Face-off at Sikkim’s Naku La Casts Light on China’s LAC Game Plan Against India

Praveen Swami
·7-min read

Led by the British Empire’s representative in Sikkim, James Claude White, hundreds of troops struggled up the Naku-chu River in the summer of 1902, determined to push the borders of Imperial China back to where they ought to be.

“Near the top of the pass”, White later wrote. “I found the usual Tibetan wall, rather better built than is customary, running across the valley with a block-house on the east, and some smaller blockhouse on a ridge coming down from the east”.

The commander of Tibet’s forces at the fortress of Khamba Dzong insisted the border lay at the wall, put up in the nineteenth century to mark its grazing grounds. White had come armed with a copy of the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890, which placed the border two kilometres north, on the Naku La pass.

High officials who had come from Lhasa, wearing yellow silk robes, “pressed forward on foot, and, catching hold of Mr. White's bridle, importuned him to dismount and repair to their tents” the famous colonial administrator and adventurer Francis Younghusband recalled. “At the same time their servants pressed round the horses of the British officers, and, seizing their reins, endeavoured to lead them away”.

The first military face off at Naku-La pass had begun—one that holds out important lessons on China’s strategy as the crisis on the Line of Actual Control winds on.

Tactical Concerns

Last week, as military negotiators for New Delhi and Beijing prepared to hold a ninth round of talks aimed at ending the crisis of the LAC, Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army soldiers clashed at the 5,700 metre Naku La—their second physical confrontation since May. Even though the face-off was, according to the Indian Army “minor”, and the injuries sustained on both sides “insignificant”, the PLA’s message was unmistakable.

“Every location on the LAC where the PLA mounts pressure compels the Indian Army to respond in kind”, says New Delhi-based strategic affairs expert Manoj Joshi. “The resources used along the LAC are resources that aren’t then available for military modernisation and capacity building”.

For decades now, the China-India border in Sikkim—demarcated by White over a century ago—has been largely quiet. Ever since the summer, as the crisis in Ladakh began, the PLA began to insist centre of that frontier—stretching from Naku La to Muguthang—lay at the Tibetan wall. The claim wasn’t new; what did change, in May, was that Indian troops pushed back, hard.

New Delhi has pointed out, just as White did, that the 1890 Treaty was based on the so-called watershed principle, in essence drawing the border along ridgelines.

Local tactical concerns, some military experts believe, might have something to do with why Naku La became a flashpoint. The pass offers the Indian Army a line of sight to observe PLA military movements in southern Tibet—allowing it to respond rapidly to potential threats to its own positions in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

The argument might have merit—but Naku La isn’t the only place PLA patrols are asserting their claims more aggressively. From the Fishtails and Asaphila areas in Arunachal Pradesh, through the Barahoti pass in Uttarakhand, to Demchok on the southern stretches of the LAC in Ladakh, the PLA has continued to probe territory claimed by China.

In addition, as News18 reported in November, China has begun an expansive development programme aimed at developing remote border settlements and expanding their populations. The programme, involving 628 villages, isn’t new; 358 had been completed by 2019. The underlying purpose is to end any possible disputation of China’s territorial claims with physical occupation of contested territories.

Fortifying Positions

Even as the PLA has been negotiating, with the troops locked in confrontation across the northern stretches of the Line of Action Control—sometimes just metres from each others’ positions— it has stoically rejected India’s core demand, the restoration of the pre-March status-quo. In essence, China has pushed as close as it could get to the territory it occupied in the 1962 war.

A new fortified position has come up at the so-called Y-Junction the Depsang plains, where the PLA has cut off Indian patrol routes across hundreds of square kilometres of territory. The build-up of military infrastructure in Depsang has been mirrored across contested locations along the LAC.

The PLA, government sources said, did discuss the prospect of pulling back its troops from Finger 4, one of a series of radiating ridges north of Pangong Lake it occupied last spring—but only if India also pulls back its own long-established positions in the feature, leaving it demilitarised. The offer went nowhere, since, with its superior logical access, the PLA would be able to then occupy the Fingers at will.

The gargantuan scale of Chinese infrastructure development along its 4,056-kilometre border with India—all but a small part in dispute—hangs over efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis on the LAC.

In 2019, China is reported to have invested some $9.9 billion in fixed asset infrastructure construction in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)—like roads, railways and fibre-optic lines. Also, $1.3 billion is being spent on building 26 new towns to draw in investors—and settlers to fill the jobs these investments will create.

In addition, scholar Claude Arpi has noted, a network of rail extensions out of Lhasa will link the Tibet Autonomous Region’s capital to Yatong, cutting across territory claimed by Bhutan—and giving the People’s Liberation Army the ability to rapidly deploy forces in the Chumbi valley, among the few areas on the LAC where India has enjoyed a geographical advantage.

Logistics experts have estimated the networks of rail and roads already in place could allow the PLA’s 76th and 77th combined-arms Group Armies to move up to seven division-sized formations into the TAR inside a week, and over 32 inside a month.

The PLA already has all-weather road access to the 31-odd major passes across the LAC, linked to highways cutting across the TAR—and the new railway links will allow it to push and sustain ever larger numbers of troops into offensive positions almost anywhere.

Increasing Assertiveness

Embarrassed by its eviction from Naku La by White’s troops, China—Tibet’s Imperial overlord—announced it would despatch its Resident in Lhasa to negotiate with Britain. “The Resident never did meet me on the frontier”, Younghusband recalled. “Even his successor, when he at last arrived at Lhasa did not care to meet me even at Gyantse, for the Tibetans, so he informed me, would not provide him transport”. Britain continued to hold Naku La—a position India inherited.

Tibet’s own leaders never acknowledged the Convention of 1890, claiming its assent was coerced. In border negotiations before 1962, China held to that stand, asserting India ought not profit from an Imperial land-grab. In 2017, though, China invoked the 1890 convention to assert its claims in Doklam.

For decades after the war of 1962, the ambiguities around the many stretches of the China-India frontier which remain unresolved and undefined, could be managed: convention, common-sense, and in some cases, coercion, ensured peace.

Ever since 2008, though, an increasingly powerful and confident China has brought force to bear on the LAC—as it has across its peripheries—in an effort to assert its regional hegemony, and punish neighbours which ally too closely with its principal strategic competitor, the United States.

The confrontation in Naku La is a consequence of that strategy—and a sign that the crisis in Ladakh is just the beginning of dangerous, new phase in the China-India crisis.

“You may flick a dog once or twice without his biting, but if you tread on his tail, even if he has no teeth, he will turn and try and bite you” the local Tibetan administrator growled at Younghusband that summer day in 1902.

“I suppose it is always difficult for one party to see the other party’s point of view”, Younghusband reflected, “but, of course, his contention regarding us precisely applied to what we thought of the Tibetans”.

In New Delhi and in Beijing, policy-makers would be wise to consider the full implications of that exchange.