Understanding the India-China standoff in Ladakh
The Changpas are the nomadic community that lives in eastern Ladakh. They are generally the first to encounter soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the event of a face-off. Heavy snowfall in the winters, force the Changpas to leave valley floors and climb the mountains in search of winter grazing lands. Since there is no formal demarcation of the LAC between India and China in these remote areas, the Changpas often unknowingly move very close to the LAC where they may encounter PLA patrol parties.
This is how trouble started in 2008 when PLA troops asked a group of Changpas to move back and initiated a policy of ‘pushing back’ and following the trails of the Changpa’s winter footsteps. This resulted in an inch-by-inch intrusion of the Changpa’s winter grazing lands. In later years, these intrusions starting affecting the daily life of border villages and resulted in an increase of face-offs and even fist-fights between the Indian and PLA soldiers along the LAC. The current standoff between India and China on the banks of Pangong-tso and the massive build-up of Chinese troops on the other side of the LAC indicate a shift in policy from an ‘inch-by-inch’ intrusion to an all-out aggressive posturing. In this article I will try to trace the relevant signs and the impact of such standoffs on local communities.
Since the border has never been clearly demarcated, it leads to contested perspectives. This has become a major challenge for the Changpas and communities living in villages close to the LAC in Ladakh such as Demchok, Chusal, Dungti, Phobrang, and Chumur. These communities face a two-pronged problem: firstly, they are excluded from the benefits of development schemes due to the remoteness of the region wherein the local administration and others make little effort to reach them. Secondly, their proximity to the LAC has become a curse for them, especially in winters when the Chinese soldiers refuse to allow them access to traditional winter grazing grounds and keep a tight check on their movement.
So far, the modus operandi of the PLA has been to start patrolling the Indian side of the LAC. If they come face-to-face with Indian troops, it results in a faceoff. However, if they do not meet anyone, they leave behind conspicuous signs of their presence in the form of biscuit wrappers and other materials to strengthen their claim to the land. Such activities have been taking place in the frontier areas of eastern Ladakh but have largely been ignored and under-reported.
In 2008, Chinese soldiers uprooted the tents of the Changpas from their winter grazing lands near the LAC and drove them away. In an interview with NDTV after this incident, a Changpa proclaimed, “Last year this was our place, but now the Chinese Army has driven us away and uprooted our tents. This has made our lives very difficult.”
The pastures traditionally used by the Changpas and local villagers have been shrinking steadily due to the push back policy adopted by the Chinese army. Unfortunately, border patrolling units of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the army cite border agreement between India and China and prevent the Changpas and local villagers from venturing near the LAC in many areas.
These villages and areas lack basic amenities, which indicate the absence of interventions by the civil administration for developmental activities. In contrast, reports claim that that the Chinese have invested heavily in developmental work on the other side of the LAC. In 2018, villagers and nomads from Demchok, which is located along the LAC in eastern Ladakh, held a protest ‘over the lack of infrastructure and basic facilities (roads, communication, electricity, ration), and the restrictions imposed by the Indian army to even construct toilets or graze cattle in their own territory’. Such protests have been taking place for a while but the lack of media attention means these grievances rarely reach the relevant authorities. Communication technology remains very poor in these regions though locals report that cell phone and radio signal from the Chinese side are much stronger than Indian ones.
The standoff between India and China near the Pangong-tso that started in early May 2020 has resulted in a full-scale troop mobilisation by both countries along the LAC in Ladakh. According to a recent report in The New Indian Express, “China initiated the standoff as an objection to road construction activity on the Indian side between Finger 3 and Finger 4 and also on an arterial ling [sic] to Galwan Valley being built as an offshoot from the 255 km long Darbuk [sic]-Shyok and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) road”. In Galwan valley, this road built by the Border Road Organisation comes close to the LAC and China is objecting to it. Pangong-tso is 135 km long and according to India, it controls around 45 km of the lake while the rest is under Chinese control. Along the northern bank of the lake, there are protrusions of land into the lake at many points, which are called fingers and numbered. According to India, the LAC passes through Finger 8 and it patrols till Finger 4. However, over the last few years, China has started patrolling till Finger 2 and has started stopping Indian soldiers from patrolling beyond Finger 2.
On 5 May, Indian soldiers proceeded beyond Finger 2 for their patrol when they were stopped by PLA troops. Since then, troops from the Indian Army and PLA have been engaged in a standoff along different points on the LAC. Such face-offs are not new as the two countries have a different understanding of the LAC. However, the Chinese are believed to be more aggressive. At the same time, sources report that China has also increased its infrastructure on a large scale along the LAC over the last few years. This has been corroborated by accounts from local Changpas and villagers on the Indian side of the LAC.
A month has passed now and the standoff remains unresolved. The two sides are engaged in dialogue but the standoff is expected to last longer than the one at Doklam in 2017 that lasted for 73 days. Furthermore, the scale of PLA deployment, which reports estimate to be over two brigade-strong, indicates sanction from Beijing and is not limited to local military commanders.
But why are the Chinese so desperate this time? According to a report in Hindustan Times, in military terms Chinese dominance and deterrence posture in the DBO sector is an effort by the PLA to prevent India from executing its plan for rapid border infrastructure development. This summer is believed to be the last chance for China to act as the Durbuk-Shyok-DBO road will be completed this year and significantly improve India’s capacity to rapidly deploy in the area near the LAC in Ladakh. This prospect worries China.
At least six rounds of talks have been held between Indian and Chinese military commanders on the ground to de-escalate the tensions along the LAC. However, these talks have failed to achieve any breakthrough. After these failed attempts of dialogue, the two countries are exploring politico-diplomatic interventions to diffuse the crisis. India has declared that it will not allow the ‘status quo’ to be changed unilaterally by the PLA. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Doklam team, which includes National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat and Foreign Minister, S Jaishankar are back in action to diffuse the current standoff in Ladakh. This team had crafted India’s response to the Doklam standoff. Additionally, top commanders of the Indian army met for a three-day conference in Delhi in early May, where one of the main points for discussion was the ongoing standoff with China.
Some observers have pointed out that if the standoff is not resolved quickly through dialogue, it will undermine the progress that India and China have made over the past few years, especially through the two informal summits between Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and Chinese President, Xi Jinping, first at Wuhan, China in 2018 and then at Mamallapuram in 2019.
Ladakh is geo-strategically very important for India as it shares frontiers with China as well as Pakistan and is also home to the mighty Siachen glacier that gives India a vantage point over Pakistan. In addition, Ladakh is also an important tourist hub. There are clearly no special developmental schemes for border villages that are at the frontline of such conflicts. The Changpas who graze their livestock near the LAC are the eyes and ears but we need to heed their complaints about the Chinese PLA, which have been ignored so far.
This suggests that a fresh Ladakh policy must be charted, which should include suggestions from local communities including ones who live in the frontier regions. We also need to bridge the void between frontier villages and the local administration. This standoff at Pangong-tso in May 2020 has highlighted the fact that things are not well along the LAC in Ladakh. Infrastructure development in frontier villages and their integration in the mainstream are some important steps that can be included in the new policy framework for Ladakh.
By Dr. Zainab Akhter
Illustration by Suhail Lone
Dr. Zainab Akhter works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.