Changing balance across LAC trigger for stand-off, says China expert Taylor Fravel

The spark for the current stand-off with China, with the ongoing face-off situations in the Galwan River valley, Pangong Lake and other areas, is the increasing infrastructure competition along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), says M. Taylor Fravel, a leading expert on Chinese military and China’s defence strategy and Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and Director of the MIT Security Studies Program.

Prof. Fravel is the author of Active Defense: China’s Military Strategy Since 1949 (2019) and Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Conflict and Cooperation in China’s Territorial Disputes (2008). He says, from China’s standpoint, the reactivation by India of landing grounds and the completion last year of the Durbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi road that runs parallel to the LAC have significantly improved India’s position in the balance of capabilities across the LAC.

While construction activity near the Galwan River and Pangong Lake lies on the Indian side of the LAC, China is likely responding to what it sees as a challenge to its position. And with a lack of a formal agreement regarding the location of the LAC, future incidents and crises are bound to recur. Edited excerpts:

On May 26 at the National People’s Congress, Xi Jinping called on the People’s Liberation Army to be battle-ready. Is this unusual?

Xi Jinping’s use of the phrase “battle-readiness” (beizhan) is not unusual. It is perhaps better rendered in English as “combat readiness.” The phrase is commonly used along with the characters for training (xunlian) to in the phrase “training and combat readiness,” which was the phrase Xi used at this year’s National People’s Congress, as well as last year’s.

“Training and combat readiness” frequently appear in the PLA’s official newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily, with more than 1,100 mentions in 2019 and 1,300 in 2018. Moreover, it is natural for any commander-in-chief — Indian, American, or Chinese — to call on his or her armed forces to be combat-ready, as that it is the basic requirement for any military to achieve its missions. Although it can be jarring to hear in the context of the situation on the India-China border or amid China’s military modernisation more generally, it is not unusual.

China has been more silent than it was during Doklam. What explains this?

China has been more silent during the current border stand-off because the situation today along the LAC differs in important ways from Doklam in 2017. Then, India crossed an international boundary to challenge Chinese troops in an area disputed by China and Bhutan but not by India. From Beijing’s standpoint, the Indian action was a clear violation of China’s sovereignty, even if the area was also claimed by Bhutan, with whom India has a special kind of relationship. Hence, China’s diplomacy was vocal and public, designed to communicate its resolve to defend what it views as its territory in the Doklam Bowl. When Indian troops returned across the border to Indian territory, the situation eased and was eventually resolved.

Today, however, China appears to be asserting itself along the LAC in the Western sector. This is more similar to the 2013 and 2014 border stand-offs between China and India. Perhaps paradoxically, fewer and less vocal or public statements allow China to use troop movements and posture to signal its opposition to Indian activities on the LAC while leaving flexibility for a resolution that would likely entail Chinese troops returning to their original positions. By contrast, in Doklam, China very publicly “tied its hands” in a way that it is not doing today — at least so far.

The Global Times on May 26 published an op-ed where an analyst has made the claim that Galwan Valley is Chinese territory. Is this consistent with what we know to be their claim line in this sector?

Chinese maps that I have seen show almost all of the Galwan River as lying within the territory China claims in the area. The one discrepancy would be the western tip of the Galwan River as it meets the Shyok River. Here, the last few kilometres of the Galwan River are often depicted as lying beyond China’s border. How one defines the parameters of the valley itself might be different than the river, however.

In your assessment, are the current stand-offs tied to the competitive dynamic along the LAC situation, broader strategic issues, or both?

In my view, the trigger or spark for the current stand-off is the competition along the LAC in the Western sector. From China’s standpoint, the reactivation of landing grounds and completion last year of the DSDBO [Durbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi] road that runs more or less parallel to the LAC in this area significantly improves India’s position in the local balance of forces and India’s capabilities across the LAC. For example, China lacks a road similar to the DSBDBO that runs parallel to the LAC, and that can facilitate the lateral movement of troops along the Chinese side of the LAC. Specifically, China appears to be responding to increased activity and road-building near the Galwan River and Pangong Lake. Even though this construction activity lies on the India side of the LAC, China likely views it as challenging their position on and perhaps the stability of the LAC.

Strategic considerations may also be involved. China could be responding to the deterioration of China-India ties amid the coronavirus pandemic. More generally, given Xi Jinping’s tough and public commitments to defend Chinese sovereignty, China may feel it has to take a hard line everywhere it sees its sovereignty being challenged — especially if Beijing fears others may view it as weak or distracted by the coronavirus and its economic aftershocks. This is true not only regarding the border with India today but also with Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

Going forward, are such incidents likely to recur as India plays catch-up on infrastructure close to the LAC? What might help better regulate and prevent both sides’ activities? Would resuming the LAC clarification process in a way that both find agreeable help?

The lack of a formal agreement regarding the location of the LAC will ensure that future incidents and crises are bound to recur. Thus, reaching such a formal agreement — even if the underlying territorial dispute cannot be resolved — is more necessary than ever before. Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are both strong leaders who should have the capacity to reach such an agreement.

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