The urgent and pressing dispute on hand is the issue of the two LACs. These LACs frequently overlap.
We have two outstanding issues between India and China. The larger one is about the large tracts of territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. These two territorial disputes are not going to be resolved even in the foreseeable long term. Hence, Deng Xiaoping sagaciously suggested to Rajiv Gandhi in their 1988 meeting in Beijing that it was best left to history. A hundred years ago, the situations in both countries and their frontiers were very different. What they will be after another hundred years can be anybody’s guess?
The urgent and pressing dispute on hand is the issue of the two LACs. These LACs frequently overlap. The term Line of Actual Control, or LAC, was first used by then Chinese PM Zhou Enlai in November 1959 when he wrote to his India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru defining it as “the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”. Nehru rejected this line even after the events of 1962. By this time, he was also saddled with a parliamentary resolution pledging to recover all territories occupied by China. Interestingly, this LAC did not change very much even after 1962.
The problem is that India and China never agreed on where the LAC was in the Ladakh and middle sectors. The perceptions of what each side “controlled” varied, sometimes by a few meters to tens of kilometres. For instance, in the Sikkim sector where they vary at a few places, the actual overlap often is a few meters. This variation is because both sides are vying for better tactical positions to locate their bunkers and sangars, or small built-up structures on higher ground to observe the other side. In a place like the Depsang Plains, the western side of which is with India and the eastern side is with China, the overlap of the LACs is by as much as 20-30 km.
Despite having two widely overlapping LACs in Ladakh, the Indian and Chinese forces had arrived at a unique modus vivendi ever since 1962. That is each side will patrol up to its perception of the LAC without confronting the other. India even cooperated to the extent of allowing them to patrol their post-1962 LAC. The desire for peace made both sides cobble up such agreements from time to time.
In 1993, the agreement made it incumbent for both sides to caution each other whenever their perceived LACs were crossed. The other side was then obliged to withdraw. This in effect created a no-man’s buffer zone. Though the 1993 agreement stipulated that any dispute would be jointly monitored by both sides to decide upon an alignment, this never really happened. Then in 1996, both sides agreed to “exercise restraint when the patrols come face to face”. This agreement also stipulated that both sides would not use firearms or resort to any blasting 2 km from their perception of the LACs. Both sides adhered to this but the patrols, while not confronting each other, began tailing each other, keeping a distance between them. This agreement also obliged both sides not to construct anything of a permanent nature in the overlaps of the two LACs.
This worked till 2013, when the People’s Liberation Army objected to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) building re-usable shelters in a place called Chumar. In May that year, a tailed PLA patrol decided to dig in midway between the two LACs in Depsang at a place called Rakhi Nula, when the PLA platoon decided to dig in. The ITBP reported this via their hierarchy to the home ministry. By the time the home ministry informed the defence ministry across the street, some more time elapsed. In the meanwhile, the PLA began to supply their dug-in platoon using vehicles and helicopters. New Delhi saw this as a major breach and ordered the Army in. The Army then dug in at a point about 300 meters away from the PLA platoon, but effectively cutting away retreat.
This crisis was resolved by a meeting between the two local military commanders, with the Indian side agreeing to dismantle the Chumar structures and the PLA pulling out. This led to the more complex 2013 agreement, once again aimed at conflict prevention and conflict resolution, but not deciding on a mutually accepted LAC. This is where we were when the PLA, taking advantage of the Indian security forces’ sloppiness in not mirroring the annual PLA exercises in the area, dug in positions in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs, Ghogra and the area between Fingers 4 and 8 on the north bank of Pangong Tso in the summer of 2020. In Galwan Valley, the PLA’s new position was now less than 2 km from the modernised 230-km road from Darbuk to DBO road.
The electronic media, no doubt prodded by the Narendra Modi government, went into a fury over the “Chinese perfidy” and Mr Modi and defence minister Rajnath Singh made fire and brimstone speeches to the troops at Ladakh. The Indian military buildup was under the full glare of the embedded media and the newly-acquired military hardware was on display. Even the delivery of the first five Rafale fighters, which included two trainers, was turned into a muscle display show. Now we have a situation where the Indian Army and PLA commanders have been in talks from June 16, 2020 seeking a disengagement. The two and fro Kabuki dance continues.
The question here is: who withdraws and to where? This requires the determination of a single LAC. This is beyond the ken of the military commanders of both sides. Military men, even if instructed to find a compromise, are usually loathe to withdraw to tactically disadvantageous positions. But the need of the hour is to do just this. This therefore calls for mediation between the two militaries, and that is best done by a third country’s military. A neutral military mediator can understand the tactical security concerns of either side and can help in determining the best position under the circumstances. This is well beyond the capabilities of professional diplomats. But who can this mediator be?
Russia has been engaged with the militaries of both nations for decades and knows both sides well. It also enjoys a measure of trust in both countries. One hopes that both countries will find the good sense to utilise Russian or any other mediation to settle this issue.