What the latest LAC clash portends about the future of India China relations
Reports yesterday (December 12) have said Indian and Chinese troops have been engaged in the biggest clash on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since 2020 — and the biggest clash in the Eastern Sector in perhaps six years.
This issue will bring you up to speed on what happened, and explain why LAC tensions, so far restricted to the Western Sector, now surfacing in the Eastern Sector, portends a continued difficult period ahead in the India-China relationship notwithstanding recent efforts to stabilise ties.
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My colleagues Dinakar Peri and Vijaita Singh, who broke the story yesterday afternoon (their report was followed by an Indian Army statement, which I’ve added below), reported this was no minor incident and left injuries on both sides. While the Indian Army statement noted this was a part of the LAC where there were mutually agreed upon differences on the LAC (an "agreed disputed area" as its sometimes described, quite the oxymoron that sums up the peculiarities of the LAC arrangement).
But that there were 600 PLA soldiers coming up into this area suggests this was
1) By no means part of the normal jostling we see or an incident that can be played down as such
2) At first glance, a provocative move by the PLA at a sensitive time in relations, and one that is mirroring moves carried out by them in the Western Sector starting April 2020 — moves that, as readers know, upended improving India-China relations, plunged ties to the lowest level since normalisation, and led ultimately to the Galwan Valley clash in June 2020.
As my colleagues reported (you can read the full report here):
Stating that the clash occurred as a large PLA patrol came across into the Indian side, one Army source said “injuries on the Chinese side were much higher than on the Indian side”. At least three different units of the Indian Army were present at the time of the face-off, it has been learnt. According to another source, a few soldiers sustained fractured limbs during the skirmish and are said to be recuperating at a hospital in Guwahati. Around 600 PLA soldiers were present when the clashes took place, the source said.
This is the full Army statement. It notes both sides have immediately disengaged from the area so there is no continuing stand-off.
As of Tuesday morning, there was no response from the Chinese side although I would expect one later today. There were many reports on Chinese social media and news sites that were reproducing Indian media reports. Former Global Times editor Hu Xijin on a post on his WeChat account quoted unnamed and unsourced reports as saying there was also an “exchange of fire” — which was the alarming headline of his WeChat post which has more than 100,000 views already — but added that he was waiting for official statements from both sides to confirm this fact.
There is no reason to think there was an exchange of fire, going by the Indian Army statement and numerous Indian media reports so far.
How it unfolded
An earlier LAC stand-off.
Snehesh Philip in The Print reports the PLA troops, as seen in April 2020 in the Western sector, were heavily armed with clubs — but not with rifles, in keeping with bilateral agreements. The workarounds to ‘no rifles’ are, however, getting increasingly cynical and dangerous:
Sources in the defence and security establishment said the clash took place on the morning of 9 December when over 200 Chinese soldiers armed with crude weapons reached the Indian perception of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), about 35 km from Tawang. The Chinese were challenged by a group of about 50 Indian soldiers who stopped the PLA advance in an area that saw a similar clash in October 2021.
Within half an hour, the Indian backup team arrived at the spot, following which a clash ensued. This clash, according to sources, started off with stone pelting before troops from both sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
Sources said that while the Indian troops were not armed with taser guns, they had “everything and more than what the Chinese had” to be able to retaliate. The Chinese were not carrying rifles, sources said, adding that they came in with wooden clubs and spikes with nails on them, and monkey fists — a crude weapon made of iron that is worn on the wrist — besides tasers.
Initial assessments suggest the PLA incursion into this disputed grey zone (that’s the suggestion from the official statement on differing perceptions) was planned and timed carefully, reports the Indian Express:
The clash in Arunachal Pradesh took place at about 3 am last Friday at a nullah along the LAC in the Tawang heights near a point called Yangtse in Eastern Tawang. This part of the LAC is one of the “agreed disputed areas” between the two sides, according to military sources.
Indian and Chinese troops are positioned on either side of the nullah, but on this night, some 300 Chinese troops came into the Indian side.
There were no warning signs about the transgression and hearing the sentries being assaulted, some 70 to 80 Indian troops mobilised quickly in the dead of night to push back the intruders. There was intense hand-to-hand combat with sticks and canes for a few hours, according to sources. The clash was “more than pushing and shoving”, the sources said, although it was not clear if there were any serious injuries on either side.
A similar transgression had taken place in June 2016 when around 250 PLA soldiers had transgressed into the area but no clashes were reported then. A military officer who has served in the area said there was no predicting when the PLA would carry out such operations as “the Chinese perpetually control the escalatory ladder in that area” and they do so “at a place of their choosing”.
