Confused about the India-China conflict in Ladakh? Read this

That Chinese troops have entered certain areas isn’t out of the ordinary. The fact that they are staying put is.

WrittenBy:Mihir Shah
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Over the past few days, there has been much confusion surrounding the current India-China face-off in Ladakh. Chinese intrusions have been reported at multiple points along the boundary. Media reportage of these incidents has spanned the entire spectrum: from assertions that there were no intrusions, to reports that the Chinese had launched a de-facto invasion of India, and everything in between. Terms like “Line of Actual Control”, “Claim Line”, “International Border”, and more have been casually thrown about, usually without explaining what they mean.

In this piece, we clear up some of this confusion, and put the events in their proper context.

At the outset, it is important to note that in many sectors, there is no clear border separating India from China. There are only differing claim lines, and differing perceptions of where the working border — the Line of Actual Control ⁠— lies. Moreover, there is no formal “agreement” on what these perceptions are. In the past, the Chinese side has refused to even exchange maps showing the contrasting claims.

These differing claims and perceptions create an area of overlapping claims, and within that area, there exists a smaller zone that both sides patrol. When tensions are low and those patrols run into each other, the occasional clash occurs. The state of affairs looks like in the diagram below.

Representational diagram of overlapping claims between Indian and China, created by differing perceptions of the border.

In recent years, Indian troops ⁠— supported by better infrastructure and equipment ⁠— have stepped up the frequency of their patrolling. As a result, confrontations with their Chinese counterparts have begun to occur with increased regularity. Such confrontations are often reported in the media as one-sided “intrusions” and “transgressions”, although both sides venture into territory that the other side considers theirs.

At present, reports suggest that the Chinese have crossed over into Indian territory, stayed put, and possibly set up semi-permanent structures. This has happened at three points along the border in Ladakh: the Galwan river valley, the “Hot Springs” near Kongka Pass, and Pangong Tso.

Media accounts of these intrusions appear to wildly differ from each other. Some journalists and analysts have claimed that the Chinese have crossed over into what was undisputed Indian territory.

Others are reporting that there has been no intrusion whatsoever.

Further, these reports provide a vast range of figures when it comes to Chinese numbers on the ground: from 1,200 all the way up to 10,000.

Analysis of satellite imagery conducted by enthusiasts and researchers on social media has only added to the confusion. So far, assessments appear to show a military buildup on the Chinese side, but no evidence of any transgressions across the LAC. But satellite photos do not show everything. Experts find it easy to spot permanent garrisons, fortifications, and road infrastructure from satellite imagery; but difficult to determine whether they are occupied, and if so, by whom.

In such circumstances, source-based reporting often serves to refine the picture. But when the sources appear to contradict each other, how does a casual reader determine the truth? The simple answer is that there is an element of truth in all the reportage; however, many journalists are selectively (and narrowly) interpreting it as per their preferred narrative.

In other words, Chinese troops appear to have entered and established positions in the grey areas shown in the graphic. Their presence in these areas isn’t out of the ordinary, but the fact that they are staying put is. And India sees it as an escalation ⁠— an attempt to alter the status quo.

Representational diagram: In the current face-off, the Chinese appear to have intruded into the disputed area⁠ — in some instances right up to their claim line ⁠— and set up semi-permanent structures.

The one exception to this phenomenon is the Galwan river valley, where the border is considered “settled” with no overlapping claims. Here too, there have been reports of a Chinese intrusion, with differing claims as to whether it persists or was pushed back. So far, satellite imagery shows no evidence of a Chinese build-up across the “settled border”, although there has been one right at the boundary.

The Galwan river valley and its surroundings. The LAC (shown in red) is considered ‘settled’. India’s construction of a spur road starting at the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road and heading eastward towards Indian posts along the LAC may have unsettled the Chinese. The road would allow vehicular access to the posts, and blunt China’s dominance of the valley. Map by Rohit Vats (@KesariDhwaj on Twitter). Reproduced with permission.

The alteration of the status quo has stoked tensions to a point not seen since the Doklam stand-off. The army is reported to have rushed troops into the region to deter or match Chinese deployments. India is also ramping up road construction in the sector, with the defence ministry requisitioning 11 trains to move 12,000 workers to border areas.

And depending on how one chooses to interpret the above graphic, one or more of the following could be seen as “true”:

  • The Chinese have intruded into Indian territory.

  • There has been no Chinese intrusion.

  • There has been a Chinese military build-up, but it is not on Indian territory.

  • China is attempting to alter the status quo on the ground and present India with a fait accompli.

  • China and India share differing perceptions of the LAC and dialogue to resolve the current flare-up is ongoing.

  • India has posted an appropriate military response by refusing to back down and bringing in reinforcements to match the Chinese build-up.

The differing numbers of Chinese troops quoted by various reports could also be explained as a matter of interpretation. In a military face-off, no side takes all the personnel at its disposal and positions them in one spot. Some get tasked with holding ground in the contested area. Others are sent on patrols to assess the enemy’s positions and strength. And many more are deployed in the rear, to serve as reserves and for logistical support.

So, at any given moment, both India and China could have anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand soldiers in play. Some are “intruders”, while others are not, although they still pose a threat. And that is where the differing numbers come from: some say 1,500, others say 3,000, still others suggest that the number is closer to 5,000. It's not a question of which number is correct as opposed to what these numbers mean.

The “fog of war” only obscures details and exacerbates the uncertainty in the minds of the public. Neither the army nor the civilian leadership is giving out specifics. Thus, source-based reporting is the only form of publicly available information. This involves journalists reaching out to their connections and trying to paint a picture of the events on the ground. The information from these sources can often be outdated, misleading (either mistakenly or deliberately), or interpreted incorrectly. That creates more confusion in the mind of a lay observer.

To eliminate this confusion — as well as the panic and hysteria that accompanies it — journalists and Opposition leaders have both called for press statements from the government or army. This is a fair demand, but the benefits of doing so ought to be weighed against the costs of denying oneself the flexibility to resolve the stand-off. A statement that is carefully calibrated to alleviate tensions, and buy room to negotiate, may end up looking evasive, and fuel more doubt.

Conversely, if too many details were to be revealed, the government risks getting caught in a war of rhetoric, and could unintendedly commit itself to a needlessly aggressive course of action that undermines national interest.

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