The attempt by China’s People’s Liberation Army to “unilaterally change the status quo” by transgressing the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang on December 9 has activated the eastern sector at a time when disengagement in the western sector is far from complete.

New Delhi’s demand that Beijing restore status quo ante as of April 2020 has not been met, despite several rounds of negotiations between the two nations to resolve the two-year-long military stand-off in Ladakh. India considers the Line of Actual Control – which demarcates Indian-controlled territory from territory controlled by the Chinese – to be 3,488 km long.

It is divided into three sectors: the western sector is along Ladakh, the middle sector along Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the eastern sector along Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. spoke to Dr Jabin T Jacob, Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies at the Shiv Nadar University, about the timing of China’s transgression in the eastern sector, India’s failure to force China’s hand in returning to a pre-Galwan territorial status quo and the Modi government’s reluctance to discuss the issue in Parliament.

Would it be correct to say that so far there were only minor disputes about positions on the ground in the eastern sector of the LAC (and the middle sector), the major disagreements and areas of active contestations were mostly limited to the western sector. But this transgression by the Chinese troops in Yangtse and the clashes there perhaps show that China will not limit its attempts to unilaterally alter the LAC just to the western sector.

There are several mutually agreed sites of dispute all along the LAC including in the eastern sector. Yangtse happens to be one such site that is also dominated by India. The larger issue relates to Tawang itself, which is really the crux of the Chinese claim over Arunachal Pradesh.

Tawang is the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and given that China’s historical claims over Tibet continue to be challenged by India and internationally, control over the town becomes important for Beijing as a way of strengthening its claims. The occupation of the peak at Yangtse offers a direct line of sight to the main road axis connecting Tawang with the rest of India through the Sela Pass.

Chinese attempts to occupy the peak are not new but the fact that they came this time in such large numbers and armed with clubs and maces does suggest that they intended to do damage and given that the Galwan incident remains fresh in memory it also suggests that the Chinese leadership has assessed that the risks or consequences of provoking the Indians once again are manageable. Under the circumstances, one must assume all of the LAC will be prone to Chinese transgressions.

What explains the timing of China’s move in Tawang?

One possibility is that after having gradually disengaged from the friction points created post-the transgressions of 2020, the Chinese wanted to escape pressure from the Indians on the so-called legacy friction points in eastern Ladakh, namely Depsang and Demchok.

Another possibility is that China was trying to signal its displeasure over the recent Indo-US joint military exercises in Auli in Uttarakhand, which the Chinese claimed had violated the 1993 and 1996 bilateral agreements on the LAC.

Developments of the last 30-odd months suggest China is not invested in resolving the larger border issue through talks. Specifically, the 16 rounds of talks that have taken place to resolve the standoff that began in May 2020 in Ladakh have failed to restore the pre-2020 status quo. Even complete disengagement of troops hasn’t happened. What has India’s strategy been in response?

There has not been much of an Indian strategy on view specifically on the LAC except to keep talking and attempt perhaps to wear the Chinese down diplomatically. But from a larger perspective, the message has become very clear within the Indian government that China is a long-term strategic competitor and there have been attempts to ensure that the economic dependence on China is mitigated and that India’s other diplomatic relationships are no longer hostage to concerns about keeping the Chinese in good humour.

Infrastructure development in the border areas also appears to have received fresh legs. However, structural problems remain – the Indian military forces are in need of urgent reform and restructuring.

Theaterisation* is proceeding too slowly and everything from knowledge of foreign countries, foreign language competence, grasp of information warfare and cybersecurity, promotion policies as well as the nature and character of relations between officers and men need immediate attention.

Members of the Shiv Sena Dogra Front protest against Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Jammu on December 13. Credit: PTI.

The Indian government made a statement on the Tawang incident only after it was reported in The Hindu and The Tribune. The Opposition’s demand for a discussion on China has not been agreed to. Even earlier, following Chinese transgressions in Ladakh, we saw any attempt to question the government’s China policy being characterised by government sympathisers as questioning the valour of the Indian army.

There has been no real discussion in Parliament of issues along the disputed boundary since the report of the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs released in 2018, following the Doklam crisis. A subsequent report of the Committee in 2019 largely expresses dissatisfaction with the government’s responses and actions taken.

In a democracy, the lack of public discussion of matters of national interest even in Parliament is a travesty. This is not to say that sensitive operational matters need to be revealed but as representatives of the people, Members of Parliament certainly can be taken into greater confidence if not also members of the strategic community, as in the American system.

Without such trust and institutionalised exchanges, the government of the day will not be able to identify mistakes and vulnerabilities nor obtain the feedback and creative inputs required for effective policymaking; it will be condemned to repeating mistakes and always reacting to Chinese actions rather than acting proactively to shape the situation on the LAC and elsewhere.

Accusations of being unpatriotic or of challenging the valour of the Indian Army thrown at those who demand answers and accountability are an example of what the 18th century British intellectual Samuel Johnson was talking about when he said “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. The accusers have the meaning of patriotism backwards.

Security personnel stand gaurd near the South Block where Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had a meeting with three services chief on the situation along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh, at Vijay Chowk in New Delhi on December 13. Credit: PTI.

How do you see the situation unfolding from here on?

For the foreseeable future, the outlook does not look positive. It is inevitable that the LAC will witness further clashes, including casualties on both sides.

The larger challenge before India is of how to simultaneously achieve the several objectives it must in order to counter malign Chinese influence across the board – provide adequate resources to infrastructure development in the border areas, manage the political and environmental consequences of such development in these areas, ensure that the other armed services, the Navy and the Air Force, receive their adequate share of capital for reform and acquisitions so that other potential theatres of conflict are not ignored, speed up theaterisation* of the armed forces, and promote both economic and military diplomacy in India’s immediate neighbourhood as well as further afield.

*“Theaterisation” refers to the three services working jointly together to cover a geographical area of operations. Instead of each service having its individual command – such as the Army and Navy having their own Western Commands, for example – there will now be a joint one headed by a commander drawn from one of the three services and commanding men and assets of all three.