The Long Shadow of the 1962 War and the China-India Border Dispute

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 21

PLA troops pose with a flag at a border post along the LAC with India (source: Global Times)

Introduction

In the war that India and China fought between October 20 and November 20, 1962, India not only suffered a humiliating defeat but also lost a chunk of territory in Aksai Chin in Ladakh in eastern Jammu and Kashmir. Sixty years later, the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are locked in a standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border, at Ladakh, which began in mid-2020 and continues through the present (Jamestown Foundation, March 1). Both sides’ corps commanders have held sixteen rounds of bilateral talks thus far and have reached agreements on the disengagement of troops from several points of friction and the establishment of several “buffer zones” in these areas (Xinhua, July 28). However, China has refused to return to the April 2020 status quo and the buffer zones have been carved largely out of Indian territory. Sixty years after it lost a large swath of territory in Ladakh, is India ceding ground there again to China?

Background     

The entire India-China border is disputed. The two countries disagree on where the border runs and claim chunks of territory under the other’s control. China claims 90,000 square kilometers (sq km) of land in northeastern India, an area it refers to as “southern Tibet”, which roughly coincides with the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (Global Times, January 22, 2021). As for India, in addition to the 38,000 sq km of territory in Aksai Chin that it lost to China in the 1962 war, it claims another 5,300 sq km in the Shaksgam Valley of Jammu and Kashmir that Pakistan occupied in 1947-48 and ceded to China in 1963 (The Hindu, November 6, 2020).

Since the 1962 war, the sides have clashed at Nathu La and Cho La (1967), Tulung La (1975) and Sumdorong Chu (1986-1987) (The Wire, June 17, 2020). Yet, through the 1990s, up until the mid-2000s, the situation along the LAC was relatively calm. Agreements reached on maintaining peace and tranquility (1993), military confidence-building measures (1996), political parameters and guiding principles for settling the border (2005) and border defense cooperation (2013) helped to keep the peace along the LAC. [1] That began to change in 2013-2014 when in addition to increasing “transgressions” across the LAC by the two sides, Chinese intrusions into the Indian side of the LAC grew in frequency, depth and seriousness. For example, in April and May 2013, Chinese soldiers intruded 19 kilometers into Indian-controlled territory in Depsang Valley and pitched tents there, resulting in a 21-day standoff (India Today, May 6, 2013).

Chinese Intrusions Across the LAC 

The current standoff along the LAC in Ladakh is unprecedented in terms of its duration, the number of casualties incurred in clashes; the build-up of troops and military hardware; and the expanse of territory occupied by China. The crisis began in April and May 2020 when thousands of PLA soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers crossed into the Indian side of the LAC at Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, Gogra-Hot Springs, Depsang and Demchok, pitched tents there and blocked Indian patrolling teams from entering the area (Business Standard, May 23, 2020). While clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers began in early May, it was only when a violent skirmish erupted at Galwan Valley on June 14-15 that the magnitude of the crisis came to the fore (China Brief, July 15, 2020). In the Galwan Valley clash, soldiers from both sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat resulting in multiple deaths, the first fatalities along the LAC in 45 years. The incident was regarded as “a gamechanger in India’s national security and foreign policy strategy” (Observer Research Foundation, June 18, 2020).

The Chinese intrusions into Indian territory in April-May were serious; the PLA occupied a significant area of land. A senior Indian government official told The Hindu in August 2020 that over 1,000 sq km of territory along the LAC in Ladakh had fallen under Chinese control. This included around 900 sq km in the Depsang area, 20 sq km in the Galwan Valley, 12 sq km in Hot Springs, 65 sq km in Pangong Tso and 20 sq km in Chushul (The Hindu, August 31, 2020). Indeed, Indian analyst Manoj Joshi estimates the area occupied by the Chinese at “anywhere up to 2,000 sq km of territory if you count the Depsang Bulge, the Kugrang River Valley, Galwan, Pangong and the Charding Nala areas.” [2]

Disengagement and Buffer Zones  

In the 30 months since the bloody clashes at Galwan Valley, India and China have engaged in 16 rounds of military talks, which resulted in the disengagement of troops from “friction points” at Galwan Valley in July 2020, Pangong Tso in February 2021, Gogra Post in August 2021 and Hot Springs in September 2022 (PRC Ministry of National Defense (MND), September 9; Global Times, September 9). Buffer zones have been set up at the friction points and are of varying widths, ranging from 3 km in the Galwan Valley to 3.5 km each at Gogra and Hot Springs, and 10 km at Pangong Tso (The Telegraph, September 17). According to a Ministry of Defense official, “both sides have retreated by equal distances” to create the buffer zones and neither side can patrol here. [3]

While both sides may have pulled back by equal distances, the buffer zones being created are detrimental to India. “In all four areas the buffer zones that have come into existence are entirely on territory both claimed and previously patrolled by India but now, as a result, India is denied the right to patrol up to where it previously could” said Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian Army colonel and strategic affairs analyst. In Gogra, for instance, “where the Chinese ingressed 4 km into Indian territory, they have gone back two km and the other two km have become a buffer zone.” As a result, the buffer zone at Gogra is “entirely on Indian claimed territory” (The Wire, September 15).

