Explained: India's Border Dispute With China And The Way Forward

Speaking to BOOM, retired colonel Ajai Shukla addressed the Galwan Valley clash as well as elaborated on India's options for countering the Chinese intrusions.

A fresh clash occurred between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the intervening night of August 29 and 30 on the southern bank of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh according to a statement from the Indian Army. The Army said that the Chinese troops engaged in provocative military movements to change the status quo which was established during military and diplomatic engagements following the Galwan Valley clash.

The Army further said that a Brigade Commander level Flag Meeting is in progress at Chushul to resolve the issues. This latest clash follows the months-long series of skirmishes between India and China along the Line of Actual Control.

On the intervening night of June 15 and 16, Indian and Chinese soldiers clashed in the Galwan valley which resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese soldiers. The deadly clash was the culmination of a dispute which started on the night of May 5, 2020 when Indian soldiers on parol were attacked by Chinese soldiers which led to the Indian soldiers to retaliate.

According to The Indian Express, the Chinese objected to India constructing a road in the Galwan Valley and moved troops into the area cutting off Indian access to Sub-Sector North at the base of the Karakoram Pass.

The Chinese, reportedly, had occupied 60 sq.km of Indian territory as well as blocking the Indian Army's access to its various patrolling point.

Speaking to BOOM's Govindraj Ethiraj on July 29, 2020, Ajai Shukla, journalist and a retired colonel of the Indian Army addressed the clash at Galwan Valley between the two neighbours as well as elaborating on India's options for countering the Chinese intrusions.

You can watch the interview here.

Below is the transcript of the interview.

Govindraj Ethiraj: Hello and welcome. The India China borders fan some 3488 kilometres of a Line of Actual Control, and is now one of the longest border disputes in the world. This troubled border saw its most recent eruption when the army clashed with Chinese forces on the fifth and sixth of May in the Pangong Tso Lake area in eastern Ladakh. Now, what made this different was the fact that 20 Indian soldiers were killed. Right now, both sides are talking of a disengagement. But the question is, will things go back to the point they were before May 2020. To understand this a little better. I'm now joined by Ajai Shukla, a journalist, columnist with Business Standard newspaper and a retired colonel of the Indian Army. Ajai, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Ajai Shukla: Pleasure being with you Govind

Govindraj Ethiraj: Firstly, just a quick backdrop take us back to where this also started.

Ajai Shukla: Well, to take sort of several steps back. This Eastern Ladakh border has been a troubled border for quite some time now, especially in comparison with the Arunachal border, which is sort of more stable, has less incidents of this kind. So you've been having these Sino-Indian face offs between patrols from both sides. From 2013-2014 there was another one, 2017 there was one at Doklam. And there are certain flashpoints where this tends to happen more often than others. For example, in the Pangong Lake, in Depsang, in Chumar, these are all places on the border in eastern Ladakh. Now, what has happened this time is unusual for several reasons. First of all, this has happened at the time of COVID. Indian Army sort of patrols and divisions and formations normally come up to the border at this time of the year. Because the spring has set in, the winter thaw is taking place. The troops from both sides are feeling out the border, sussing out the border. They're trying to sort of reach their petrol points and so on. And it tends to be a sort of vitiated atmosphere where patrols tend to clash. So both sides normally trot out their formations at this time of the year. But this year, for some reason, India didn't do so. And the reason that we're being told, as journalists, is that they didn't want to expose the troops to COVID. So they decided that this time they would give it a miss. But the Chinese came out in strength and at a certain point in time at the beginning of May, they crossed the border, entered three or four different places, occupied territory that even they had acknowledged in places like Galwan was Indian Territory. And essentially, it was partly an intelligence failure from the Indian side in assessing that the Chinese would not come into Indian Territory. And it was also an operational failure in that the Chinese were allowed to do so. So that brings us to the status quo that we are in now, which is the Chinese have occupied certain territory that is Indian and the Indians have deployed opposite them and that's an uneasy standoff that is underway.

Govindraj Ethiraj: Right, but we have seen loss of life, possibly on both sides and we know obviously for the Indian side for sure. So there was an attempt to resist or face off. Is that correct?

