China hinting enlarged buffer zones at LAC. Here's what India can do (2023)

China’s People’s Liberation Army has demanded the creation of an enlarged buffer zone of 15 to 20 kilometres in the Depsang Plains presently under India’s control, as reported by The Telegraph quoting a source from the intelligence wing of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. This is in addition to the 18-20 km of territory from Y Junction/Bottleneck to Patrolling Points 10,11, 11A, 12 and 13, the access to which has been physically denied by the PLA since May 2020. This proposal was reportedly made during the 18th round of Corps Commander level talks held on 23 April 2023.

The aforementioned report has neither been rebutted nor clarified on by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Army or the ITBP. This outrageous demand of China would create a buffer zone of 30-40 km, which was patrolled by India entirely till May 2020 and up to Y-Junction/ Bottleneck since then.

I analyse China’s stratagem to assert its will on the borders by forcing creation of buffer zones to grab or control more territory and the implications of its latest demand with respect to the Depsang Plains.

Time tested Chinese strategy

China was quietly planting its flag across the undemarceted boundary of Akshai Chin in the 1950s while promoting peace with India agreeing to respect territorial integrity and sovereignty. To consolidate the newly acquired countries—Tibet and Xinjiang—it built a road across eastern end of Aksai Chin. And to secure it, China gradually began to occupy the frontier region.

Once it’s patrols clashed with those of India engaged in a similar exercise in its own territory, the proposal of a buffer zone was formally made. On 7 November 1959, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai wrote a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, proposing “the armed forces of China and India each withdraw 20 km at once from the so-called McMahon Line in the east, and from the line up to which each side exercised actual control in the west, and that the two sides undertake to refrain from again sending their armed personnel to be stationed in and patrol the zones from which they have evacuated their armed forces, but still maintain civil administrative personnel and unarmed police there for the performance of administrative duties and maintenance of order.” The 1959 Claim Line was broadly described by the Chinese during the five rounds of talks with officials of India in 1960.

This was a typical ‘the Arab and the camel’ approach. Give an inch to the Chinese and they will take it all. First, secure an unoccupied area in the opponent’s territory, then to promote peace propose a buffer zone imposing more loss of territory from a position of strength. As per Zhou’s proposal, a buffer zone of 40 km would have been created in Eastern Ladakh making India lose another 20 km. Same proposal was repeated after Phase 1 of the China-India War in October 1962. This trend has continued to date.

The only time the Chinese made a concession was after the 1962 War when it declared a unilateral ceasefire on 19 November and ordered its army to withdraw 20 km east of the 1959 Claim Line in Ladakh and its perception of the McMahon Line in the Northeast. The primary reason for this withdrawal was onset of winter, stretched logistics and possible intervention by the United States.

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Unequal buffer zones

In the prolonged negotiations held since June 2020, buffer zones have been created in five areas—Galwan Valley, north of Pangong Tso, Kailash Range, Patrolling Points (PP) 17-17A and 15-16. Only the buffer zone north of Pangong Tso between Finger 4 and Finger 8 of 8-10 km is equitable in terms of distance, which is 10 km along the road and 6 km as the crow flies, and 10-12 km to the north. Before May 2020 India patrolled up to Finger 8 and China up to Finger 4. No side physically held the area. This “concession” was agreed to by the Chinese as quid pro quo for vacation of the Kailash Range where they were at a disadvantage.

In Galwan, the centre point of the buffer zone of 3 km is PP 14, which is a kilometre short of the LAC. Thus, the buffer zone is mostly in India’s not patrolled by the PLA. Both sides have pulled back 2-4 km to respective valleys at Kailash Range but India lost the tactical advantage. Kailash Range was an intrinsic part of India’s offensive and defensive plan and the LAC was never disputed here. In the Kugrang River valley, the buffer zones of 4-5 km each between PP 17 and 17A, and PP 15 and 16, are entirely on India’s side of the LAC. The Chinese never patrolled this area pre-May 2020. In addition, the 30-35 km long and 4-5 km wide Kugrang River valley becomes untenable in war.

Unacceptable proposal

In Depsang Plains pre-May 2020, ITBP patrolled up to PP 10,11,12 and 13, which itself are short of the LAC. The PLA intruded 18-20 km to deny India access to 600 to 800 sq km of Depsang Plains beyond Y-Junction/Bottleneck. Pre-May 2020, the PLA was also patrolling up to Y-Junction/Bottleneck. Based on the present deployment, a buffer zone between Y-Junction/Bottleneck and the LAC imposes an unacceptable cost on India of denial of access to PP 10, 11, 12 and 13 and by implication to 600-800 sq km of Depsang Plains due to the terrain configuration. It is a heavy price to pay for a no-war, no-peace situation.

Now China is trying to permanently impose the 1959 Claim Line or its version of the LAC and wants India to pull back further west of Y-Junction/Bottleneck, probably up to the road from Burtse to DBO military base while itself pulling back only to “India’s version” of the LAC. It is obvious that negotiations have reached a dead end with respect to the Depsang Plains. It would be prudent for India to literally stick to its guns while the Border Roads Organisation tunnels its way through the Saser La Range to DBO to develop an alternate road.

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Method in madness

It is pertinent to mention that in territorial terms, the Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020 and the ongoing creeping forward along the McMahon Line are aimed at reimposing China’s version of the LAC, which as per its perception was violated by India over the years. It is the 1959 Claim Line in Eastern Ladakh and the Chinese interpretation of the McMohan Line in the Northeast. China did not cross the 1959 Claim Line in 1962 and it did not do so in 2020 despite achieving strategic surprise. Is the original 1959 offer of 40 km demilitarised and administered policed zone as an interim agreement still on China’s mind?

Given the threat of nuclear weapons and the uncertain outcome of war, neither China nor India can alter the status quo at the borders. Notwithstanding the Parliament resolution of 14 November 1962—“ …to drive out the aggressor from the sacred soil of India, however long and hard the struggle may be,”—unless China collapses, the prospect of reclaiming lost territories is only in the realm of fantasy. The same is true for China’s claims regarding Arunachal Pradesh.

An interim agreement with an equidistant demilitarised buffer zone along the present line of actual positions held is a viable strategic option. However, the pursuit of lasting peace requires statesmanship and intense diplomatic and political engagement. It is time to do so.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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