The India-China border marked with blood after the death of 20 Indian soldiers following an interregnum of peace resembles the India-Pakistan border where soldiers are killed again and again. Over the last two decades, China has increasingly transgressed Indian territory to intimidate India and assert its boundary claims with military muscle.
Each time when Chinese troops violate Indian territory, they attempt to test the Indian military’s tactical response, besides political and diplomatic stances.
While India and China ceased their hostile fire over the Himalayas after the 1962 war, patrol clashes take place at least once a year along the disputed border, especially over the last decade. The psyche of the Indian Army that guards the borders with China is scarred with the humiliation of the 1962 war which breeds animosity and mistrust towards their Chinese counterparts.
The post-1962 conflict phase of India’s relations with China witnessed the first major military clash with the country at Nathu La in September 1967. The Indian Army and Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) violently clashed against each other, with 200 Indian and 300 Chinese soldiers killed at Nathu La — a strategic pass in Sikkim.
The Indian Army attempted to fence the border to curb Chinese intrusions, but the PLA objected to the move. As a result, the two sides first fought hand-to-hand combat and finally escalated into a small-arms duel between the two sides. The Indian Army infantry units that gave the PLA a bloody nose, included 18 Rajput Regiment and The Grenadiers.
On October 20, 1975, the PLA ambushed an Assam Rifles patrol without any provocation, killing eight soldiers at Tulung La in the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh. It was a reminder of the 1962 war. The Chinese ambush was sprung 500 metres south of Tulung La on the Indian territory. Chinese troops erected stone walls on India’s side of the pass and fired several rounds of ammunition on the Indian patrol.
In 1986-87, the two Asian neighbours deployed their troops at Sumdorong Chu in the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh. The PLA occupied Indian border posts during winter when Indian troops withdraw from the area due to harsh winter.
Thereafter, Indian troops retaliated to get PLA soldiers to vacate the post. Perhaps, the Pakistan Army repeated the Sumdorong Chu surprise on the Indian Army many years later at Kargil in 1999 when they undertook a similar operation during winter.
There was complete confusion in the Union Ministry of External Affairs mainly because officials were unaware of the topography of the area. Initially, Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister stated that the Chinese had built a helipad in Wangdung in Sumdorung Chu. The then External Affairs Minister Shiv Shankar outrightly denied this claim in Parliament.
Surprisingly, a week later his deputy KR Narayanan contradicted Shiva Shankar’s denial. Eventually, this development led to a summit attended by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in December 1988. China sought to stake claim to the disputed territory through the physical presence of its troops on the ground.
All along, the two neighbours have asserted their presence through patrols, which periodically pass through these disputed borders and leave tell-tale signs such as food packets, cigarette butts or other items, to stake their territorial claims.
However, the two sides have never attempted to maintain a semi-permanent presence on these territories, such as pitching tents. To reciprocate the Chinese move, the Indian troops too pitched tents that have resulted in a face-off between the two sides.
On April 15, 2013, over 40 Chinese troops pitched a few tents across the Line of Actual Control (LAC), around 19 km into the Indian territory at Depsang near Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh. Daulat Beg Oldi is located on the ancient trade route which passes through India and Tibet.
It connects Ladakh to Tarim Basin in Xinjiang province in western China and is an Indian Army base. Clearly, it was not a localised action as was made out in the initial stages. It signalled Chinese intention to further entrench themselves on the Indian territory, where the PLA squatted for 21 days.
Soon after the Chinese troops withdrew from Daulat Beg Oldi, 300 PLA soldiers returned to Chumar in Ladakh and camped there with tents. The Chinese troops objected to tin-shed structures that Indian soldiers had erected there. Chumar is the last village in Ladakh that borders Himachal Pradesh. China claims Chumar to be its own territory and Chinese troops have annually forayed into Chumar with their helicopters.
Diplomatic parleys began once again. The then Indian Ambassador to China S Jaishankar played a key role to restore the status quo. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was scheduled to visit India on May 19, 2013, and in the view of his visit, diplomatic deliberations yielded results.
Chinese troops dismantled their tents on May 5 and then the Indian forces removed their tin sheds. Flag meetings were held on May 6 and the Chumar standoff was resolved in 21 days with China agreeing to patrolling by the Indian troops in the area as before.
Controversy characterizes the PLA intrusion into Demchok, which China claims is part of the Tibet Autonomous Region considering it was in the backdrop of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit in September 2014. Indian patrols discovered that Chinese troops had deployed heavy machinery to build a road inside the Indian territory.
The Demchok standoff continued even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi signed 12 deals on September 18. Modi is understood to have raised the matter with Xi, who was reportedly embarrassed over the Chinese move. Xi, reportedly, assured Modi during the talks and that paved the way for resolution of Demchok standoff.
Finally, it took another week for the Chinese forces to withdraw, which followed a meeting between the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her Chinese counterpart in New York on September 26. Finally, after 20 days, PLA troops withdrew to their pre-September 10 position.
In July-August 2017 India and China confronted each other at Doklam for 73 days. While the military confrontation was only visible over the land borders, there was a maritime dimension to this muscle-flexing with a Chinese naval detachment of a destroyer, a frigate and a supply ship conducting live-fire exercises in the Indian Ocean.
During the 1990s, India’s response on few occasions to Chinese incursions across the LAC was to sail a small naval flotilla into the troubled South China Sea characterised with competitive regional naval deployments against Chinese maritime forces.
The 1993 ‘Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas’, soldiers’ blood along their disputed border was broken on June 15, 2020, after Indian and Chinese soldiers were killed at Galwan.
(The writer is a former Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Christ Deemed-to-be University, Bengaluru)