Since the early of may 2020, the news related to tensions across the indo-china border in Ladakh became dominating headlines in recent days. Initially, there was no official announcement related to confrontation between troops, thereafter it was addressed by the Army Chief that ‘disengagement’ has happened in a phased manner between Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army(PLA). But after some days a “horrendous and barbaric ” incident happened which claimed the lives of our 20 Indian Army personnel in violent clashes with Chinese troops. The clash was most serious since 1967,and came amidst a ‘de-escalation’ process of the confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in the area after the corps commander level talks between the two sides. It occurred in the Galwan valley, which hasn’t been a site of conflict since 1962. Casualties have been seen many times, because of the un-demarcated nature of the border line. To understand the Genesis of their standoff, we should go through the past of both of the nations and their bilateral relationship.
Relations between both countries started when both the countries got parallel independence. At independence, India’s one of the important policies was to maintain cordial relations with china. India became the first non-communist nation to maintain diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China(PRC). Our then PM, was of the ideology of ‘resurgent Asia’ that is, friendship between two largest states of Asia. His vision of an international policy governed by the ethics of PANCHSHEEL accords(Five principles for peaceful coexistence under which india acknowledged Chinese sovereignty in Tibet). India, being concerned about its ties with China, didn’t attend the conference for the conclusion of a peace treaty with Japan because China was not invited. Initially, both nations had friendly ties, which led to beneficial veto power granted to China by India at UNSC.
Frictions hiked when both the nations had a clear conflict in Tibet’s interest. After which, China annexes Tibet by claiming historical rights over the territory. Later, In 1954, Aksai chin was included in the maps published by India, which became one of the key fulcrums in differences between India and China.
In 1957,China occupied Aksai Chin and built a road through it. Thereafter in 1958,China map showed the large area of northeastern part of J&K as Chinese territory.
In 1959 , China offered us a workable solution to ease the border issues, but India rebuffed the offer when Premier Zhou Enlai visited India and proposed India to drop its claim over Aksai chin and China would withdraw its claim from NEFA. However, little negotiation was done but unsuccessful at that juncture. These incidents followed, The Forward Policy,1961, In which PM Nehru decided that Indian Army should occupy the frontier areas along the McMohan Line and Aksai chin. All these episodes resulted into the intermittent clash along the border, which finally culminated into the sino-india war of 1962.
In 1967, second Sino-India war took place in Nathu-la and Cho-la (Sikkim) because of wire fencing work to define border line. However, as soon as work began on the fence, the Chinese troops became agitated and asked the Indian Army to stop. The scuffle started with pushing and jostling, before a Chinese soldiers opened fire and shot dead the Indian Commanding Officer during an eyeball-to-eyeball situation.
Soon, it escalated to use of medium artillery and Chinese even threatened to bring in fighter jets to bomb Indian position. It seemed like an intense battle which also led to a decisive victory for India. This was the last major clash between India and China before June 2020. However, India’s then defeat in conflict(1962) is not the right prism to look at the situation of LAC today.
Total area of boundary line between India and China is around 4050 KM, divided into three sectors, i.e, Western sector(J&K), Middle sector(Uttarakhand and Himachal pradesh) and Eastern sector (Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh). However, Eastern sector referred to as the McMohan Line, not accepted by china as it was agreed to by Tibetan representatives with British India. The un-demarcated nature of boundary line is one of the key cause of incursions by troops, as both nations have their overlapping claims in territories. It appears that, many a times, military patrols from the Indian Army and China’s people’s Liberation Army have been encountering each other. However, India and China haven’t exchanged gunfire at the border since 1967, despite occasional flare-ups because of several peace agreement for Confidence Building Measures in the military field along the Line of Actual Control. During the time of British rule in India, two borders between India and China were proposed- Johnson’s Line and McDonald Line.
The Johnson’s line (1865) shows Aksai Chin in erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir (now Ladakh) i.e. under India’s control, whereas, The McDonald Line (1893) places it under China’s control.
