China and India are fighting a low level border war that is largely defined by Chinese aggressiveness and innovative tactics. This is all about a decades old border dispute between India and China. India accuses Chinese troops of being caught on the Indian side of the LAC (Line of Actual Control) in Kashmir (northwest India) much more frequently this year and blocking Indian troops from using Indian built trails and roads that Indians have patrolled for decades. In the Kashmir area the terrain is largely high plains that are semi-desert. That means all-terrain trucks can travel cross country in many areas, although there are many key chokepoints (that often have a road built through them). There are few roads up there, but there are many more trails, used by herders, travelers (on foot or horseback) and infantry patrols. China has exploited this geography by ordering its foot or mounted (in vehicles or on horses) patrols to go boldly into disputed territory and only back off when a Chinese commander tells them to. India fears that this will lead to a shooting incident because all these troops along the LAC are armed and these incidents infuriate the Indian troops.
When pressed about these crossings of the LAC, China says all these incidents were misunderstandings, but in the GPS age this is not as convincing as it used to be. India is accusing China of violating a March agreement that was supposed to halt the Chinese practice of sending troops to follow each other’s infantry patrols along the LAC and also sending troops into Indian territory. China and India are negotiating a new agreement, but that is going slowly and, in the meantime, Chinese troops along the LAC remain aggressive. Indian officers familiar with Chinese military history recognize what it going on here. The Chinese are playing mind games and seeking a bloodless victory, as Chinese military theorists have long preached, and seeking to win the border war via intimidation and demoralization.
The LAC is also known as the MacCartney-MacDonald Line and is the unofficial border between India and China. The LAC is 4,057 kilometers long and is found in the Indian States of Ladakh, Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal, and Arunachal. On the Chinese side it is mostly Tibet. China claims a lot of territory that is now considered part of India. The practice of monitoring each other’s patrols has led to hundreds of armed confrontations over the last few years as one side or the other accuses “foreign troops” of crossing the LAC. China has become less vocal about its claims on Indian territory recently but has not abandoned these assertions nor its aggressive infantry tactics. The Chinese troops, when confronted by Indian soldiers or border guards, will claim they are really in Chinese territory but back off rather than open fire over the issue. This is a big relief to India, which has a defense budget one third that of China’s. India fears that the Chinese troops are becoming bolder and more stubborn and that this could lead to a war India would probably lose.
For the last decade China has been increasing military training in Tibet. The high altitude there can cause problems for non-Tibetan personnel. Altitude sickness afflicts over 90 percent of lowland Chinese but hardly any native born Tibetans. Equipment also has problems, as many mechanical and hydraulic items operate differently at the higher altitudes of Tibet. The pilots and maintenance personnel gain valuable experience each time they spend a week or two in Tibet for training. If the border dispute with nearby India ever got hot, China would have to rapidly fly in additional warplanes and operate them from Tibet. India has, in contrast, neglected preparations to fight another war on the high altitude LAC. That has changed over the last few years, but China still has an edge and will continue to do so for at least another five years.
One of the few Chinese military victories in the last 60 years was against India in 1962. That was a high altitude skirmish in the mountains on the Tibetan border. Last year, for the first time, India officially recognized the 1,383 soldiers killed during that 1962 war. This conflict, over a border dispute high in the Himalayan Mountains, was a victory for China (suffering 2,500 casualties) over India (suffering 8,300 casualties). It was a massive surprise attack by the Chinese that tore through Indian defenses and overran a lot of Indian territory. But after a month, the Chinese declared a ceasefire, withdrew from most of the land they had captured, and a peace was quickly negotiated. India lost 38,000 hectares (95,000 acres) of territory and China continued to claim another 90,000 hectares. The Chinese now had better military positions on the border. China has loudly renewed its claims on Indian territory over the last few years.