged by leaders in Beijing and New Delhi. The relationship between China and India does have its problems though is far more stable than those between China and countries in South East Asia. Fears of growing Chinese military capabilities and naval expansionism in the Indian Ocean are making some in New Delhi concerned. Regardless, both China and India have taken significant strides to limit the potential of disputes along the LAC from escalating into armed conflict.