Local Ladakhis complain that Chinese soldiers are not letting them graze their sheep and goats on their traditional pasturelands. And now the “grazing areas have reduced further as they have been made into buffer zones,” says Konchok Stanzin, an elected representative of Chusul in the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. “A huge grazing area has been turned into a buffer zone and we are retreating from our own land,” he said, adding that while India is losing land to buffer zones, the Chinese are ceding far less land, or none at all for the creation of these zones. [4]

Challenges Ahead

Chinese forces occupied the largest expanse of territory in Depsang and Demchok during spring 2020, but disengagement has yet to occur in these areas. The Chinese are reportedly unwilling to even discuss the creation of buffer zones in these two areas, claiming that the dispute is not part of the current standoff but dates back to 2013 (The Hindu, March 11). If India acquiesces to China’s refusal to disengage in Depsang and Demchok, this will be not only a major loss of land but also strategic territory for India. To the north of Depsang lies the Karakoram Pass, to its east is Aksai Chin and the Siachen Glacier lies to its west. India’s control over the vital Sub-Sector North (SSN) in Ladakh, which depends on a recently built 255-km long Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road runs through Depsang (The Print, September 19, 2020).

Underlying India’s loss of territory is its flawed strategy. Instead of insisting on a return to the April 2020 status quo, it has agreed to the establishment of buffer zones (China Military Online [CMO], September 29). Indian defense ministry officials justify these concessions by claiming that the “buffer zones are temporary, and India has not given up its right on those areas” (The Telegraph, November 1). However, retired military officials are skeptical. They point out that the April-May 2020 intrusions into the Indian side of the LAC by PLA soldiers were aimed at altering the status quo on the ground by occupying areas of strategic importance to the PLA. “These buffer zones represent a new status quo on the frontier,” a retired lieutenant general said. “The Chinese have been non-committal on restoring the status quo as of April 2020 and are pressing India to accept the altered frontier created by their transgressions” (The Telegraph, November 7).

No De-escalation

A key premise of the China-India corps commander-level talks has been that the disengagement of troops from areas of friction will lead to de-escalation (CMO, July 18). However, this has not happened yet at friction areas where Indian and Chinese troops have already pulled back. Indian government officials say that de-escalation will happen after disengagement is completed at all friction areas along the LAC in Ladakh.

Meanwhile, there is a noticeable escalation in infrastructure building on both sides of the LAC. At Pangong Tso, for instance, China is constructing two bridges across Pangong Tso. The second bridge, which is “bigger in size and wider” than the first, is expected to enable the PLA’s “faster induction of not just troops and vehicles but even armored columns” to the border. Apparently, China is constructing “multiple routes to counter any possible operations by the Indian forces on the southern banks of the Pangong Tso in the future” (The Print, May 18). Multiple roads and bridges at Pangong Tso will facilitate the swift movement of troops from China’s Moldo garrison to the LAC when needed (The Hindu, October 29). China is also constructing another highway linking Xinjiang with Tibet. The 857-km-long G695 highway will reportedly run near Depsang, Galwan Valley and Hot Springs on the LAC (The Hindu, July 20).

Thirty months after Indian and Chinese soldiers violently clashed at Galwan Valley throwing the spotlight on the fragile military situation along the LAC in Ladakh, the situation remains tense. The two sides reportedly have around 50,000 soldiers each along the LAC at Ladakh. They continue to amass military hardware there. It is likely that soldiers will have to hunker down for another bone-chilling winter in the Himalayas. Amid this otherwise bleak scenario, there is a ray of hope; military commanders of the two sides will continue their talks to end the crisis along the LAC at Ladakh. The 17th round of talks between senior military commanders are due to be held “at an early date” (The Hindu, October 14). The big question for which India will be hoping for an answer is whether China will be willing to discuss Depsang.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher and journalist based in Bangalore, India. She has written extensively on South Asian peace and conflict, political and security issues for The Diplomat, Asian Affairs, and the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor and Militant Leadership Monitor. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Notes

[1] Manoj Joshi, Understanding the India China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in the High Himalayas (New Delhi: Harper Collins India, 2022).

[2] See, author’s interview, Sudha Ramachandran, “Manoj Joshi on Why China Wants Its Border With India to Remain Unsettled,” The Diplomat, October 25, https://thediplomat.com/2022/10/manoj-joshi-on-why-china-wants-its-border-with-india-to-remain-unsettled/.

[3] Author’s Interview, Indian official, Ministry of Defense, New Delhi, India, November 2.

[4] Author’s Interview, Konchok Stanzin, councilor, Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, Ladakh, India, November 5.