Late on the night of 19 October 1962, Chinese artillery began pounding five Indian posts perched to the east of India’s northern-most military base, Daulat Beg Oldi. Faced with impossible odds, the men held out for three days—and then, fought their way back along the track towards the base. India’s XV corps knew those men were all that lay between the advancing Chinese troops and Leh. Major Sardul Singh Randhawa was ordered to lead the surviving troops of the 114 Brigade back across an iced-over river to the 5,411-metre Saser-La pass—where, armed with just 100 rifle rounds each and a handful of machine guns, they were to make a last stand.
Then, something odd happened: the advancing Chinese forces drew up to the line that their country had claimed as its border in 1960, and stopped dead. India’s official war history argues China’s “pattern of deployment inducted and forces do suggest they were satisfied with reaching their 1960 claim-line. It seems doubtful [that] they had the aim to capture Leh”.
For the first time since that murderous battle, Chinese troops have established positions west of their own claim-line, ahead of where they stopped in 1962. Fifty-odd Chinese soldiers who are now perched in temporary shelters in the middle of the strategically-significant Depsang Bulge.
Ever since 1999, Chinese patrols have frequently probed land India claims as its own, leaving behind signs of their presence like juice-cans, cigarette packs and graffiti. Highly-placed military officials Firstpost spoke acknowledged Indian troops do the same, traversing routes east into Indian-claimed territory. In the event patrols are confronted, troops put up banners proclaiming friendly intent—and back up. The system has avoided loss of face—and deaths.
Large swathes of the Line of Actual Control are disputed—nothing but the Karakoram pass is accepted by both sides as a frontier. There’s been plenty of disputation as a result, notably over the construction of a road in 2005-2006 across parts of the Depsang plateau claimed by India. The former intelligence official RN Ravi has recorded that incursions in this sector went up from 150 in 2005 to 240 in 2010. Neither side, though, has ever held ground—that is, until now.
No-one knows exactly why China has done so, but this much is clear: India’s hard-nosed military commanders aren’t committing resources to Daulat Beg Oldi because its fun being there. In the summer, access to the post involves a brutal two-week hike over the Sasser-La—described by historian John Keay as “probably the most impressive and dangerous” of the passes on the ancient spice-route between Ladakh and Yarkand. From there, the route leads on to Murgo, a windswept plateau that, in Yarkandi, means “the gate of hell”. The Sasser-La is impenetrable in the winter, except by the dangerous trek through the iced-up Shyok river. The government committed to building a road in 2007—but work has barely begun.
From a military perspective, Daulat Beg Oldi and its airstrip are held for one, and one reason alone. Perched just south of the great Karakoram pass, it offers India a means to snap the road route between China and Pakistan and guard the eastern gates to the Siachen glacier. The defence of Leh itself no longer needs Daulat Beg Oldi; there are effective positions in depth.
Though Daulat Beg Oldi is thinly held—it has just one company, on average about 125 men, of Ladakh Scouts, and four from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police—that is mainly because there isn’t a significant opposing Chinese presence. The Depsang Bulge has long provided defensive depth to Daulat Beg Oldi, to allowing soldiers perch along key heights, like the magnificent Trishul peak.
Making sense of the Depsang incursion necessitates a careful navigation of the complex, and bloody, history of China-India map-making. Ever since 1951, Indian forces had begun setting up scattered checkpoints along the McMahon Line—the colonial-era boundary between Tibet and British India drawn in 1914. In New Delhi in November-December 1956, China’s premier, Chou En-Lai, left Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with the impression the McMahon Line would form the basis of their post-imperial frontiers. Chou, Nehru wrote in 1958, said his government was “of the opinion that they should give recognition to the McMahon Line”.
The problem was, however, that India’s notion of where the line lay was somewhat different to that of China. In a 1960 brochure, the External Affairs Ministry asserted that when “discrepancies between Indian and Chinese maps were brought to the notice of the Chinese government, they replied that their maps were based on old maps of the Kuomintang period and they did not assert any claims on the basis of these maps”.
No-one has ever explained just why—or if—the Indian government actually believed this. In 1955, China had begun constructing a road through the Aksai Chin, linking its garrisons to Xinjiang to Tibet. From then-Intelligence Bureau director BN Mullik’s memoirs, there is evidence the Indian trade agent in Gartok reported the construction work in 1955. India’s military attaché in Beijing, Brigadier SS Malik, is also believed to have done the same. These claims, India’s very useful official war history of 1962 states, were corroborated by former Cabinet Secretary SS Khera, who said intelligence on the new Chinese roads was available by 1952.