Ajai Shukla: Yes, the you know, the loss of life becomes inevitable at a certain point in time. When you have enough troops facing off enough sort of vitiation of the atmosphere, enough tension running high on both sides, there are bound to be casualties. There are bound to be tempers that flare. And the way to avoid this is only to actually ensure that they never do come face to face. And as it happens, India and China have five full border agreements that are designed to prevent this from happening, but all of them appear to have failed in this case.

Govindraj Ethiraj: Right, So you said that the Chinese had actually now occupied land which they had previously not occupied. So what is the status today?

Ajai Shukla: The status today is that the Chinese came in fairly deep into Indian territory in some places. For example, they were eight kilometres deep in the Pangong Tso sector in the now famous Finger Four which is about eight kilometres in from Finger Eight where the boundary ran earlier. The Indians then stopped them at that point when they were already inside Indian Territory. And then both sides have agreed in some cases to partially disengage, which means both step back one or two kilometers. But this demilitarized buffer zone that is thus created is all being created in Indian Territory. So, you know, even though the tension levels are now lower, the fact is that the Chinese remain, in many cases, a kilometer or two deep inside Indian Territory and the entire buffer zone that has been created has been created in Indian Territory, not an equal turret feeds from both sides

Govindraj Ethiraj: So, now, both sides are talking about disengagement including a statement from the Chinese side in the last 24 hours. So what does that mean then?

Ajai Shukla: That means that there is nothing more than that they are talking about disengagement. Disengagement is of any value only when it takes place and when it takes place on an equal basis. As I mentioned, the Chinese keep talking about disengagement, but they simultaneously say that the territory that we have occupied is Chinese territory. So even if we disengage, we are not really acknowledging that it is Indian Territory or vacating it for India. We still remain an occupation of some parts of Indian Territory. So, this disengagement is an unequal disengagement. It's a disengagement in which Chinese continue to be in occupation of Indian Territory. And that's not a good situation for India.

Govindraj Ethiraj: So apart from it being a matter of principle, how does this actually play out when, let's say if they are a kilometer inside now, and this is obviously land, which has essentially no man's land, in terms of occupation or habitation? What I mean, you know, I'm trying to say my question is really coming at it as a citizen of this country living in another part of the country. Why should I be worried?

Ajai Shukla: I'll give you a very clear example. Power disengagement and this sort of occupation of territory works with a practical example that is actually playing out even as we speak. In the Pangong Lake sector, the line of actual control ran along a spur called Finger Eight. And there are successive spurs between the Chinese and Indian side, that actually decrease in number as you come towards India. So you have Finger Seven which is one kilometre inside India, Finger Six, which is two kilometers and so on and so forth. Now, what the Chinese did was they came and sat down, not at Finger Eight, which is the traditional Line of Actual Control, but at Finger Four, which is eight kilometres inside Indian Territory. The Indians then sat down opposite them at Finger Four making Finger Four the effective boundary. So, eight kilometres already the Chinese have impressed then they say, let's disengage which means let's pull back a kilometre or two. So the Chinese pull back to Finger Six, and we pull back to Finger Three, which means that you have effectively acknowledged Finger Four is the boundary. There is a disengagement zone, which is welcome and should be there. But the rules of the game have been suddenly changed, the boundaries no longer fit at the boundaries Finger Four and so Chinese are in occupation of eight kilometers of Indian Territory. Four of those kilometres are two of those kilometres are disengagement zones, but they are still in occupation of your territory. And to that extent, it's a cause for concern for Indian citizens. One would very well say that this is territory of no use to man or beast and so on and so forth. But you're only then going back to Nehru and the 1950s when he was trying to say exactly the same thing.

Govindraj Ethiraj: Okay. All right. So now the area that has been occupied Now, does this portend in some way that they could go further because they've already, you know, advanced a little bit and entrench themselves.

Ajai Shukla: You put your finger on exactly the problem, the Chinese have established a precedent. They have seen that India is willing to accept this loss of territory without resort to active hostilities. They have seen that they can get away with it. And the question is, is this going to just sort of not lead to anything else? Or are the Chinese, is the People's Liberation Army going to in successive years from now, try and extend this sort of nibbling, salami slicing tactics even further into Indian Territory. My belief is that once you have established a precedent, you have seen how the other side reacts. And if it's to your favor, then you tend to continue with that precedent that has been established and that is the fear that from now onwards, the Chinese People's Liberation Army might reach the conclusion that it is okay to nibble away at Indian Territory and the Indians will not react.

