Horizontal escalation on the India China border implies possibility of a three “front,” activation – Western or Ladakh Sector, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the coming summer.
In the vertical dimension clashes, faceoffs, buffer zones and movement of denial of patrols are evident on all three fronts.
Existing confidence building measures have avoided a bloody clash, but with both sides – Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) determined to stand their ground on the Line of Actual Control and the McMahon Line, the question appears to be when and where rather than will there be a clash in 2023?
To avoid a bloody clash - politics and diplomacy will have to come into play but there are no indicators of positive movement towards the same.
With relations between top leaders remaining contentious after the fateful November 2019 Informal Summit between India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping and especially after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) blocking movement of Indian patrols in Eastern Ladakh from May 2020, the task of avoiding escalation remains on those who are operating the hotlines on the frontline at the tactical level- Division and below. The developments on each front reaching such a conclusion is outlined as given below-
Doklam was active in 2017 where the situation remained diffused for over two years till May 2020.
There are indications of build up of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces in the Chumbi Valley and attempts though unconfirmed of China coercing Bhutan to provide areas under the boundary negotiations for bypassing Doklam.
Given talks during the visit of the King of Bhutan to New Delhi in early April, the issue is likely to have been resolved.
China as well as India have serious concerns on this front. While India needs depth to the Chicken’s Neck or the narrow Siliguri corridor land connectivity to the North East, the PLA is bottled between two flanks of the Chumbi Valley.
This indicates that deployments on this front are likely to be sustained with lack of trust between the two sides having reached a perigee by now and Bhutan caught in the cleft.
From May 2020 – Eastern Ladakh has remained active with Galwan in June 2020 being a benchmark in fatal clashes with the use of non lethal arms by both sides. There are reports of acquisition of more such tools for a future eventuality such as iron pointed maces amongst others.
With buffer zones established at a few contentious points on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), faceoffs remain in the Depsang Bulge and Demchok.
Will these be resolved this summer, or will there be another escalation remains to be seen? As confidence building measures are in place the latter scenario may be avoidable if cool heads prevail.
In April, Arunachal Pradesh is in focus as multiple politico - legal developments have occurred in February to April which followed attempts by the PLA to seize a feature of tactical significance in the Towang Sector on December 09.
The sequence of events starts with the visit of the Indian President Smt Droupadi Murmu to Arunachal Pradesh in February where she attended the 37th Statehood Day celebrations of the Indian State and the civic reception hosted in her honour by the State Government at Itanagar on February 20.
The President highlighted that, “being the largest state in the North-Eastern Region in terms of area as well as being a border state, Arunachal Pradesh is a very important state from strategic and geographical point of view,” and harped on the development that have taken place.
The President also addressed the special session of Arunachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly at Itaganar on February 21.
While there was no official reaction from China it remains to be seen if the follow up was unilateral naming of 11 places in Arunachal Pradesh was linked to the same, for the third time. China named mountain peaks, rivers and residential areas in the State having done so once in April, 2017, and in December 2021.
“According to the relevant regulations of the State Council (China’s cabinet) on the management of geographical names, our ministry, together with relevant departments, has standardised some geographical names in southern Tibet,” China’s civil affairs ministry said in a short statement.
Global Times in a report added that it was the third batch of “standardised geographical names in Zangnan issued by the civil affairs ministry”. Zangnan was a reference to parts of Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet.
In response to media queries regarding the renaming of places in Arunachal Pradesh by China, the Official Spokesperson, Shri Arindam Bagchi said: "We have seen such reports. This is not the first time China has made such an attempt. We reject this outright. Arunachal Pradesh is, has been, and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India. Attempts to assign invented names will not alter this reality.”
Later in the Weekly Media Conference Mr Bagchi in response to a question said, “…………..that regarding Chinese efforts of changing names of some parts of Arunachal Pradesh, both India and China need to find solution. If anyone is supporting our position over it, then that’s good thing but our position will not change whether they support us or not. Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and we are not going to change our position over it for the support of anyone, there is no doubt over it. Our position is based on it. What other countries say it's another thing. They are supporting our stand, it's a good thing but our stand is not dependent on their support, and I have just said how we see Chinese name changing efforts in Arunachal Pradesh”.
A Times of India report on the other hand claimed that the names were of non-existent rivers and land in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Report states that, “the coordinates of two rivers named by the Chinese as “Qiburi He” and “Geduo He” weren’t provided, with the civil affairs ministry simply claiming these were “specific locations”. “Bangqin” referred to a “piece of land” in a forested mountainous area beyond Zemithang, India’s last village in Tawang district…”
Home Ministers Visit to Arunachal Pradesh
Indian Home Minister Mr Amit Shah’s visit on April 10 and 11 and inauguration of the Vibrant Village Scheme in Kibithu also drew a response by the Chinese Foreign Ministry which was vehemently rejected by India.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Wang Wenbin in response to a question by Reuters on April 10 who asked, “First, India’s Union Home Minister is visiting the Arunachal Pradesh. Given that China has recently renamed some places in Zangnan, do you think that this visit violates China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” responded, “Zangnan is part of China’s territory. The activity of the senior Indian official in Zangnan violates China’s territorial sovereignty and is not conducive to peace and tranquility in the border areas. We are firmly against this.
Indian Ministry of External Affairs, official Spokesperson responding to media queries regarding Chinese Official Spokesperson’s comments on the recent visit of Home Minister of India to Arunachal Pradesh said on April 11, 2023, "We completely reject the comments made by the Chinese Official Spokesperson. Indian leaders routinely travel to the state of Arunachal Pradesh as they do to any other state of India. Arunachal Pradesh was, is and will always remain an integral and inalienable part of India. Objecting to such visits does not stand to reason and will not change the above reality.”
Shri Amit Shah launched the 'Vibrant Villages Programme' at Kibithoo - a border village in Arunachal Pradesh.
India has undertaken the Vibrant Villages Programme essentially to help in improving the quality of life of people living in identified border villages and encourage people to stay in their native locations thereby reversing the outmigration from these villages and adding to security of the border. District Administration with the help of appropriate mechanisms at block and panchayat level have prepared Action Plans for identified village to ensure 100% saturation of central and state schemes. The spinoffs in terms of bolstering defence and surveillance is also obvious.
Based on the legacy from the diplomatic and political - possibility of escalation to the military can be anticipated in Arunachal Pradesh in the coming summer. The Indian Army could well be prepared for the challenge.
This would imply activation of all the three sectors of the Northern Borders.