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4 tents, 9 men, one dog—How 2013 brought back border conflict between India and China

In 'Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in the High Himalayas,’ Manoj Joshi unpacks what is happening on the India-China border and the implications for the future.

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The incident that took place in the Depsang Plains in the spring of 2013 was a curious one. The region lies at the very northernmost end of the Sino–Indian border, adjacent to Aksai Chin. It features two bulges, one into Indian territory in the area adjacent to the Chip Chap river, which, in a sense creates a bulge south of that into the Chinese-held Aksai Chin. Bulges are always the fodder for war planners, and so are these. Both sides try to equalize the bulges by pushing them back and this makes for a fraught situation. (See Map 4) At mid-morning on 15 April, an Indian observation post detected a group of Chinese personnel headed into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

This was not unusual: there were, as we have pointed out, many places along the LAC where the border was really marked by a Line of Perception—the Chinese had one and the Indians another. In this case the Lines of Perception had been some 10–15 km apart. The Chinese patrolled to their line and the Indians theirs. By agreement neither side could build structures or camp in this area. The Depsang Plains, some 900 sq. km in size and at an altitude of 16,000 ft (5,000 m), lie between high mountains on the Indian side and the Laktsang range in the east, adjacent to which runs the Chinese Aksai Chin Highway (G-219). To its north is the undisputed Sino–Indian border point—the Karakoram Pass, and to the south a knot of mountain territory which includes the Galwan river, the site of the June 2020 incident. To their surprise, the Indians were confronted by something unusual next morning. The Chinese had pitched tents and had not gone back. Neither did they do so the day after.

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Their encampment, comprising four tents, some nine men and a dog, was 19 km inside the Indian perception of the LAC. And while Chinese patrolling in the area was not unusual, their establishing a camp there was. And soon we had a full-blown crisis in hand. New Delhi immediately ordered the Indo-Tibetan Border Police to advance up to the Chinese positions and also pitch their tents there. They set up their encampment of eight tents eyeball to eyeball with the Chinese. Both sides displayed banners advising the other side to pull back because they were on the other’s side of the LAC. This area is clearly sensitive for both India and China and has long been fought over by India and China. In the case of India, it abuts its northernmost post of Daulat Beg Oldi which was just about 30 km away.

For the Chinese the flat terrain provides no easily defensible obstacle till the Laktsang range, 40 km to the east, and that much closer to the 219 Xinjiang–Tibet Highway. Not surprisingly, the Chinese side denied that they had crossed the LAC. The official spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, declared that the Chinese patrol had not gone across the LAC “by even one step.” As per protocol, the Indian complaint triggered meetings at the official level and the Indian External Affairs Ministry called in the Chinese ambassador to protest. The genesis of the deployments of the two sides here goes back to the 1962 war. The Indian official history of the 1962 war recounts that the 14 Indian posts spread out from the mountains north of the Chip Chap river and the Depsang Plains to it south near the Jeong Nala were wiped out in a matter of days. And the remaining posts in DBO, Track Junction and Sultan Chushku abandoned.1 It is perhaps not a coincidence that the most serious Chinese action in 2020 is the blockade of Indian patrols in the Depsang plains. More than a decade after the war New Delhi reasserted the claim to the southern part of this area and established PP 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13 as its patrollling route.2

This seems to confirm the belief in some circles that the Chinese are belatedly seeking to reestablish themselves to the points they had reached in 1962. According to Major General P. J. S. Sandhu, who has edited a study of the war from the Chinese point of view, in the western sector theiraim was to remove 43 Indian posts out of 72, which they felt were on their side of their 1960 claim line. He has cited a Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) directive of 14 November 1962 ordering the PLA to strictly limit their attack to the 1960 claim line. Even returning Indian fire from across that line required the approval of the General Headquarters. But, in the Depsang Plains and the Chip Chap river valley, after eliminating more than a dozen Indian posts, they did not go back to their claim line, but occupied additional territory.

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The problem, he says, was that the Indians had withdrawn all along the line, even from positions that had not been attacked since they were mainly there for showing the flag and not for fighting. Even the Daulat Beg Oldi post, which was “neither attacked, nor contacted by attacking troops, was abandoned.” But subsequently, while the Chinese maintained their hold along the Chip Chap river, in the southern part, the Indians began to once again patrol to the limits of their 1962 claim. The site of the PLA encampment of 2013 had been carefully chosen. It lay on the banks of a rivulet called Raki Nala, south of the Chip Chap river, at a point 7 km north-west of the Burtse camp from where paths branched out to the north and the south where lay India’s Patrolling Points (PP) 10, 11, 11A, 12 and 13 that indicated the limits of patrolling for Indian border forces.

For historical reasons, this 20-odd km frontage was actually short of the LAC which was several kilometres further east. Within the Indian military and border police establishment, this was known as the Y-Junction or Bottleneck. As the name suggests, the Chinese blockade effectively prevented India from patrolling a large part of its claimed LAC. This is an area where the Indian-claimed LAC bulges out eastwards covering an area of some 900 sq. km. Equally, from the Indian point of view, it is a Chinese bulge westward where the Chinese-claimed LAC comes within kilometres of the Darbuk-Shyok Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road. Chinese pressure had been steadily building up in this area.

This excerpt from Manoj Joshi’s Understanding the India-China Border: The Enduring Threat of War in the High Himalayas, has been published with permission from Harper Collins.

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