Govindraj Ethiraj: So if you look ahead now, how could this play out? As in is what what are the options that India has at this point of time in the context of the talks that are going on?

Ajai Shukla: The talks are one aspect of the the entire sort of negotiation process, and the military movements on the ground and nibbling of territory in the back and forth movements of the frontline are another aspect. Now, let's leave aside the talks because that's something that is happening at the diplomatic level over telephones for the most part, and there's very little that can be done to influence that. Both sides have their clearly stated positions and they are sticking to those positions. On the ground, however, you know that is where the real action is taking place. And that is where the military commanders are talking, they are deciding what they will proceed what they will not concede. And for the Indians, there are three clear options right now. One option is that they do what they're currently doing, which is, given the nomenclature of mirror deployment, they've sat down opposite the Chinese mirroring what they're doing. And that means the Chinese can't enter any further, the Indians can't go further into the Chinese territory, they physically blocked each other. It's a stalemate. The second thing that the Indians can do is to attack the Chinese and physically evict them push them back that has the the danger of potential escalation of a greater degree of hostilities. That's something that has to be weighed with some care. And the third option that the Indians have is to go into Chinese state in places where the Chinese are not present, the PLA is not present and do what the PLA has done, which is to occupy an occupied territory, and then subsequently use that as quid pro quo in a negotiation process. So these are the three real options. Currently, we're sticking with option one, which is mirror deployment.

Govindraj Ethiraj: Another question Ajai. So, you know, you talked about the advancement by the Chinese troops into Indian Territory and the conclusion or my takeaway is that Chinese troops are clearly in Indian Territory at this point, having only receded partly from the advances that they've made, but still well within, is there any dispute on this or is this a matter of fact?

Ajai Shukla: This is an absolute matter of fact, for two or three reasons that I will give you. The Government of India is now, cravenly I would say, arguing that this boundary is a disputed boundary, and there is a lack of clarity, they are essentially making excuses for the Chinese. But this excuse of disputed boundary doesn't fly for two reasons clearly that I will tell you. The first thing is that the Government of India has to be clear where its boundary lies. It cannot say this is where I say my boundary lies, but the Chinese don't accept it. You have to have a boundary line clear in your mind. The Chinese have their boundary line, I admit, but you have to stick with your position or else then you're effectively abandoning your position. Is the Government of India willing to say that we are abandoning our bad boundary claim? No, it's not for obvious reasons. So they also cannot then say that there is a disputed boundary and we will do it. The second thing is that Indian patrols have been going up you know, in the years before this, to their stated boundary claim, these so called patrolling points or PPs that have become famous. PP 15, PP 17, PP 14 and so on. They have been going to their patrolling points, thereby establishing the claim up to that line and returning. Now, this year, the Chinese are not letting them go up to their patrolling points. And the third and sort of most worrying thing is that the Chinese are willing to enforce their diktat by the use of force. So, the Indians have only two choices. Either they accept what the Chinese are doing and the new Chinese version of the boundary or else the fight and that is the difficult choice that is before the Government of India right now.

Govindraj Ethiraj: Last question, Ajai. So, you know, again, as a citizen, I always wondered or I would wonder, that is the situation under control? Now what than under control can be, of course interpreted in many ways. But is this something that I should be getting sleepless nights about? Maybe fueled by watching too much TV or should I assume and expect my elected government to take care of the problem?

Ajai Shukla: The elected government is a competent government I would like to believe. But it cannot say that we will take care of the problem. For the simple reason that there are two players in this game. You might want to take care of the problem but if the Chinese idea of taking care of the problem is to remain in occupation of Indian Territory, then you cannot take care of the problem without the exercise of force. And that should give you sleepless nights for sure, because the same government and the government before it and the government before that have failed to provide sufficient funding for their military. The military, we can fund in a equipment, and then sort of many combat resources in many respects. The Indian Army is a great army they, this specialize in make do making do with very little, but fighting the Chinese People's Liberation Army, the second most powerful force on earth is not something that you sort of contemplate with the equanimity. So to that extent, yes, please have sleepless nights you really should.

Govindraj Ethiraj: Okay. Ajai Shukla, on that note, thank you very much for joining us and sharing your insights and perspective.

Ajai Shukla: Sorry for being pessimistic.

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