A top source in the government told The Indian Express that this time the PLA had “pre-planned” the transgression for an “opportune” time. The location of the skirmish is described as heavily forested terrain, with Chinese troops occupying “top of the wall” positions with deep supply lines and infrastructure.
Due to snowfall in the area, this was also the time for some Indian troops to withdraw from their positions, giving the Chinese side a further tactical upper hand, said the source. A heavy cloud cover also made it challenging for Indian satellites to capture images of any troop build-up. After the clash, the Indian side is said to have used Radio Frequency (RF) signal geolocation equipment to reconstruct satellite images. The high-resolution satellite imagery is presently being analysed by the Indian military and security establishment.
Finally, the Hindustan Times reports the Opposition in India is already pressuring the government on the clash and will raise it in Parliament. The Opposition has since 2020 been consistently pressuring the government to share more details about the LAC situation on the Western Sector and has criticised its general reticence. The report said:
The latest clash… has prompted a barrage of attacks from the opposition on the Centre. The matter is likely to be brought up in Parliament on Tuesday with the Congress and other opposition parties calling for a discussion.
Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge has insisted on a discussion in Parliament. "Again our Indian Army soldiers have been provoked by the Chinese. Our jawans fought in a resolute manner and a few of them have been injured too. We are one with the nation on the issues of national security and would not like to politicise it. But the Modi government should be honest about the Chinese transgressions and the construction at all points near the LAC, since April 2020. The government needs to take the nation into confidence by discussing this issue in Parliament," Kharge stated on Twitter.
Not just the Congress but Lok Sabha MP Asadduddin Owaisi also tweeted about the incident. "The reports coming from Arunachal Pradesh are worrying and alarming. A major clash took place between Indian and Chinese soldiers and the government has kept the country in the dark for days. Why was the Parliament not informed, when it is in session?" he further asked. "The details of the incident are sketchy. What was the cause of the clash? Were shots fired or was it like Galwan? How many soldiers have been injured? What is their condition? Why can’t the Parliament extend their public support to the soldiers to send a strong message to China?" Congress's spokesperson Jairam Ramesh also said that his has been trying to "wake up" the government on the Chinese actions on the border but it is silent in order to "protect its political image".
What all of this means
In April 2020, the PLA unilaterally changed how both sides manage the border in the Western Sector by moving into 'grey zones, and now ensuring there are buffer zones there, where neither sides are present. It did so by first building up forward area infrastructure and then deploying in large numbers.
Whether or not the latest clash is isolated, and whether or not the PLA intends to do so in the Eastern Sector, is unclear given historically, the PLA preoccupation has been with the Western Sector given its Xinjiang-Tibet significance, but what is certainly clear is that India has to be prepared for similar actions. I don’t want to jump the gun here, but to me how can we not see it as further signalling of how Beijing is bringing the border back to the front-and-centre of the relationship, and seems to be clear that it’s going ahead with enforcing its claims in border areas more forcefully, and as it sees fit, regardless of the impact on bilateral relations.
Two detailed pieces I’d recommend:
Sushant Singh reported in Foreign Policy on December 3 on the immediate challenge India faces on the China border and coming troubles in the Eastern Sector, which have rather promptly manifested themselves:
If the situation in Ladakh is “stable but unpredictable,” Indian military leaders have told Foreign Policy that major stretches of the LAC’s eastern sector—2,500 kilometers (or 1,553 miles) away—are an even bigger cause of concern. In 1962, this area was the site of a humiliating defeat of the Indian Army at the hands of the PLA. Today, massive Chinese infrastructure development and troop buildup closer to the LAC has placed India at a military disadvantage. In September, [Army Chief] Pande said when it comes to infrastructure in the area, “there is lots to be desired to be done.” Recent reports suggest at least three additional PLA brigades remain deployed in the area even after the Party Congress, further worrying Indian military planners.
On China and ‘lost territory’ (which is how they have described Tawang in particular since the late 1980s), veteran Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan had this broader point to make in an interview with James Crabtree in the Mekong Review that is worth reading:
The legitimising narrative [for the China] is in fact that of an ethno-nationalist narrative of humiliation, rejuvenation, and achieving the China Dream. That infuses Chinese foreign policy with a very strong sense of revanchist entitlement: What I am doing in the South China Sea is my entitlement. That was mine. I lost it when I was weak. I want it back.; So it is very hard for the Chinese to compromise, even assuming they want to, without looking weak, because they already said ‘this is mine’. This leads them to all kinds of behaviour, foreign behaviours and so on, that is not in their interest.’
Thank you for reading this issue.
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