Out of Control

How China outmanoeuvred the Modi government and seized control of territory along the LAC

A map of the India- China border in Ladakh, depicting the 1956 and 1960 claim lines of China, as well as lines of actual control before and after the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Wikimedia Commons
30 September, 2022

FOR THE FIRST TIME in forty-five years, on 15 June 2020, India and China recorded the death of Indian soldiers on the Line of Actual Control—the contested border between the two countries, which stretches from the Karakoram Pass in the west to Myanmar in the east. The deaths occurred in the Galwan Valley, in Ladakh, and these were the first military casualties in the territory since the 1962 Sino-India War. The full details of the incident are shrouded in ambiguity, but it involved Chinese soldiers pitching tents around the Galwan Valley and their forceful eviction by the Indian Army—there is little clarity on whether China’s People’s Liberation Army had agreed to abandon these positions. This led to a clash which claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four PLA soldiers. More than seventy Indian soldiers were injured while nearly a hundred more, including some officers, were taken captive by the Chinese. No Chinese soldier was in Indian captivity. “We were taken by surprise by how well prepared they were for the clash,” a top officer at the army headquarters in Delhi, who was part of the decision-making in the Ladakh crisis, told me.

The LAC has neither been delineated on the map nor demarcated on the ground by either side. The last attempt to do so failed nearly two decades ago. The difference in the two sides’ understanding of it is so vast that New Delhi claims the border between the two countries is 3,488 kilometres long while China says it is only around two thousand. It is the world’s longest disputed border. As the two countries do not agree on where the “actual control” exercised by either side ends, both are engaged in an uncompromising contest of asserting control over small parcels of land in a desolate Himalayan wasteland. The demonstration of territorial claims can take several forms, including soldiers patrolling up to certain points, building infrastructure along the border and controlling the limits to which people in border villages are allowed to graze their animals. The unforgiving terrain and harsh weather have not dissuaded India and China from deploying around fifty thousand additional soldiers each on the 832-kilometre LAC in Ladakh since the summer of 2020.

The deadly Galwan clash occurred at patrolling point PP14—an area that was not until then disputed, and which the Indian Army patrolled regularly. Days after it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in Delhi that the Chinese had not “intruded into our border, nor has any post been taken over by them”—an attempt at saving face that China gleefully seized upon as proof that it had not encroached upon Indian territory. The clamour around the deaths and the release of captive Indian soldiers, however, had blown the lid off the government’s attempts to play down the crisis in Ladakh. The situation had already come to public notice in India a month earlier because of massive physical clashes on the north bank of Pangong Lake, also in Ladakh. There were severe injuries on both sides, but no deaths. These major episodes marked the border crisis of the summer of 2020, even though tension had been building for months before that.

Two and a half years later, the state of ties between the two neighbours can be aptly described as “No War, No Peace.” This was an expression used by military officers more than two decades ago to describe the situation on the border in the restive Kashmir region between India and Pakistan—the Line of Control. The two situations are materially different, but the terminology makes a connection that was pointed out to me by a senior Indian military commander who was involved in handling the Ladakh crisis. When I asked him about the thinking that impelled military actions leading into the crisis in the summer of 2020, he said, “Do not treat China on the LAC like Pakistan on the LoC.”