India-China LAC clash will test move to disengage; political leadership's ability to resolve conflict offers no guarantee on preventing future tragedy

Leaders of both militaries know a nightmare confronts them: the transformation of a relatively peaceful LAC into a kind of India-Pakistan Line of Control, where troops trade fire on an everyday basis, in battles that serve no genuine strategic purpose.

Praveen Swami June 19, 2020 11:32:39 IST
India-China LAC clash will test move to disengage; political leadership's ability to resolve conflict offers no guarantee on preventing future tragedy

In 415 BCE, their sails illuminated under the high noon of the Athenian empire, a great fleet of Triremes headed into the Mediterranean, despatched to put down a rebellion in the small city-state of Syracuse. Through the next several years, Thucydides, a soldier on the fleet who would rise to be a great General and even greater historian, watched as war extinguished the wealth, power and honour of the greatest empire the world had until then known—leading it on, inexorably, towards annihilation.

“Think, too, of the great part that is played by the unpredictable in war,” Thucydides wrote, “and think of it now, before you are actually committed. The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them; we have to abide their outcome in the dark”.

Following this week’s carnage in the Galwan river, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping—painfully aware of the ruin war could lead their nuclear weapons-armed states to—have made clear their desire for de-escalation. There’s a not-insignificant gap, though, between their wishes and ground reality: Tactical military considerations, geopolitics and angry public opinion all stand in the way.

There’s no option for either leader, though: To march forward from Galwan is a path that will lead to both being enveloped in the darkness and desolation Thucydides described. Instead, both must acknowledge that the border management mechanisms they have relied on to defuse crisis are frayed beyond repair and seek new, creative mechanisms to bring about military disengagement.


How did we get here? For the best part of a generation, little other than geography—and a series of loose border-restraint mechanisms signed since 1993—have served as a band-aid which substitutes for the lack of agreed, well-defined borders on the world’s roof. In 1960, Beijing published the line it claimed marked the China-India border—and enforced it in blood in 1962, sweeping aside the ineffectual border posts New Delhi had set up to press its own claims.

PLA troops, though, withdrew from that line after the war to easily-supplied positions higher up the Tibetan plateau—creating a kind of no man's land, sometimes 20-25 kilometres wide. Both armies patrol into this territory, but neither held them. In essence, the furthest points these patrols reached mark what is now called the Line of Actual Control—a loose understanding, as it were, made up of overlapping claims, none established through an actual process of mapping.

In the 1980s, Beijing began an ambitious programme of enhancing its border infrastructure, allowing its troops to physically hold territories east of the 1960 line that they had until then only patrolled. In some areas, the Indian Army found its patrols blocked. The pasture lands of Skakjung, then Nagtsang, Nakung and Lungma-Serding were all lost—if “lost” is the right word for land never actually occupied—by the early 1990s.

New Delhi responded, in the wake of the Kargil war, by expanding its own border infrastructure: the Daulat Beg Oldi-Darbuk road, linking areas north of Pangong to the Karakoram Pass, is just one of a massive logistical network that has emerged across the region, to block the westward drift of the Line of Actual Control.

Till 2008, or so, Beijing paid little attention to India’s border-defence programme. The global financial crisis that year, though, led Beijing to revise its calculations. New Delhi, many in China’s strategic establishment now believed, was joining a United States-led coalition of powers put together to contain its rise as a superpower. From 2013, China began confronting Indian border patrols ever more aggressively—again asserting its 1962 line.

Former national security advisor MK Narayanan has argued that the India-China dialogue process, beginning from 1993, was premised on the idea that New Delhi would be neutral in great-power contestation involving the United States and its eastern neighbour. That assumption disintegrated slowly through prime minister Manmohan Singh’s two terms in office, as he sought a deeper strategic relationship with the United States.

Put simply, the treaties we have were signed in circumstances that no longer exist. Something else is needed.


Indian children aren’t taught that, as late as 1950, official Indian maps laid no claim to regions east of Ladakh, marking the frontier, simply, as “undefined”. The claims made by China, in turn, were nebulous and vague. From 1954, though, in response to Chinese maps that appeared to push the borders westward, New Delhi changed tack.  India began asserting that the claimed frontiers of British India were also those of the new republic -- an argument essential to India’s claims over Kashmir.

Few wars come about by design -- and fewer still run to plan. From the Athenians who despatched their fleet to Syracuse, to the Nazi leadership which hoped to assert supremacy in continental Europe, to the United States in Vietnam or Iraq: leaders through history have learned that the goddess of the battlefield is fickle with her favours.

The road to 1962 was paved by misjudgments. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and chairman Mao Zedong were asserting control of territories neither of their nations had ever, in any meaningful sense, ruled—neither with the intention, at that stage, of ending up at war.

