After Saturday’s (June 6) meeting between top Indian and Chinese military commanders in Ladakh, the Ministry of External Affairs said that “the two sides will continue the military and diplomatic engagements to resolve the situation and to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas”.
The unresolved situation on the disputed Sino-Indian border in Ladakh has been ongoing for more than a month, and tensions have not subsided.
When did we first hear of tensions between India and China on the LAC?
The first official acknowledgment of tensions on the border came on May 10, when the Army issued a statement about clashes between Indian and Chinese patrols at two places.
The Army also acknowledged a more serious incident that took place on the night of May 5-6 in the Pangong Tso lake area, during which soldiers from both sides were injured.
Here is what we know about the broad contours of the crisis.
On May 14, Army Chief General M M Naravane said that “both these incidents are neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities”.
These statements were followed by a couple of answers in the briefings of the spokesperson of the MEA acknowledging the situation in Ladakh, but without providing any details. Similar statements were made by the spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry in his briefing.
But didn’t US President Donald Trump also say something?
Yes, he did.
On May 29, President Trump announced that he had spoken to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who he claimed was “not in a good mood about what’s going on with China,” with regard to the “raging border dispute”. Trump also offered to mediate.
Within hours, Indian government sources clarified that the two leaders had not spoken since April 4. Both India and China also rebuffed Trump’s offer to mediate, with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh informing his American counterpart that the matter would be resolved bilaterally.
President Trump and PM Modi did, however, speak on June 2. The Indian readout mentioned that the two leaders had discussed “the situation on the India-China border”.
How do we judge the seriousness of the situation?
In an interview to Network18 on June 2, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that “Whatever is happening at present… It is true that people of China are on the border. They claim that it is their territory. Our claim is that it is our area. There has been a disagreement over it. A sizeable number of Chinese people have also come (Aur achhi khasi sankhya mein Cheen ke log bhi aa gaye hain). India has done what it needs to do”. He did not say whether Chinese soldiers were on Indian territory.
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OK, so what exactly is the situation on the border in Ladakh?
There is a mobilisation of a significant number of Chinese soldiers and military equipment in some areas on the LAC in Ladakh.
The most serious issue is in the area of Pangong Tso and its northern banks, where Chinese soldiers have moved up to the line they perceive to be the LAC.
Satellite images show they have also undertaken some construction activities in the areas that are claimed by India. In the area of Hot Spring, Chinese soldiers have moved into three areas of PP14, PP15, and Gogra, backed by a large number of troops and heavy equipment on their side.
There are similar reports of a massive Chinese deployment on their side in the Galwan river valley area.
Are all these areas on the LAC disputed?
In certain areas on the border, India and China have different “perceptions” of the LAC. These disputed areas are where both the armies try and patrol up to their LAC, often resulting in face-offs between soldiers.
As reported by this newspaper, based on various inputs, India has identified 23 areas on the border which are disputed by both sides.
India also records transgressions by the Chinese side, which are often in these disputed areas. Data for transgressions during the past five years, as reported by this paper, broadly conforms with the areas identified by the government.
As per both these data points, only Pangong Tso is an area where the two sides have different “perceptions” of the LAC. In Galwan and Hot Spring, China and India have in the past never disagreed on the location of the LAC.
Was India taken by surprise by the Chinese action?
Yes, for two reasons.
First, because the Chinese soldiers have mobilised into areas where there has historically been no dispute. Second, the Covid-19 pandemic led India to cancel its annual training exercise in Ladakh, which brings a brigade to the area to react quickly.
The Chinese too, conduct a training exercise in the area every summer, and they diverted their troops for this mobilisation while the Indians had to scramble troops from elsewhere to respond.
However, India has now mobilised enough troops and equipment vis-à-vis the Chinese in these areas.
But no shots have been fired by any side so far?
No. In fact, no shot has been fired on the Sino-Indian border since 1967.
However, there have been reports of physical clashes and injuries to soldiers of both sides, which is in violation of various agreements and SOPs.
Unauthenticated videos and pictures released on Twitter and Weibo have shown images of captive and injured soldiers, further raising tensions.
Are the two sides talking?
There have been multiple rounds of talks at the level of local military commanders (Colonel- and Brigadier-level), and three rounds of talks at the level of the division commanders (Major General).
After these talks were inconclusive, Corps Commander-level talks were held on Saturday. Simultaneously, talks have taken place at the diplomatic level in Beijing and New Delhi.
Even in earlier instances of standoffs – Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, and Doklam in 2017 – multiple rounds of talks took place at diplomatic and military levels before the deadlock could be broken. This standoff also seems headed that way – but it could be a long haul.
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