Trouble Along the India-China Border

Plus, Cyclone Amphan causes widespread damage in India and Bangladesh

Hi there, I’m Aman Thakker. Welcome to Indialogue, a newsletter analyzing the biggest policy developments in India. The aim of this newsletter is to provide you with quality analysis every week on what’s going on in India. 

A quick note that I will send out only a very short version of the newsletter next week. We’ll return to the regular format thereafter. Apologies!

Thank you very much for subscribing. My writing, and this newsletter, benefits from your feedback, so please do not hesitate to send any suggestions, critiques, or ideas to aman@amanthakker.com.


What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ongoing India-China Stand-Off

The ongoing stand-off between India and China long their disputed border has attracted a ton of attention. And reporters in India have been breaking a number of stories this week, aiming to provide us a better picture of what is happening. However, many have also made a number of unhelpful and broad speculations about Chinese motives, India-China relations, and how this is all going to play out.

So I thought I’d dedicate the first story this week to outlining the limited information we have, and clearly identifying what we just don’t know.

India and China share a 3,488 km border, which is divided up into three sectors: western, middle, and eastern. There is a fourth sector of the India-China border at Sikkim, where both countries have settled, but have not officially demarcated, the border. At the other three sectors, the border remains undemarcated (and therefore called the Line of Actual Control or LAC), and China and India continue to maintain overlapping claims. The claims are so far apart, that the two countries even disagree on the length of the border. India claims that the LAC is 3,488 km long, while the Chinese argue it is 2,000 km long.

Both sides had previously exchanged maps to reach a settlement on the border. However, China, after seeing India’s claims in the Western sector in particular, withdrew from continuing the discussions. The process to settle the border once and for all has stalled since at least 2002, according to former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon.

Below is a helpful map of the India-China border from The Economist:

The recent tensions have been focused, so far, in the western and Sikkim sector and, based on the information out there so far, there are four locations where incidents between Indian and Chinese troops have been reported. Three of these are in the western sector: at the Pangong Lake (or Tso), in the Galwan valley, and in Demchok. The fourth incident took place at Naku La, in Sikkim.

The chronology is rough, but it begins roughly on May 5, where Indian and Chinese troops engaged in fist-fights and stone-pelting after “Chinese troops reportedly took issue with an Indian patrol on the north bank of Pangong lake.” A few days later, on May 9, there was another incident at Naku La, which is nearly 1,000 km away from the May 5 incident. On May 14, India’s Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Manoj Naravane, said that “aggressive behaviour on both sides” had led to injuries, but that both sides had disengaged.

However, since then, reports have emerged of stand-offs at two other locations: in the Galwan Valley and in Demchok. It is in those two locations where, it seems, both countries have escalated their troop presence, and are facing off against each other.

On May 19, China’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs put out a statement saying “the Indian Army has crossed the line across the western section of the Sino-Indian border and the Sikkim section to enter Chinese territory,” and that India must “immediately withdraw the personnel across the line, restore the status quo of the relevant areas, strictly restrict the front line troops, observe the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and the agreements and agreements signed by the two sides, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the border areas.”

India’s Ministry of External Affairs did comment on the developments on May 21, saying:

Any suggestion that Indian troops had undertaken activity across the Line of Actual Control in the western sector or the Sikkim sector is not accurate. Indian troops are fully familiar with the alignment of the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas and abide by it scrupulously. All Indian activities are entirely on the Indian side of the LAC. In fact, it is the Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India's normal patrolling patterns. Indian side has always taken a very responsible approach towards border management. At the same time, we are deeply committed to ensuring India's sovereignty and security.

Gen. Naravane, on Friday May 22, also traveled to the XIV Corps headquarters in Leh to review the situation. The Army has also made a statement to deny reports that were circulating that Indian troops were detained by Chinese troops as part of an altercation.

Beyond these official statements, there is now a growing amount of reportage regarding specific locations and patrol points where the stand-offs are occurring, the size of troops on both sides that have been mobilized, and on which side of the LAC the action is taking place. However, here’s where we have to be incredibly careful about the reports, and the source of those reports. As Dhruva Jaishankar, the Director of the U.S. Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation notes:

Let’s me be clear here: a lot of incredibly trustworthy journalist with impeccable credentials have reported some of these stories, including (but certainly not limited to) Sushant Singh of The Indian Express, Ananth Krishnan, Suhasini Haider, and Dinakar Peri of The Hindu, Ajai Shukla of Business Standard, Nitin Gokhale of Strategic News Global, and Manu Pubby and Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury of The Economic Times. However, it’s the nature of the beast that these areas are incredibly remote, and so the information flow is limited to certain government sources who speak to these journalists on deep background or off-the-record. However, we need to account for factors like strategic leaking, or bad/out-of-date intelligence, when reading these stories. This is not to say that their reporting is wrong, and we shouldn’t trust them. Not at all. It just means that we should be critical of what we are reading in a fluid situation in a remote area as this one.

