Chinese infringements into the Aksai Chin region are not random, independent events but are part of a strategically planned and coordinated “expansionist strategy” to gain permanent control of the disputed border area, according to a study on Chinese border incursions into India by a team of international experts.
The study ‘Rising tension in the Himalayas: a Geospatial Analysis of Chinese Border Incursions into India' by Northwestern University, Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Defence Academy presented a geospatial analysis of the incursions, using an original dataset that covers the past 15 years.
"We find that the conflict can be separated into two independent conflicts, west and east, centered around the major contested areas of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. Building on insights from game theory, we conclude that the Chinese incursions in the west are strategically planned and aim for a permanent control, or at least a clearer status quo of the contested areas," the study said released on Thursday said.
For the study, the team defined an ‘incursion' as any movement of Chinese troops across the border -- by foot or in vehicles -- into areas that are internationally accepted as India's territory. Then, they plotted each location on a map, identifying 13 hotspots where incursions happen most frequently.
In the 15-year dataset, the researchers noted an average of 7.8 incursions per year even though the Indian government's estimates are much higher.
The India-China border dispute covers the 3,488-km-long Line of Actual Control. China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of southern Tibet while India contests it. Aksai Chin is a vast area in Ladakh which is currently under Chinese occupation.
According to Indian government data in 2019, the Chinese Army transgressed into Indian territory 1,025 times between 2016 and 2018. Then Minister of State for Defence Shripad Naik told the Lok Sabha in November 2019 that the number of transgressions by the Chinese Army in 2016 was 273 which rose to 426 in 2017. The number of such cases reported in 2018 was 326.
The study's authors are Jan-Tino Brethouwer and Robbert Fokkink of the Technical University of Delft, Delft Insititute of Applied Mathematics in Netherlands, Kevin Greene of Princeton University's School of Public and International Affairs, Roy Lindelauf of Netherlands Defence Academy, Faculty of Military Sciences in Breda, Netherlands, Caroline Tornquist of Dartmouth College's Department of Computer Science and V.S. Subrahmanian of Northwestern University's Department of Computer Science and Buffett Institute for Global Affairs in Evanston, US.
A press release from Northwestern said that the authors assembled a new dataset, compiling information about Chinese incursions into India from 2006 to 2020 and used game theory and statistical methods to analyse the data.
The researchers found that conflicts can be separated into two distinct sectors: west/middle (the Aksai Chin region) and east (the Arunachal Pradesh region).
“Chinese incursions across India's west and central borders are not independent, random incidents that happen by mistake,” the release said.
“While the researchers learned that the number of incursions are generally increasing over time, they concluded that conflicts in the east and middle sectors are part of a coordinated expansionist strategy,” it said.
Subrahmanian, the study's senior author and the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Computer Science at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and a Buffett Faculty Fellow at Northwestern's Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, said that by studying the number of incursions that occurred in the west and middle sectors over time, “it became obvious, statistically, that these incursions are not random. The probability of randomness is very low, which suggests to us that it's a coordinated effort.
“When we looked at the eastern sector, however, there is much weaker evidence for coordination. Settling border disputes in specific areas could be an important first step in a step-by-step resolution of the entire conflict,” Subrahmanian said.
“Knowing there are more incursions in the western sector is not a surprise,” Subrahmanian said. “Aksai Chin is a strategic area that China wants to develop, so it's very critical to them. It's a vital passageway between China and the Chinese autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.”
The study, which notes the June 2020 Galwan clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers and an “an unknown number of Chinese soldiers”, said that reports of Chinese incursions into Indian territory are now a frequent occurrence.
“This rising tension between the world's most populous countries poses risks for global security and the world economy. The militarisation of the region has a negative ecological impact,” it said.
India and China are locked in a lingering border row in eastern Ladakh for over 29 months. The bilateral relationship came under severe strain following the deadly clash in Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh.
The militaries of the two sides disengaged from a number of friction points following a series of diplomatic and military talks.
However, there has been no progress yet on resolving the standoff in the Demchok and Depsang regions.
India has been consistently maintaining that peace and tranquillity along the LAC are prerequisite for the overall development of the bilateral ties.
The study said that States respond not only to the actions directed toward them, but also respond to the actions directed within their alliance and rivalry networks.
“India's participation in the Quad, the security dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, may serve as a trigger for Chinese activity along the China–India border. China, on the other hand, is involved in cooperative activities with Pakistan, and is ready to step in the void that is left behind after the retreat of the western powers in Afghanistan.”
“China's foreign policy has become increasingly aggressive, stepping up its military exercises around Taiwan and extending its presence in the South China Sea. To counter China's expansive policies, Australia, the UK, and the USA have entered a partnership and one option for India is to align itself with the AUKUS countries,” it said.
The study said that India and China remain at a constant state of high alertness and there are no signs that this situation will improve in the near future but a resolution of the conflict would be of great benefit for international security, the world economy, and for the preservation of the unique ecology of the Himalayas.
In a previous paper published by Nature Humanities and Social Sciences Communications in 2021, Subrahmanian and his collaborators studied when incursions are most likely to occur and found that China attacks when it feels most vulnerable.
“We found an uptick in incursions when China is experiencing economic stress, such as low consumer confidence,” Subrahmanian said. “We also see upticks when India gets closer to the United States.”