India considers Johnson Line as a correct, rightful national border with China, while on the other hand, China considers the McDonald Line as the correct border with India.
Both sides agreed to protocols in 1993, 1996,2005 and 2013 that describe the rules of engagement to handle incursions. Some of the landmark legal agreements are;
- Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA), 1993. In this agreement five principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity recognised.
- Agreement on Confidence-building Measures in the military field along the Line of Actual Control,1996.
Current situation of stand-off
The current round of tensions started from Pangong Tso lake, where there was a major brawl between the two sides on the night of may 5 took place, leaving more than 70 Indian soldiers injured. Tensions were also running high in the area of Galwan river valley, over which the Indian Army and the PLA’s of china brutally clashed with barbed wired rods, jostling or fighting with sticks and stones on the night of June 15, which claimed lives of our 20 Indian troops. We can understand the whole situation through the chronology of recent standoff :
- May 6: Indian and chinese troops scuffle at pangong tso in ladakh resulting in injuries in larger number on both sides.
- May 9: Clash between troops at Naku La in North Sikkim resulting in injuries on both sides.
- May 18: China accuses India of “trespass”, building “illegal” infrastructure on LAC.
- May 21: MEA says Chinese troops “hindering normal patrols”
- May 27: China says border situation “stable and controllable”
- June 2: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh says Chinese troops present at LAC “in large numbers”
- June 6: Military commanders talk on Chinese side of LAC. Identify five areas of conflict, Pangong tso, Patrolling point 14,15 and 17A and Chushul. Agree on limited “disengagement” from some of the areas.
- June 10: Major General level talks held. Chinese MFA says positive consensus reached at june 6 talks and two sides are following this “consensus to take actions to ease the situation along the border”
- June 15: Twenty killed after violent face-off with PLA troops in Galwan during the “de-escalation” process.
- June 19: Chinese Foreign Ministry in a statement claimed that the entire Galwan valley is located on the Chinese side of the LAC.
So, what was the reason behind escalation?
Since this is a obfuscated point to justify the main cause of casualties, because both nations have differing perception over the LAC. One of the triggering point stated by China that, Indian border guards crossed the line into the Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley area by night, constructing barriers, blocking the normal patrol of the Chinese border guards, deliberately provoking incidents, and they attempted to unilaterally change the status of border control. However, India has rejected the claim as “exaggerated and untenable”. Observers said, main triggering point was the opening of the vital Darbuk-shyok-Daulet beg oldie road, that runs parallel to the LAC providing key all weather access to the post at Daulet Beg Oldie, one of the northernmost point in Ladakh.
The recent incident represents a watershed in India’s relation with China and marks the end of 45 years chapter with no armed confrontation, involving loss of lives on the Line of Actual Control. Now the question arises, Why did Indian troops do not open fire during violent clash? Reason was legal agreements between both sides in which;
Article 1 of BPTA,1993 provides,
- “Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means”,
Article 6 of agreement on Confidence Building Measures,1996 provides,
- “Neither side shall open fire, cause biodegradation, use Hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometer from the Line of Actual Control”.
As a son of Indian soil, they fulfill their duty to abide by the principles of constitution mentioned in part lV, i.e., in article 51(3) to foster respect for international law and respect treaties as responsible saviors of the nation. Nevertheless fatalities have always been seen from the other side.
The current stand-off in Ladakh will go down in the annals of Indian history, as incident has been deeply shaken the country, the outcome of which surge the Nationalist sentiments for boycotting Chinese products as the reflection of National anger. At this time, India has to be realistic and sagacious in responding to China’s belligerence. Now, India should use this opportunity to start manufacturing goods domestically for which we have manpower and the capacity to build infrastructure. It’s time to work towards an “AATMANIRBHAT” India.
Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ‘thelawmatics’.
Author: Saru Salwan, Department of Laws, Panjab University Chandigarh
Co-Author: Ravneet Kaur, Department of Laws, Panjab University Chandigarh