The dynamics of LAC: Tactical events & geo-strategic implications


Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

Xi Jinping would need to show greater maturity and review his ‘neighbourhood diplomacy’ policy, especially with respect to India. Such coercive diplomacy may work with weaker nations, but not with India. India is ready to work with China as an equal partner in the region, but is Xi Jinping ready?

The current situation in Eastern Ladakh has spawned many write-ups, tweets and talks on media by few arm-chair strategists without a clear understanding of the terrain and the dynamics along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Some are providing only one half of the information, especially about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, and tend to provoke a fear-psychosis by insinuating that the Indian Military is not responding adequately. Wittingly, or unwittingly this plays right into the hands of the China’s Psychological Warfare, and its ‘Wolf Diplomacy’. Some unthinkingly compare the LAC with India’s Line of Control (LC), wherein the dynamics are vastly different. Unlike the LC, events along the LAC, especially stand-offs, tend to have geo-strategic and geo-political implications; sometimes geo-political, or strategic events do lead to such stand-offs.

The LC is well defined, delineated, but not demarcated; defined means point-to-point details are written, delineated means these points and the line joining them are clearly marked on large scale maps – large scale is needed to avoid ambiguity and demarcated means this delineation is marked on the ground by surveyed and numbered boundary pillars. While there was an exercise in defining and delineation of the Cease Fire Line (CFL) in 1948, but it was not demarcated, and has shifted during the ’65 and ’71 wars of the last Century for achieving local tactical superiority. The CFL became the LC post the Shimla Agreement in July 1972. There is a heavy deployment of troops on both sides of the LC, and, since ’89, has been highly active with regular firing, shelling, and cross-border terrorism. Thus, any occupation of unheld territory across the LC, by either side, has military implications – the 1999 Kargil War is an example of that.

The LAC, however, has different connotations across the Western (Eastern Ladakh), Central (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), and Eastern (Sikkim, Arunachal) Sectors. In the Western Sector, the Indian claim line is based on the 1865 Johnson Line, claiming the whole of Aksai Chin, while the Chinese had generally accepted the 1899 Macartney-McDonald Line along the Laktsang range till East of Karakoram Pass (overlooking the area where the Chinese built the Sinkiang-Lhasa road). Post 1962, the Chinese have come further ahead. The Central Sector, the boundary lies along the watershed with limited claims by China, while the Eastern Sector has the famous Macmahon line dividing Tibet and British India, drawn on a very small-scale map, with no clear definition, except that it follows the watershed, based on the 1914 Shimla Agreement between British India, Tibet, and China.

Post annexation of Tibet by China in 1950, it has refused to accept the treaty the Qing dynasty had signed with the British India in 1914. That said, the LAC has neither been correctly defined, delineated nor demarcated, even during British India. Thus it suffers from a weakness of differing perceptions of the LAC by both India and China, leading to patrol face-offs and stand-offs like the ongoing one in Eastern Ladakh. However, it must be remembered that unlike the LC, ever since the Tulung La (Arunachal Pradesh) incident in Oct 1975, no shot has been fired in anger by either side despite the many face-offs and stand-offs.

The LAC has a peculiar dimension. There is an area that is under the military control of both sides, then there is the perceived claim of China’s LAC (based of the PLA’s patrolling patterns) and our claim of the LAC, both of which lie within the no-man’s land between the areas under respective military control. Both sides regularly patrol up to their claim lines that has sometimes resulted in face-offs when both patrols are in the same area. Consequent to the various agreements reached by both sides since 1993, there has been a process laid down for select local military commanders to have hotlines, confidence building measures (CBMs), and mutually agreed procedures to manage such face-offs. It is when there is a stand-off(s), like the ongoing one in Eastern Ladakh that the matter needs attention higher up the chain, since the trigger is usually geo-political but the PLA / China tends to give it an operational hue to hide its long-term intentions.

China perceives India as its main challenger in the region, and a threat to its dream of a unipolar Asia under its leadership. A rising democratic and liberal India is also seen as a threat to its narrative that only an autocratic form of governance, like the Chinese model, can succeed economically. However, the Wuhan COVID-19 pandemic and Chinese complicity in hiding its virulence from the world, the global economic impact, its brazenness in pushing a brash narrative through ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy has led to a sharp rise in global anti-China sentiments. These have given rise to aggressive posturing by Xi Jinping from the Western Pacific to Eastern Ladakh. That it is desperate for some geo-political space is understandable, but the strategy chosen seems to be backfiring in the region.

That India has a much better infrastructure and control in Eastern Ladakh than China appears to have slowly dawned on the Chinese Leadership. In the region that they have orchestrated the stand-off, the Indian Army is comfortably placed on interior lines, while the PLA is on exterior lines, with extended lines of communications. There is also a growing perception that India’s military reach to China’s key sensitive points across the LAC has improved with the infrastructure developed in the forward areas.

Thus, this time around, there are no belligerent statements from their Foreign Ministry like there was during the Doklam crisis. The tone and tenor is both soft yet duplicitous, like the Ambassador of China to India stating that ‘China will not let India lose face’; a laughable statement, to say the least, considering that it is China that is now searching for a face saver having bitten off more than they could chew.

China fears the growing close relations between India and USA and is keen to ensure that it can either supress India or coerce it to swing towards it. However, it finds itself in a bind, with growing Indian firmness. It seems it misread the tea leaves while assessing India’s acceptance of the Wuhan and Mamallapuram outreach. With India firm on a status quo ante, USA inviting India to an expanded G7, which India has accepted, the stalled Belt and Road Initiative projects that hurts Chinese economy and the growing voices against the Chinese highhandedness seems to have pushed Xi Jinping to the edge. The current stand-off may not end any time soon, since Xi may face severe internal pressures during the Summer Summit in Beidaihe, in August with the Party Elders.

India’s steady rise as an emerging power leads to a view that it should shed the tag of an Elephant and behave like a Tiger, its national animal, at least in the region. The Tiger is known for its combination of stamina, strength, agility, and tremendous power; the elephant on the other hand, though strong, is ponderous and not usually aggressive. This would entail a rebooting of its geo-economic, geo-political, geo-strategic, diplomatic, and military policies and have a multi-domain integrated approach to firmly preserve its national interests.

While India has overtly shifted to a proactive strategy against Pakistan, it has hedged with China for securing its interests. However, the Wuhan pandemic is not only likely to restructure the global order, but the shifting dynamics provides India with better opportunities in the region to partner with like-minded countries and provide an alternate narrative to China’s model. It would thus enable it to better secure its national interests.

Unless China arrives at a new modus vivendi that is agreeable to India, especially to counter such events, there may be graver situations in future for which the world could hold China responsible.

About the Author

Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), is the Head of Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI of India. His areas of interest include China, South and Central Asia, Indo-Pacific Region, Future World Order, Regional Multilateralism, and Force Structuring. He has spoken on these topics in many seminars and round table discussions both in India and abroad. He has a vast number of articles, monograph and papers published in Indian Journals and magazines (including web editions) and has curated and edited three books.

Article first published by USI of India on 7 June 2020

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