That New Delhi chose not to protest this road-building until September 1958 was, Chou later said, “eloquent proof that this area has indeed always been under Chinese jurisdiction and not under Indian jurisdiction”.
From 1955, China also began a series of deep reconnaissance missions on to the Indian side of the McMahon line—marching to Barahoti and Damzan; the Shipki-La in Himachal Pradesh; and the Lanak La in Ladakh. In 1957, not long after Chou’s visit to New Delhi, Chinese survey groups entered Walong—the scene of one of India’s worst debacles in the 1962 war. In June, 1958, Chinese troops occupied Khurnak Fort, along the Pangong lake. Things came to head in the autumn of 1959, when nine men of an Indo-Tibetan Border Force—the local wing of the Intelligence Bureau—were killed in an ambush on the Chang Chenmo in Ladakh.
In meetings held between June and December 1960, Chinese officials proposed a fresh claim line—running well to the west, for the most part, of their 1956 position. This was the eventual line China forced in place in 1962.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s maps show China’s 1956 claim-line cut north-west from the source of the Chip Chap river, which would have placed the Depsang Bulge out of Indian hands. The fact that China officially insists its troops in Depsang are on Chinese territory seems to suggest it is once again asserting the legitimacy of the 1956 claim-line—a peculiar position, since that would involve significant backward-movement in its position. It is unclear if this question has been explored in ongoing China-India talks, but nothing has been said in public.
Zorawar Daulet Singh, an expert on the China-India military relationship, has recently noted that both sides have long engaged in “probing up to their preferred Lines of Actual Control”. That’s true, but Depsang is different: the area is well outside of China’s claimed line.
Finding a speculative explanation for what is going on is easy. For example, it is possible Chinese want to lean harder on Indian positions facing the Karakoram, or that they are signalling irritation about India’s wider build-up on its eastern borders, which includes the raising of an entire new corps. Facilitated by an excellent road network, China’s troop locations are at considerable depth—15-20 kilometres or more from its claimed borders, unlike Indian positions jammed up close to the 1962 ceasefire line. It is also, of course, possible that China is telling the truth when it suggests the action may be a protest against defensive fortifications India has put up in Phuktsé, to compensate for its vulnerable logistical chain.
So what should India do? There’s no shortage of suggestions. In a thoughtful commentary in the Business Standard, defence expert Ajai Shukla recommended India place more aggressive diplomatic pressure on China, for example by pushing it on the conflicts in Tibet and Xinjiang. The eminent commentator Swapan Dasgupta, similarly, has suggested “lending a shoulder to countries such as Japan, Vietnam and even Singapore who are fearful of China's hegemonism”. Singh, for his part, has suggested a grand territorial bargain on Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin.
These ideas all merit very serious discussion, but none will get the Chinese post out of the Depsang Bulge before the winter—and that is India’s critical short term concern.
It is interesting to consider the historical antecedents of this uncomfortable situation. From 1950-1959, a declassified Central Intelligence Agency history notes, “Nehru continued to see a border war as a futile and reckless course for India. His answer to Peiping [sic., Beijing] was to call for a strengthening of the Indian economy to provide a national power base capable of effectively resisting an eventual Chinese military attack”.
Eventual, the CIA’s analysts observed, was a neat evasion: “in the context of the immediate situation on the border, where Chinese troops had occupied the Aksai Plain in Ladakh, this was not an answer at all but rather an implicit affirmation that India did not have the military capability to dislodge the Chinese”.
Even though it’s improbable China wants war, India wants one even less. India’s political leadership is hesitant to authorise force, wary of the certain costs of precipitating a crisis. Later this year, as the cold sets in across Ladakh, China’s outpost will have to withdraw: there’s simply no way to survive the cold in temporary shelters. However, Chinese will by then have drawn lessons about Indian resolve—and it’s vital, in the long-term interests of peace, that they not be the wrong ones.
There are things India can do, short of setting off a firefight, which can signal seriousness of purpose: among them, more aggressive probes and presence-marking operations. There will be a price—but it will be cheaper than the cost of doing nothing now.