The mutual distrust between India and China keeps the Line of Actual Control between two Asian powers prone to “sudden flare-ups of violence”, with consequences that could reach far beyond the region, a global think tank has concluded in its latest report. The report also notes that a return to the times when boundary issue was shelved to let India-China bilateral ties get stronger “seems improbable in the short term”.
New Delhi and Beijing, however, could begin demarcating the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the middle sector of their de-facto boundary as a confidence-building measure to de-escalate the tensions along the unresolved border between them, International Crisis Group recommended in its report titled ‘Thin Ice in the Himalayas: Handling the India-China Border Dispute’.
China’s LAC incursions tripled since Xi Jinping took power
The number of Chinese incursions into Indian side of Line of Actual Control (LAC) tripled since Xi Jinping took over the corridors of power in 2013, the report points out while citing a dataset from November 2012 to November 2022.
But notably, those incursions have been relatively low in “scale and intensity” in the Middle Sector of India-China boundary.
“The number of transgressions by the Chinese troops in the last decade has been quite high in the western and eastern sectors compared to the least-disputed middle sector. So, the delineation of the border in the middle sector is the low-hanging fruit that both sides could pursue,” Praveen Donthi, Senior India Analyst at International Crisis Group told WION.
Why clarification of LAC in Middle Sector is a ‘low hanging fruit’?
Notably in September 2000, after years of relative peace along the Line of Actual Control, Beijing under President Jiang Zemin and India under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had started the process of clarifying the Line of Actual Control in the backdrop of India’s nuclear tests two years prior.
Donthi points out that when maps were exchanged between the two Asian powers to share their understanding of the Line of Actual Control, they began with the middle sector despite significant differences over Barahoti region of Uttarakhand.
“The number of transgressions by the Chinese troops in the last decade has been quite high in the western and eastern sectors compared to the least-disputed middle sector. So, the delineation of the border in the middle sector is the low-hanging fruit that both sides could pursue,” Donthi added.
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The progress to clarify the LAC finally came to halt in 2002. Three years later, during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to New Delhi, the two sides agreed to a negotiation process over boundary issues but failed to move forward to the next phase: resolving the dispute.
After Galwan incident in June 2020, which led to the first boundary dispute-related deaths in 45 years, India maintains that restoration to pre-April 2020 status quo ante along the Line of Actual Control is integral to normalisation of its ties with Beijing.
India insists China must pull back its troops and military facilities to their pre-April 2020 positions in the Western Sector.
So far, the two militaries have pulled troops, equipment and weapons systems and torn down structures at Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan Valley on the northern shore of Pangong Lake, PP17A near Gogra post and PP15 in Hot Springs area. In each of these locations, agreed buffer zones now physically separate the two militaries.
But disengagement remains incomplete as the two armies continue to face each other at Depsang and Demchok even after twenty rounds of Corps Commander-level talks.
Donthi points out that while India would like to see the restoration of the pre-April 2020 status quo, “China seems unwilling”, leading to an impasse.
“Due to the forward deployment and building of infrastructure by both sides, it might be difficult to demilitarise the border and restore the status quo ante due to the deepening of distrust to a magnitude not seen since the war of 1962. However, due to the high cost of escalation and the fear of a two-front war on both sides, Beijing and New Delhi would rather find a way out of this deadlock,” Donthi added.
More than 50,000 Indian troops remain stationed along the LAC in the Western sector. In Leh, the administrative capital of India’s Ladakh which shares boundary with China in the Western Sector, additional troops have been stationed along with three Indian Army divisions traditionally based there.
China has kept over 50,000 troops close to the western sector of the Line of Actual Control since the 2020 clashes and constructed facilities that allow for up to 120,000 soldiers to stay within 100 km of the LAC.