Below is a brief compilation of some their reporting (and where the reports differ), but with yet another reminder to read these with a critical eye:

  • Sushant Singh reports that Chinese troops crossed 2-3 km into the LAC at three points: Hot Springs, at Patrol Point (PP) 14, and PP-15. He also reports that, at each of these points, 800-1000 Chinese soldiers have crossed over the LAC.

  • Ajai Shukla has reported that Chinese troops have crossed 3-4 km into the LAC at five points: four along the Galwan River, and one near Pangong Lake. He reports that “the Chinese have pitched close to a hundred tents at four points on the Galwan River between Patrolling Point 14 (PP 14) and another location called Gogra.”

  • Manu Pubby and Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury also report “three transgression points by PLA troops in the region, including ones at Patrol Point 14 and near the strategic Gogra post,” and that “over 500 Chinese soldiers are present at each of these spots that are within Indian territory.”

  • Suhasini Haider and Dinakar Peri report that, specifically in Pangong Lake, where the mountain folds into the lake are referred to as “fingers,” “Chinese troops are close to Finger 2 area of Pangong Tso area and are blocking our movement forward.” India claims that the area up to Finger 8 is its territory, but it ordinarily effectively controls the area until Finger 4.

There’s also been a ton of discussion, on Twitter and off, about what might be behind this standoff. The most common factor that analysts have pointed to is Chinese and Indian infrastructure build-up along the LAC, and how that might be a factor.

Others have speculated beyond that. What should we make of these simultaneous events? Is China taking advantage of COVID-19? Is this part of a pattern of Chinese assertiveness that includes its activities in the South China Sea? Or is this another in a series of stand-offs in the springtime along the LAC, and will be resolved locally?

I’ll keep the response here short. We just don’t have enough information to know.


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The Aftermath of Cyclone Amphan

On May 20, Cyclone Amphan, made landfall in East India, affecting the states of Odisha and West Bengal, as well as causing widespread damage Bangladesh. It was the first tropical cyclone of the 2020 North Indian Ocean cyclone season.

Cyclone Amphan By The Numbers:

Amphan 2020-05-18 0745Z.jpg

Nearly two million Indians, mostly from West Bengal and some from Odisha, were evacuated into shelters. However, the ongoing pandemic complicated this effort immensely. Shelters had to operate at reduced capacity in order to maintain social distancing rules.

The central government has responded with a $132 million (Rs. 10 billion) relief package for West Bengal, and a $66.2 million (Rs. 5 billion) package for Odisha. The National Disaster Relief Force also mobilized a total of 36 teams to West Bengal to provide support for relief and rescue operations, and Home Department of the state government of West Bengal requested support from the Indian Army, which has sent three columns (each with a strength of 35 soldiers) to the city of Kolkata.

However, it’s hard not to see this Cyclone in the broader context of climate change. Rising sea temperatures could have contributed to the rapid intensification of Cyclone Amphan from a Category 1 to a Category 5 in the span of 18 hours. Industrial activity and pollution have also affected the Sundarbans, which are the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest, and can serve as a “green wall” that “absorbs storm surges” and “blunts cyclones.”

If we continue to fail in taking bold action against climate change, not only will we see such “cyclones of the century” become far too common, but we’ll also erode our own natural defenses and our environment at large.


India (and South Asia) Resources

If you enjoy this newsletter, but can’t get enough of India or want to dive deeper on specific issues, then check out the resources below:

  • There are ton of really great newsletters with which I am lucky to share this space on India and policy. Please check out:

    • Rohan Venkataramakrishnan’s great weekly newsletter, The Political Fix, for Indian news website Scroll.in, covering Indian politics and policy

    • The South Asia Brief, a comprehensive look at the region, authored by Ravi Agrawal for Foreign Policy

    • The View from India, covering foreign affairs developments from an Indian perspective, by Ananth Krishan for The Hindu

    • The Indian States Weekly, run by the wonderful folks at the India Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (full disclosure: I used to help write this letter in my previous job, and continue to be affiliated with the Chair and CSIS).

  • This week, Pink List India released a fantastic new resource called “The State of the QUnion,” which maps statements by 151 MPs on LGBTQIA+ issues, and provides a report card for each MP’s support for LGBTQIA+ rights.

  • Another resource from this week is the report by Oommen Kurian and Sangeet Jain have published for the Observer Research Foundation on the impact of COVID-19 on India’s states, titled “State of the States: Two months of the pandemic.


