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Border clash with India raises questions on PRC’s intentions at LAC

FORUM staff

On the heels of a deadly confrontation along their disputed Himalayan border in 2020, India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) agreed to “maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters.” The agreement reaffirmed decades-old accords in which both nations pledged they would not seek unilateral military superiority along the de facto border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In an agreement adopted in 1996, the countries had committed to not only respecting the LAC but also to “reduce or limit their respective military forces … along the [LAC] in the India-China border areas to minimum levels.”

A violent December 2022 skirmish in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh is the latest incident to cast doubt on the PRC’s willingness to uphold its commitments.

The December 9 clash occurred after Chinese troops “encroached into Indian territory” in the Tawang sector and “unilaterally tried to change the status quo,” Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament, according to The Associated Press. Soldiers on both sides were injured in the ensuing fight, the first significant border confrontation since June 2020, when hand-to-hand combat in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh killed 20 Indian Soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese troops, according to media reports.

While India and the PRC have not adopted a formal border in the mountainous region, an uneasy 1962 truce established the roughly 3,400-kilometer LAC, from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seized Arunachal Pradesh during the 1962 border war but later returned it to India as part of a peace deal. Beijing, however, continues to claim the territory.

In a 2022 analysis of satellite images, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre (ASPI-ICPC) said the PLA was able to surge on the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh via a new road built the preceding year. India controls a strategically important ridgeline in the region, from which it can monitor the PRC’s “slow-motion occupation” of neighboring Bhutan as well as the mountain pass that provides the only access to and from Tawang, ASPI-ICPC analysts noted. (Pictured: Indian Army Soldiers stand next to Bofors guns positioned at Penga Teng Tso ahead of Tawang, near the Line of Actual Control in India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, on October 20, 2021.)


The PLA has tried to compensate for the disadvantage with “new military and transport infrastructure” aimed at quickly massing troops on the LAC. The December 2022 incursion involved 200 to 300 PLA troops, according to Indian media reports. The incident was coupled with increased deployment of PLA drones and helicopters, suggesting the PLA has no intention of de-escalating tensions, The Times of India newspaper reported.

“The India-China border continues to become more crowded as infrastructure is built and large numbers of Indian and Chinese outposts compete for strategic, operational and tactical advantage,” the ASPI-ICPC reported. “This increases the risk of escalation and potential military conflict stemming from incidental or deliberate encounters between Indian and Chinese troops.”

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar — who helped broker the 2020 agreement to decrease tensions along the western LAC — blamed the PRC for the most recent clash between the two nuclear-armed nations. “We had agreements with China not to mass forces in our border areas and they have not observed those agreements,” he said in early January 2023, according to the ANI news agency.

Jaishankar referred to satellite images that he said clearly show the PLA was the first to marshal troops along the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh.


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