The ongoing border dispute between India and China, following incursions by the People’s Liberation Army into regions in Ladakh and Sikkim in early May, marked the third major transgression in four years by the Chinese armed forces without facing significant pushback from the Narendra Modi government. While the Indian Army has deployed additional troops in response, one such face-off with the PLA, in the Bhutanese territory of Doklam in 2017, had led to a shift in the status quo in China’s favour. Since then, the Indian government has also ignored several incursions into Arunachal Pradesh, according to a parliamentarian and local politicians. In fact, the Modi administration routinely issued formal responses, but a closer scrutiny raises questions about whether India has adopted a policy of silence about China’s transgressions along the border.
The centre had maintained a studied silence despite previous incursions being raised in Parliament. In November last year, Tapir Gao, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s member of parliament from the Arunachal East constituency, had addressed Parliament on Chinese incursions into his state and sought the central government’s intervention. “Today, China has occupied more than fifty–sixty kilometres of Indian territory,” Gao had said before Parliament in November 2019. But India had formally denied any incursion, attributing it to “differing perceptions of the Line of Actual Control.” Speaking in the context of the latest incursion in Ladakh and Sikkim, Gao told me on the phone that China has continuously led construction activity within Indian territory since 2018. “They are going on occupying land,” he said. “Why didn’t we resist till now?”
The latest set of intrusions took place on 5 and 9 May, respectively, in east Ladakh’s Pangong Tso and Sikkim’s Naka Lu areas. Both areas lie on the Indian-side of the Line of Actual Control, the disputed 3,488-kilometre long border between India and China. Neither of the areas, however, had been part of the disputed territories earlier. The intrusions led to displays of aggression with exchanges of stone throwing and physical scuffles between the PLA and the Indian Army.
While the immediate hostility between the troops was settled on the ground in early May itself, the conflict has since escalated with both sides deploying additional troops and machinery along disputed border areas. The Global Times, China’s state-run English daily, reported in mid May that the country had “bolstered border control measures … in response to India’s recent, illegal construction of defense facilities across the border into Chinese territory in the Galwan Valley.” The Galwan Valley lies along the Line of Actual Control, in Ladakh, and is claimed by both countries.
The two countries had witnessed this sort of exchange in June 2017, when the Indian Army stepped in to the Doklam plateau, in Bhutan, to stop a large construction party of the PLA that was attempting to build a road in the area. While India had entered the dispute upon Bhutan’s request, China claims that Doklam is officially its territory. After a 73-day stand-off, both the countries officially agreed to disengage from the area.