Even as New Delhi and Beijing talked peace, though, both began despatching armed patrols to assert their claims. In 1959, nine Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel were killed in a PLA ambush at the Kongka pass, near the Chang Chengmo valley in Ladakh, and the survivors were taken prisoner.

Beijing claimed the Indians had opened fire first, a claim the Soviet Union’s premier Nikita Khurshchev mockingly dismissed in a private conversation with Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party of China: “Although the Hindus attacked first,” Khrushchev snorted, “nobody was killed among the Chinese, and only among the Hindus.

Lin Biao—the revered Marshall of the PLA who was later to be condemned as a traitor by Mao—responded that “there was no command from the top” to attack the Indian patrol.

New Delhi shared that judgment—and escalated its presence in Ladakh. The Generals guiding Nehru’s military judgments, as well as his intelligence chief, BN Mullick, were confident China would not attack the new Indian military outposts in strength. They were proved horribly wrong.

In strategic terms, the war brought Beijing nothing: India allied itself firmly with the Soviet Union, as that country emerged as China’s key strategic adversary. Later, India drew close to the West. The war had won China some territory it could well have acquired through negotiation but at the cost of a permanent strategic headache.

New Delhi’s adventurism, in turn, brought it humiliation -- and worse. India’s actions leading up to 1962 incentivised Pakistan to go to war in 1965, and helped Islamabad gain nuclear weapons assistance from a superpower patron.

In geopolitics, as Thucydides taught us, we must above all consider the unanticipated outcomes of our actions. Neither India nor China did so in 1962, to their mutual detriment.


For both Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, there’s no good military choice. New Delhi has, as scholar Abhijnan Rej has shown, starved its military of the funding needed to modernise for decades. Beijing’s spending on its military teeth exceeds, by orders of magnitude, what New Delhi can bring to the table. For its part, the PLA well understands what a war in Ladakh would look like: a murderous infantry conflict which would cost the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its soldiers, for at best insignificant territorial gain.

Leaders of both militaries know a nightmare confronts them: the transformation of a relatively peaceful LAC into a kind of India-Pakistan Line of Control, where troops trade fire on an everyday basis, in battles that serve no genuine strategic purpose.

At altitudes of 5,000 metres and above, such confrontations will mean enormous expense, terrible hardship and, worst of all, great loss of life—something no General wishes to inflict on their troops, except to secure genuine strategic ends.

In the long term, India can—and must—develop the military capacities it needs to more effectively guard its eastern borders. This long-term programme, though, will clearly do nothing to so solve India’s problems today. Though measures like trade boycotts may give some psychological satisfaction, India is not among China’s largest trading partners; most expert assessments concur that they will cost New Delhi far more than Beijing.

Galwan, however, illustrates how difficult disengagement can be. New Delhi cannot afford to be seen to give up positions like Point 14, the site of this week’s carnage. For its part, Beijing cannot be seen as backing down, either, for fear of the impact of this loss of face on its territorial conflicts in regions like the South China Sea.

Ever since 2013, leaders in both New Delhi and Beijing have believed the border management protocols the two sides have agreed on will protect them from worst-case outcomes. Though pushing, shoving and even stone-pelting broke out in crisis from Chip Chap to Depsang and Doka La, no lives were lost, and something resembling the status-quo was restored.

This week’s events show that the confidence of the political leadership was misplaced: Their ability to resolve conflicts through peaceful means is no guarantee that accidents and missteps will not have tragic outcomes in the future.

Learning from the murderous violence in Galwan and Pangong, troops will now be more likely to reach for lethal force in situations of stress, no matter what their instructions from their commanders might be. Fighting that involves small arms and even artillery will, obviously, be hard to contain.

How this might be done is less clear. In 2013, China even refused to accept a map of the LAC in Ladakh from India, arguing later that the differences between its perceptions and those of New Delhi were so large as to make meaningful conversation impossible.

Even now, though, there are pragmatic options—options that can be fleshed out in discreet, creative diplomacy.  Even though Beijing has shown no interest in formal border delineation, the Galwan crisis may have brought home to it the costs of confrontation. The two armies could, for example, cease to patrol areas beyond the points they physically control—and ensure compliance using technological means, like joint surveillance of the kinds envisaged in the famous Open Skies Treaty.

For India, this will mean the painful admission that swathes of territory it claims to lie on its side of the LAC have been physically held by the PLA for decades. Two generations of prime ministers and generals will have embarrassing questions to answer.

Prime Minister Modi should not, however, allow himself to be a hostage to a past he had no role in: There are times, as that most hawkish of hawks Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said in 1988, that all nations must be prepared to “drink from the chalice of poison”.

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