NEW DELHI: Angered and perhaps rattled by the unyielding stand that Indian troops took at Naku La in North Sikkim on May 9 and the fisticuffs that followed between them and PLA personnel, authorities in Beijing reportedly summoned India’s defence attache, a Colonel-rank officer, this week and protested vehemently about the incident, sources told StratNews Global.
This is the first time in recent years that the Chinese have expressed their displeasure specifically about one particular border spat. Seven Chinese soldiers and four Indian troops were reportedly injured in the jostling and stone pelting. The skirmish in Sikkim was preceded by a clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers near the Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh on May 5 and 6.
In a departure from practice, the Indian Army did not shy away from admitting that its troops were aggressive. A spokesman of the Army’s Eastern Command said in an official statement: “Aggressive behaviour by the two sides resulted in minor injuries to troops. It was stone-throwing and arguments that ended in a fistfight”.
Although Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane has clarified that India does not see any connection between the two incidents, a fresh assessment of Chinese activities along the northern frontier and in the Indian Ocean region is being carried out by relevant arms of the establishment to determine any emerging pattern in the Chinese manoeuvres. “The events (clashes) neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities. All such incidents are managed by established mechanisms wherein local formations from both sides resolve issues mutually as per established protocols and strategic guidelines given by the PM after the Wuhan and Mamallapuram summits,” the statement said on Wednesday.
India and China share a nearly 4000-km contested border and local skirmishes such as the ones in Sikkim and Ladakh this month are not uncommon. However, Indian sources agree that there is an unusual element of aggressiveness that has been noticed by troops of the Army as well as the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), a Central Armed Police Force on the LAC with China. “Already, in the past two months since the snow started melting in the higher reaches along the Himalayan border, we have had at least dozen-odd aggressive moves from the Chinese side. In 2018 and 2019 by contrast, there were barely 10-11 face-offs throughout the year,” an official pointed out.
The government is not rushing into any premature conclusion although China specialists suspect the PLA is carrying out instructions from the top, one to competitors like India, Japan and Vietnam and the other to its own population: That notwithstanding the worldwide criticism over its culpability in spreading the Wuhan virus, China is not giving up on its territorial claims, and two, to reassure the domestic audience that the ruling CCP is in full control. China scholar Dr Srikanth Kondapalli says incidents in South and East China seas and along the Indian border flow from clear directives issued by China’s top leadership to the PLA to assert its sovereignty and claims even in “grey areas”, which means areas that are disputed.
What is, however, unusual is that Naku La was the scene of a physical fight. It was generally believed that the Sikkim sector—an international border unlike the rest of the boundary which is termed as LAC because it is yet to be resolved—was not a bone of contention until 2013-14 when Chinese troops started misbehaving in this sector. In fact, because it was peaceful, the Naku La area used to be guarded by a unit of the paramilitary Assam Rifles until a decade ago (17 Assam Rifles spent decades in this deployment, old timers recall). However, in the past six-seven years, Chinese troops have been trying to move deeper into what India considers its own territory.
As noted Tibet scholar Claude Arpi wrote in his blog: “Naku La and Muguthang, a few kilometres south of the pass, are between the western and eastern parts of the boundary. It is here that Beijing is picking a fight. The Chinese say that a couple of kilometres south of Naku La (which India sees as being on the LAC), the Tibetans had built a wall to protect their pastures in the 19th century; a process often used in the Himalayan region. The wall was five feet high and some 800 metres in length. Now China is claiming the wall (and not the pass) was the customary border, neglecting the watershed principle used elsewhere.”
Essentially, the Chinese want to push the border two km south of Naku La. Little wonder that Indian troops, present in strength as part of the 112 (Plateau) Brigade, resisted the Chinese advance on May 9.
Since then, there have been attempts to cool down tempers. China has not issued any official statement or protested publicly. The Ministry of External Affairs also said “the Indian side remains committed to the objective of maintaining peace and tranquility in the India-China border areas,” adding that “Occasionally, however, on account of difference in perception of the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), situations have arisen on the ground that could have been avoided if we had a common perception of the LAC.”
As long as the perceptions of the LAC continue to differ, skirmishes such as the ones in Sikkim and Ladakh will likely continue and keep the pot boiling.