Once again, the Sino-Indian border is the epicentre of an Asian geopolitical tremor. Not an earthquake, but it causes just enough shakes to weaken diplomatic efforts to at least ease relations between the two countries.
But where the Chinese incursions at Demchok and Chumar unusual?
The difficulty is that the border, for all of its Himalayan proportions, is more fluid than most people realize.
One, there is the issue of demarcations. There are two Lines of Actual Control which tell where the two armies have physical control. In between there is an extensive no man’s land in which snake two claims lines which more often than not overlap each other.
Two, there is the issue of infrastructure. While the Chinese have built extensive infrastructure on their side of the border, India has begun to catch up only in the past five years or so. But this is important: improved infrastructure means more frequent patrols and, say, jeeps instead of pack mules. Change the road system and patrols are more frequent – inevitably the more often Indian and Chinese troops will bump into each other.
Three, the operating procedures between the two sides on handling the border keep changing with new border agreements. These agreements are necessary to keep pace with the improved infrastructure, weapon systems and the entry of such things as helicopters and drones.
This makes it hard to draw from raw numbers whether this is a consequence of a Chinese tactical decision or a simple fallout of, say, a better road and warmer weather that season.
Looking at the raw numbers – of which there are, this being India, different and often contradictory figures depending on the agency one talks to – there is clearly an increase in border transgressions by China in the western sector.
In the period up to 2011, such incursions normally numbered about 200 per year. Then from 2012 this number has doubled to the 430 range. This present year, 2014, is set to match this new range.
Harder to judge is the quality of such intrusions. One thing seems certain is that China border action is focusing on a few specific areas. In Ladakh these are Chumar, Demchok, Pansong Lake (Three Idiots fans please note), Depsang and a half-dozen smaller points. All these largely match the 1959 claims line of China, an older claims line now seemingly in the midst of being revived physically.
There is an additional issue which New Delhi doesn’t like to admit.
Over the years, India has become much less aggressive about patrolling the full extent of its claims area, even the full extent of its LOAC. This seems to have been because of piecemeal decisions over the years that have led the Indian patrols to restrict themselves to hugging the LOAC. As Shishir Gupta points out in his book Himalayan Face-Off, “Indian patrols do not go up to the LAC on advice of the CSG in these areas.” The CSG is the quasi-official China Study Group that advises the government on such issues. This has immediately meant the furthermost claims areas of India have become de facto areas of Chinese control.
After the fall in Sino-Indian relations in the latter years of Hu Jintao, India built up both infrastructure and the began pushing its patrols forward. Confrontations have been inevitable.
So, yes, the Sino-Indian border is becoming just a bit more heated. It will continue to do so. Both these countries are experiencing a rising nationalism. India has also seen the emergence of a more shrill television media that is no longer prepared to accept the relatively common back and forth that takes place on the border of both sides intruding. Better infrastructure, better patrolling and, in the case of India, a sense that too much was conceded in the past decade and needs to be reclaimed.
There is a new norm emerging on the Sino-Indian border for better or worse. And the two governments need to hammer out an even more comprehensive border management agreement to make sure the norm is institutionalized in a manner that keeps the guns quiet.
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