NEW DELHI – A half-century after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the border between China and India remains undefined and a constant source of friction between the world’s two most populous countries. Following three weeks of fighting in 1962, it was agreed to draw a Line of Actual Control (LAC). But, five decades later, the map has yet to be delineated. As a result, both sides routinely send patrols up to the point where they believe the LAC should be – the latest episode being a three-week incursion by Chinese troops into Indian-held territory that began in April.
Face-offs in the no-man’s land that lies between where China and India each envisage the LAC are so common that the militaries of the two countries have developed a modus vivendi, whereby one side tells the other to withdraw peacefully. Both sides have routinely abided by the informal protocol that has evolved over the years.
But not this time. In the area of Daulat Beg Oldie, near Depsang Plains, in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, a patrol of about 15 People’s Liberation Army soldiers crossed into Indian-held territory and set up camp for an extended stay.
Stretching from the strategic Karakoram Pass, near Pakistan in the north, the LAC runs south, along the ridges of the eastern Himalayas to the ancient Buddhist monastery town of Tawang. After that, it traces the old McMahon Line drawn in 1914 – and rejected by China as an imperial dictate – to demarcate British India from what was then Tibet. The LAC then meanders until the point where India, China, and Burma meet.
China’s strategic interest in the line that separates India from a restive Tibet and the troublesome province of Xinjiang is straightforward. For India, Daulat Beg Oldie is an important outpost near the entrance to the Karakoram Pass and the Siachen Glacier region. So, was China’s incursion into Indian territory an error by a local PLA commander? Or was a more complex calculation in play?
The towering Karakoram Pass was part of the old silk route that connected Ladakh and Kashmir with Xinjiang – now, like Tibet, an “autonomous region” of China. As two observers recently described it, Daulat Beg Oldie was a kind of transfer point for goods to be loaded on to pack ponies “for the cruel journey over the Saser La into the more hospitable Shyok river valley” leading to “Leh, Turtok, or Srinagar [in Kashmir].”
India’s parliament, not surprisingly, denounced the Chinese incursion in the harshest possible terms. The government, perplexed at first, tried unsuccessfully to make light of the presence of the PLA troops. A tent competition followed; because China had pitched four, India pitched eight. The Financial Times quoted Sun Hongnian, a Chinese border expert: “For India, every meter of road and every bunker in that area is a strategic win of territory” that brings them “closer to the main road on our side.”
The standoff came to an end on May 6, as suddenly as it had started. India’s foreign minister, having earlier termed the incursion a “localized incident,” had to change his tune under parliamentary pressure, and cautioned China that India might have to reconsider his projected visit to Beijing.
Was all of this a Chinese effort to obtain, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “strategic deterrence”? Or was it a deliberate push toward realizing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proposal to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa in March? Xi told Singh that he sought “a fair, reasonable, and mutually acceptable settlement based on mutual understanding and accommodation,” adding significantly, “Let’s settle the boundary framework agreement quickly.” Was the Chinese incursion intended to serve as a sort of diplomatic accelerator?
India should take to heart former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s prescient observation that “China, a nation of foreign and security policy realists, respects strategic strength and is contemptuous of vacillation and weakness.” After all, one of the lessons of the 1962 war was that a vacillating response to Chinese aggression is self-defeating, particularly in situations like that posed by the incursion at Daulat Beg Oldie.
One thing seems clear from the recent incident: a new dispensation reigns in China, and will continue to guide policy for the next decade under Xi’s leadership. The PLA troops in Daulat Beg Oldie are a reminder that China has no intention of allowing unresolved border issues to be swept under the rug. Indeed, almost simultaneously with the PLA incursion, scholars at an official Chinese think tank questioned Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa.
Whether Xi’s appeal to India to “settle the boundary framework quickly” was an exhortation or a warning, other Asian countries can no longer afford to ignore their own border disputes with China. As what happened in Daulat Beg Oldie demonstrates, China’s new leaders are not interested in preserving the status quo.