In Other News

  • The Ministry of Defence has designated 26 items under the Public Procurement (Preference to Make in India) Order 2017, and will, forward, only “procure these items only from local suppliers, irrespective of purchase value, provided that the local suppliers meet the Minimum Local Content (MLC) as prescribed for each item.”

  • The Reserve Bank of India announced it would cut interest rates by 40 basis points from 4.4 percent to 4.0 percent. The central bank also extended the moratorium on loan installments for another three months, and that the RBI would maintain an “accommodative stance” until India’s economy recovery

  • The Ministry of Home Affairs has effectively withdrawn an earlier order that required all employees in India to pay wages to workers during the period of the lockdown. The order, which was issued on March 29, was not renewed the latest orders put forth by the ministry on May 17. Several companies had challenged the order, and had even approached the Supreme Court of India.

  • India has resumed domestic flights beginning on May 25 amidst chaos and confusion. Moreover, unlike the regulations in some other countries, India will not be mandating that airlines keep the middle seat vacant. India’s Minister for Civil Aviation, Hardeep Singh Puri, said “It's not viable to keep the middle seat vacant.Even if you keep middle seat vacant you'll still have a situation where prescribed distance for social distancing isn't followed. If you were to do it then you've to hike up airline ticket price by 33%.”

  • Some of India’s leading intellectuals, including Dr. Ashutosh Varshney, Dr. Ramachandra Guha, Dr. Jayati Ghosh, and Prof. Yogendra Yadav, put forth a proposal for Mission Jai Hind, “a 7-point plan of action to respond to the present economic, health and humanitarian crisis.”

    • While there were a number of good ideas put forth, the original document included a clause which stated “All the resources (cash, real estate, property, bonds, etc.) with the citizens or within the nation must be treated as national resources available during this crisis.” This clause attracted a ton of negative attention, with allegations that the clause was calling for nationalization and expropriation of private property. That original version is available here.

    • The proponents then released a revised edition of their Mission Jai Hind, with new language for 7.1, which called on the government to explore “emergency ways of raising resources” beyond raising taxes and levies. The updated version is available here.

  • Two Members of Parliament belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata, Meenakshi Lekhi and Rahul Kaswan, attended the virtual swearing-in of the President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, following her re-election. This is contrast with a controversial episode in 2016, when Ms. Lekhi and another parliamentary colleague from the Nationalist Congress Party, D.P. Tripathi, withdrew at the last minute from the President Tsai’s first inauguration. However, another BJP leader who was not a member of Parliament, Vijay Jolly, did attend the 2016 inauguration.


Three to Read…

From cogent analysis to potentially big news that you should keep an eye on, here are a few commentaries and other pieces of writing that I found particularly enlightening.

  • Ashley Tellis, Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece, writes: “On many issues, India will pursue policies independent of, and sometimes even opposed to, American preferences. But New Delhi’s desire for an unobligated partnership with Washington will inevitably be tolerated by the latter because, when all is said and done, it largely dovetails with the broader American goal of balancing China in Asia at a time when containing Beijing – in manner previously done with Moscow – seems all but impossible thanks to the new pervasive realities of globalization.”

  • Utkarsh Narain, Research Analyst at The Takshashila Institution, puts forth a bold proposal for a New Space Policy 2020, suggesting the need for “a clear policy and regulatory structure that paves the way for growth of the nascent private space sector in India, thus contributing towards national development and advancing the frontiers of science and technology.

  • Srinath Raghavan and Rhea Menon, both of Carnegie India, publish a collection of essays on South Asia’s response to COVID-19: “This compendium provides a detailed yet synoptic account of the coronavirus’s impact on South Asia and the challenges that lie ahead. Short essays take stock of how each country has dealt with this complex health emergency. They are followed by interviews with experts who have studied and worked in the region, including senior foreign policy practitioners, journalists, scholars, and government officials.”

… And Two to Watch

  • Amb. Richard Verma, Vice Chair at The Asia Group and the former U.S. Ambassador to India, in conversation with Amb. Alice Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs at the Atlantic Council to discuss “the state of affairs in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific.”

  • Brookings India held a webinar titled “Must India’s Foreign Affairs Strategy Change?” with a stellar panel from across the Indo-Pacific. The panel, moderated by Dr. Constantino Xavier of Brookings India, included:

    • Amb. Shivshankar Menon, Distinguished Fellow, Brookings India; and former National Security Advisor of India;

    • Dr. Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia at the U.S. State Department;

    • Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Indonesia;

    • Prof. Rory Medcalf, Professor and Head, National Security College, Australian National University;

    • Dr. Justin Vaïsse, Director General, Paris Peace Forum, and former Director, Policy Planning Staff, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, France.


Thanks for reading this latest edition of Indialogue. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback by emailing me at aman@amanthakker.com.

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