Even as the Sino-Indian border prepares for its winter freeze, we are besieged with reports of PLA “incursions”. First it was Barahoti, a pasture north of the Nanda Devi peak, and more recently at a place near Bum La, north of Tawang. Reports suggest that these were routine “transgressions”, the term the government uses for forays into areas that are known to be contested and patrolled by both sides on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). However, according to one report, Indian troops foiled an effort by PLA intruders to damage Indian defences and even detained some Chinese personnel for a brief while in the Bum La area.
Reports say that at the end of August, some 100 Chinese soldiers had entered the Barahoti bowl, through Tunjun La Pass. Indian personnel were surprised by their numbers and surmise that this is on account of India’s improved posture in the area and a measure of caution after the Galwan clash in 2020.
Since the central region saw no military action in 1962, Barahoti is relatively less known than places in the eastern and western sectors, where “transgressions” take place. But Barahoti is the site of some of the oldest contention between India and China on the border.
India has long maintained that the Barahoti pasturage is very much on the Indian side of the border, but the Chinese have repeatedly contested this and both sides have agreed that they will not maintain permanent encampments there.
In fact, there are five areas the Chinese dispute in Himachal and Uttarakhand area — Chuva-Chuje, Shipki La, Nilang-Jadhang, Barahoti-Lapthal and Lipu Lekh. They are not too well-known, but they retain the potential of escalation. Since they are close to the heartland of the country—Barahoti is less than 400 km as a crow flies from New Delhi—they should be viewed as significant.
Yet, this sector is not as contested as the one in the west and the east. For that reason, this is the only sector where India and China have exchanged maps in November 2002, as part of a now-failed effort to work out a mutually acceptable LAC.
China's Changed Posture Along the LAC
The increased transgressions appear to be part of China’s changed posture along the LAC. In recent years, the PLA has been busy upgrading the posture of the forces facing India. They have built new accommodation for troops to stay closer to the border, new helipads, airfields, and even a number of model villages to encourage locals to populate the harsh border region. Both sides face an acute problem of depopulation as villagers migrate to find better jobs. This problem is particularly acute for India in the central sector.
The 13th round of military commander’s talks between India and China is now expected to take place in Moldo, near the Pangong and Spanggur lakes in Ladakh, on Sunday. There is already a significant agenda for the talks since New Delhi wants China to pull back its forces in Depsang, Hot Spring and Demchok, from areas they occupied last year.
Following the talks between External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) summit in September, the two countries had, agreed that “the prolongation of the existing situation was not in the interest of either side as it was impacting the relationship in a negative manner”. Jaishankar had called for the resolution of the remaining issues along the LAC even while abiding with existing bilateral agreements and protocols.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted Wang as saying that he hoped “that India will meet China halfway to move the situation towards stability and shift it from urgent dispute settlement to regular management and control”.
Read carefully, the statement could be seen as a sign that China was willing to steadily walk away from the forward positions it took in the summer of 2020. Beijing may be realising that unlike Indian military leaders who regularly say that they are ready to handle a two-front situation, China would like to “stabilise” the Indian front so as to take on the infinitely bigger challenge it confronts in the western Pacific from the United States and Japan.
The US-China Picture
It is important to see the developments in the Sino-Indian border in the larger framework of relations between the US and China where there are intriguing signs of change. There was an important signal on Saturday when in a speech Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed reunification with Taiwan, but said that it would be through “peaceful means.” This is days after China flew nearly 140 fighter jets near Taiwan in the first four days of October. Taiwan had been emerging as the focal point of a potential US-China military clash and Xi’s statement should cool things down.
Things led off from a phone conversation between President Biden and Xi on September 9/10 where, according to a White House readout, both sides discussed the importance of maintaining open lines of communication and “responsibly manage the competition” between the two countries. This was followed by the October 6 meeting in Geneva of US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and the senior-most Chinese official dealing with foreign policy, Yang Jichei. This is expected to be followed by a virtual summit, the first, between Xi and Biden later this year. Sullivan repeated the formulation of the need “to ensure responsible competition” between the two sides and despite their differences.
How Will New Delhi be Affected?
The Chinese readout of the Sullivan-Yang talks noted that Yang bluntly rejected the US belief that relations between the two countries were “competitive”, and emphasised Beijing’s long-held view that the US should adopt a pragmatic policy “and correctly understand China’s domestic and foreign policies and strategic intentions”. It also noted the US assurance that it continued to adhere to a one-China policy.
Sullivan had been expected to put out the long-awaited review of the Biden Administration’s new China policy last week, but nothing has happened to date. Some reports suggest that there is a great deal of pressure on the White House, particularly from the business community, for a softer approach to China. Such developments will obviously impact New Delhi’s posture.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)