DPG Policy Brief

Stabilising the Line of Actual Control: Need for New Protocols

The India-China standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh has entered its fourth winter. Following China’s violation of bilateral agreements for border peace and tranquility,  and the resulting breakdown of Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs), the situation at the LAC reflects a complex interplay of deteriorating trust, heightened military presence, and aggressive posturing by the PLA. The disengagement in certain areas has partially reduced immediate risks, but the core issue of restoring the April 2020 status quo remains unresolved, affecting bilateral relations deeply.

This policy brief reviews the efficacy of the CBMs from the 1990s onwards and examines their steady erosion since 2013, leading to the 2020 crisis. It then suggests the need for considering new protocols to stabilise the situation at the LAC.

The 1993, 1996, and 2005 agreements between India and China oversaw a period of calm due to strict adherence to established CBMs by both sides, high levels of military restraint, and a spirit of accommodation regarding patrolling up to each other’s perception of the LAC.

From 2013, there was a gradual erosion of these CBMs, starting with the 20-day faceoff in Depsang in April 2013. There were similar incidents at Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017. The author attributes the weakening of the CBMs to the improvements of infrastructure and the accretion of forces that led to increased patrolling by both sides, with a definite underlying pattern of deliberate escalation by the PLA. Geopolitical factors also played a role, as China pursued a more assertive and expansionist foreign policy. The complete breakdown of CBMs finally occurred when the PLA unilaterally carried out multiple encroachments in Eastern Ladakh in May 2020.

The author suggests a limited and measured approach to breaking the impasse at the LAC, where India and China can look at calming the military situation with quiet political endorsement. He recommends that the two sides should identify and fix the disputed areas along the LAC, to  ensure that no new flashpoints emerge. In these disputed areas, either no-patrolling buffer zones could be established or patrolling patterns agreed upon with a specified periodicity to avoid face-offs between opposing troops. Additional hotlines and meeting points should come up along the LAC to resolve any local incident promptly.

Discussions should also address infrastructure development close to the LAC.  In the past, China has raised unrealistic and untenable objections to infrastructure projects in the border areas. It must be made clear that India will not accept restrictions on the creation of infrastructure to support the civil population and its military requirements.

In the author’s view, while the reduction of troops would certainly enhance confidence, this is unlikely to happen in the short term due to the current climate of suspicion and mistrust generated by years of Chinese malfeasance, violation of bilateral agreements and undermining of established CBMs. India must, in the meanwhile, continue to enhance its military capability and strength along the entire LAC in order to establish greater deterrence against future Chinese incursions.

To read this Policy Brief Vol. VIII, Issue 32, please click "Stabilising the Line of Actual Control: Need for New Protocols".