There is a mystery of sorts over the claim that the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA clashed at Naku La in northern Sikkim on 20 January. According to the Indian Army spokesman, there was a “minor faceoff” and the issues were resolved “by local commanders as per established protocols.” India has acknowledged that no weapons were used and that there had been injuries on both sides, but they were “insignificant and minor.”
But the Chinese side has flatly denied anything happened. The Global Times has charged that the news put out about the clash by the Indian media is “fake news.” According to them,“There is no record of this incident in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) front line patrol logs.” In Beijing, “wolf warrior” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao LIjian told reporters he had “no information to offer” on reports of clashes at Naku La.
Naku La Incident
The fact that the Naku La incident came even as India and China were to have their 9th round of senior commander-level talks at the Moldo meeting point on the Spanggur lake near Pangong Tso is not without significance.
Whatever the Chinese are doing along the Line of Actual Control that marks the border between the two countries has an aim, and it is unlikely that what happened at Naku La was some kind of an accident, especially since it is happening the second time within eight months.
Last year on 9 May when Indian and PLA troops clashed at Naku La, it was claimed that it was an over-reaction of the PLA to Indian efforts to monitor a PLA mechanised infantry exercise in the Gamba county of Tibet. But the timing of the move, associated as it was with what was happening in eastern Ladakh, was suspect.
However, last week’s clash at Naku La suggests that this is not a normal “faceoff” that used to take place along the LAC. They are part of a new exercise of establishing PLA dominance at the Line of Actual Control.
Yet to Demarcate Border
In Sikkim, there is agreement between India and China on aligning the border, which is essentially the watershed between the waters that flow into the Teesta, and those into the Amo Chu and other rivers in Tibet.
But as of now the border has not actually been demarcated on the ground. As it is, there have been issues in the so-called Finger Area to the east of Naku La. The Chinese have been contesting the boundary in the north-eastern arc of Sikkim, because this is in an area where terrain allows India to deploy armoured units that can threaten the roads connecting Tibet to the Chumbi Valley.
9th Round Of Talks
As for the 9th round of border talks in Moldo between Lt General PGK Menon, the 14 Corps Commander, and Maj Gen Liu Lin, chief of the South Xinjiang Military District, they seem to have gone well. This is evidenced by the fact that the two sides issued a joint statement saying that they had been “positive and constructive”. The statement said that both sides remain committed to meet again and “jointly advance disengagement” among the frontline troops.
The statement said that the two sides would “continue their effective efforts in ensuring the restraint of frontline troops, stabilise and control the situation along the LAC in the western sector of the China-India border….”
According to a report, India continues to press China for a “workable and sequential” roadmap for disengagement and de-escalation at all the points of friction in eastern Ladakh along with setting up a joint verification mechanism. India once again reiterated its demand for the restoration of status quo ante along the LAC in Ladakh.
But, there was little word of any significant outcome. Given the hardening of positions on both sides, none can be expected either. The Chinese have been demanding that disengagement begin from the south bank of Pangong Tso where India occupied the heights on its own side of the LAC last August. But India has been arguing that since the Chinese moves in the north bank to establish a blockade at Finger 4 had occurred earlier, they should be the party to de-escalate first. This would restore the situation prior to that when Indian forces could patrol up to Finger 8. The PLA has also been asking for the conversion of all of the area between Finger 1 and Finger 8 into a “no-patrol” zone.
China’s Sustained Efforts to Populate LAC
Notwithstanding the efforts to maintain deployments using special huts and heating systems, significant activity along the Ladakh part of the LAC will only be possible once the snows begin melting in March or April.
In the meantime, there are reports that the PLA has been digging in along the LAC and enhancing its infrastructure even further, especially all along the LAC in eastern Ladakh. Some of this is in the form of additional housing in the Aksai Chin area, suggesting that the PLA intends to be around for a while. Similar accretions are occurring at Galwan Valley and the Gogra/Hot Spring area.
Across Tibet, the Chinese are also enhancing their air defence infrastructure by establishing new surface-to-air missile system bases. This is a stop-gap measure till the upgradation of their own air bases is completed.
Beyond the purely military activity, we are also seeing a sustained Chinese effort to populate their side of the LAC, especially in the east. While the report that the Chinese constructed a village on the Indian side of the LAC in the Migyitun area may not be accurate, it is a fact that along the LAC, the Chinese have been building small townships in the southern part of the Shannan and Nyingchi regions of Tibet bordering India. This is as much part of border management, as an effort to ensure that people do not abandon the border areas which tend to be inhospitable and with few economic prospects.
The challenge for India is to counter this effort and given the demands of manning the LAC in the same manner we do the Line of Control with Pakistan, it is not going to be easy.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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