The India-China standoff in eastern Ladakh, which began about a year and a half ago, looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.
After thirteen rounds of high-level military talks, the two countries have failed to resolve the deadlock at Hot Springs, a point where Indian and Chinese soldiers continue to face off against one another. Instead of deescalating or disengaging, both sides have only hardened their positions. Indian and Chinese soldiers could remain forward deployed to Ladakh for a second consecutive winter.
India and China have signed a series of agreements intended to resolve tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between the two countries. But the current standoff has already lasted eighteen months—an indication that the current controls may not be sufficient.
With border incidents along the LAC increasing over the last few years, New Delhi might consider the need for a new border agreement. According to reports, preliminary discussions in India’s China Study Group indicate that India and China could soon start working toward a new border agreement if the current impasse is resolved.
But would a new border agreement defuse tensions? History—and the very nature of the LAC—suggests otherwise.
Recurring Standoffs Despite Border Agreements
In 2013, Indian and Chinese forces engaged in a standoff at the Depsang Plains, which lie south of a key Indian military base in a sensitive and strategic area of Ladakh. In previous incidents, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops crossed the LAC but turned back almost immediately.
But in the spring of that year, Chinese soldiers stayed on the Indian side of the border for twenty days. Even more significantly, the Chinese troops traveled nearly 19 kilometers (almost 12 miles) into Indian territory to set up their tents. This transgression violated earlier confidence-building measures and sent India into diplomatic and military distress. After nearly three weeks of talks, both sides agreed to disengage and withdraw.
The 2013 standoff was a catalyst for India and China to negotiate and agree to the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) later that year. While the agreement was intended to improve communication between the two armies, the terms of the BDCA do little to minimize misperceptions. For example, the Indian and Chinese military headquarters were not required to set up a hotline; instead, the agreement stipulated only that the two sides “may consider” the option. The agreement has been criticized for being little more than lip service, which has diminished the likelihood of any breakthroughs on the boundary dispute.
The BDCA’s shortcomings have long been evident. It hasn’t even prevented subsequent border standoffs. In 2014, only a year after the agreement was signed, a sixteen-day standoff ensued after the PLA tried to extend a road into a disputed area near Chumar in Ladakh.
In 2015, another standoff occurred, this time in Burtse in the Depsang Plains. India’s Indo-Tibetan Border Police demolished a Chinese observation hut that had been constructed in what India perceives to be its territory. Although this altercation was smaller in scale and was resolved within a week, it was nonetheless significant.
In 2017, border tensions flared up once more. Indian forces stopped Chinese engineers from building a road into the Doklam plateau, close to the area where the borders of India, China, and Bhutan meet. The Doklam standoff, which saw Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation for seventy-three days, was the longest standoff up to that point.
But this impasse was soon dwarfed by the ongoing standoff in Ladakh. Multiple Chinese incursions into eastern Ladakh, coupled with a significant PLA deployment across the LAC in 2020, led to the deaths of twenty Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley—the first fatalities along the LAC since 1975. The standoff continues today.
Despite confidence-building mechanisms and agreements like the BDCA, border standoffs have become not only more frequent and larger in scale but also longer-lasting and harder to resolve.
A Trust Deficit
The absence of trust between the two countries can be traced to the 1950s, when Indian apprehensions over China’s territorial ambitions become apparent. An unsuccessful summit in January 1960, along with New Delhi’s reactions to Beijing’s boundary negotiations with Burma and Nepal in the same year, gave India enough cause to believe that its Chinese partners were simply not to be trusted. This enduring mistrust has continued to influence the bilateral relationship, even as both countries have spent decades trying to resolve the boundary dispute through political compromises and confidence-building measures.
In 1988, a new arrangement allowed for boundary disputes to be discussed and settled peacefully, for other aspects of the relationship to advance, and for cooperation to occur where interests coincided. A subsequent series of agreements, starting with the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993, formalized confidence-building measures and standard operating procedures along the LAC. The mutual goal was to maintain the status quo until the border issue could be settled. In the following decades, from the 1980s until the 2000s, India and China set aside the boundary dispute and focused on other aspects of their relationship.
New Delhi and Beijing were also able to make progress on the boundary question, signing agreements in 1996, 2005, and 2012. The two countries agreed on the political parameters and guiding principles for settling the boundary in 2005 and began a dialogue at the special representative level to work out a mutually agreeable framework. However, momentum has tapered off over the years. Today, the two countries appear no closer to finally delimiting and demarcating the boundary—or even finalizing a framework for making progress.
Despite the display of political willingness and numerous diplomatic efforts, both New Delhi and Beijing likely require additional assurances that the other side will honor its commitments. Flare-ups along the border continue to hold the relationship hostage, as evidenced by the ongoing standoff in Ladakh.
In a shift from the previous position of delinking the border from other aspects of the bilateral relationship, New Delhi has now made bilateral ties with China conditional on border stability. In a March 2021 speech, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said about the future of Indo-Chinese relations, “If you want to see progress, I need peace and tranquility on the border. I can’t have tension on the border. I can’t have the kind of issues I had in Galwan, and then say, well, you know, let’s carry on with business in the rest of our relationship. That’s unreal.”
An Ambiguous Frontier
When India and China signed the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement in 1993, they agreed to maintain the existing status quo on the frontier along the LAC. The problem, however, is that the question over where exactly the LAC lies has remained unanswered.
There are significant differences between the two countries’ perceptions on where the LAC lies, especially in the western sector where it passes through Ladakh. Further, the two countries have neither recognized nor frozen the lines of deployment of the Indian and Chinese militaries. The resulting ambiguity has contributed to a steady buildup of forces along both sides of the frontier and allowed the PLA in particular to stealthily advance.
Each country’s interpretation of the LAC is based on the amount of territory it believes can be militarily controlled or dominated through patrols. That means that either side can alter its interpretation of the LAC simply by improving its military position along the frontier. The ambiguous nature of the LAC itself contributes to increasing border tensions.
To defuse these tensions, a new mechanism must guarantee for both sides that the other is truly committed to fixing and clarifying the LAC. However, as long as both India and China continue to believe that time is on their side, neither is likely to bite the bullet and reinitiate border talks.