A week after a clash was reported between Indian and Chinese soldiers along the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh prodded the Modi government in Parliament on Tuesday to assert Indian claims on the disputed border rather than “legitimising Chinese aggression by referring to ‘differences in perceptions’”.
The Line of Actual Control is the de facto demarcation between Indian and Chinese-held territory.
Like Ramesh, many experts and defence veterans have been arguing that India should not be accommodative of Chinese perceptions of the Line of Actual Control which, they highlight, keep shifting over time.
Ascribing ongoing military confrontations between the two nuclear-armed nations to their so-called varying perceptions of the disputed border hurts India strategically, they suggest.
Indian officials have repeatedly attributed clashes with China to Delhi’s and Beijing’s differing perceptions of the disputed border.
In August 2020, just two months after the deadly clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Galwan, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said he “accept[s] there are some differences in perceptions” of the Line of Actual Control, while suggesting neither side should attempt changing the status quo unilaterally.
A month later, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also said “there is no commonly delineated Line of Actual Control between India-China and the perception of both countries on the LAC are different”. Singh’s statement was on the then-ongoing India-China stand-off along the disputed border in eastern Ladakh. Tensions had flared at multiple locations along the Line of Actual Control as both sides deployed heavy artillery and thousands of soldiers. The disengagement from those 2020-’21 skirmishes has not concluded.
Days after the December 9 Tawang clash came to light, former army chief General MM Naravane, who led the army during the 2020-’21 skirmishes, also turned to the differing perceptions explanation. “We also patrol up to our perception line, they come up to their perception line… if the patrols come face to face at the same time, then obviously there is a chance of a clash happening,” he said.
An old line
This is not a new stance. In 2014, the Union government said there were 1,612 “transgressions” along the disputed Chinese border between January 1, 2010 and August 4, 2014, but “no intrusion[s]”. The incidents were categorised as transgressions, not intrusions, “due to difference of perception of the Line of Actual Control”.
A year earlier, the defence ministry had similarly stated that transgressions occur “due to both sides undertaking patrolling [up to] their respective perceptions” of the line.
This phenomenon occurs since most of the India-China border is not formally agreed on by the two countries. Therefore, they have different perceptions of where the Line of Actual Control, the de facto demarcation between Indian and Chinese-held territory, runs.
However, excerpts and analysts have increasingly criticised the Indian government for attributing hostilities to differing perceptions, saying it is in denial about the loss of previously Indian-held territory to Chinese aggression.
A former brigadier of the Indian army, V Mahalingam, wrote way back in 2014 that “Chinese incursions in the Ladakh sector are being brushed under the carpet by India, labelling them ‘the effect of differing perceptions’”.
Similarly, just days before the Galwan clash in June 2020, retired Lt General HS Panag wrote that instead of developing a clear strategy and sharing it with the country, “the Narendra Modi government and the military have gone into ‘denial’ about any loss of territory” by attributing the crisis to differing perceptions about the line.
India must assert its own claims
While China has its own perception of the Line of Actual Control, with the claim shifting repeatedly, experts and veterans assert that India is clear and consistent about where the line runs. Therefore, they suggest, a differing Chinese perception should not be of India’s concern when defending territory.
“[India is] very clear about the alignment of the LAC as we have cremated/buried our comrades who were killed in action in 1962,” Panag wrote, referring to the month-long full-fledged India-China war in 1962. “It is the Chinese claim line that has been changing since 1950.”
Similarly, Lt General DS Hooda (Retd) had said earlier: “When people talk about perception, our LAC is very clear to us. Yes, the Chinese have a different perception, which is fine, but we can’t have our soldiers on the ground get confused about where Indian territory is. There is no grey zone about the line as far as the [Indian] military is concerned.”
Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran had argued in a similar vein in the aftermath of the Galwan clash, saying India knows “exactly where the LAC is”.
Therefore, Saran argued, India “should be careful about using the phrase ‘differences in perceptions’ on the LAC alignment”.
Playing into Chinese hands
Worse, the constant use of the differing perceptions line will end up downplaying Chinese aggression and could hurt India strategically, experts caution.
Amid the 2020 military build-up in Ladakh, for example, Panag highlighted that as there are no differing perceptions about the line in the Galwan river. Chinese aggression there is deliberate – to threaten the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road.
Therefore, “to be in denial and acquiesce to explain the loss of territory to ‘differing perceptions’ will open Pandora’s box, and in future, result in loss of more territory,” Panag cautioned. “The justification of ‘differing perceptions’ is just playing into the hands of the Chinese.”
In much the same vein, Lt General AS Bedi (Retd) suggested that China is trying to push the line further towards India, as part of its “salami slicing” strategy: the process of incrementally cutting into the opponent’s territory. As a result, having overlapping areas of influence along the disputed border – extending many kilometres in some areas – suits China’s plan of “slowly creeping forward and enhancing their control over these areas,” Bedi warned in 2020.
Mahalingam too had suggested in 2014 that China’s “frequent intrusions … are meant to keep its territorial claims alive and ultimately force India to give up on its territory to meet the larger Chinese game plan”.
As a result, experts such as Saran warn that India “should not minimise the seriousness of Chinese encroachments because their perception is different”.
No permanent buffer zones
Consequently, Saran cautioned that India should not “fall into the trap of accepting so-called ‘buffer zones’ in areas of overlapping claims”. These overlaps in claimed areas are the direct result of differing perceptions of the Line of Actual Control.
To this end, experts suggest India must ensure such buffer zones do not become permanent now.
Hooda admitted that buffer zones help maintain peace where soldiers would otherwise be face-to-face. However, as neither side can patrol within buffer zones created at 2020-’21 friction points, Hooda argued, “the situation is already different from what existed” before the stand-off, when India patrolled up to its perception of the line.
Therefore, India must ensure these buffer zones do not become permanent as they would block the army from patrolling up to India’s full perception of the line, Hooda asserted.
Additionally, to ensure that China’s claims do not shift further, Mahalingam suggested Delhi must force Beijing to define the limits of its claim line.