On June 15, the worst violence on the India-China border since 1967 claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. The clash occurred in the Galwan Valley, which hasn’t been a site of conflict since 1962.
On June 19, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a statement claimed that the entire valley is located “on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”, which followed a statement from the People’s Liberation Army stating that “China always owns sovereignty over the Galwan Valley region”.
Where is Galwan Valley?
The valley refers to the land that sits between steep mountains that buffet the Galwan River.
The river has its source in Aksai Chin, on China’s side of the LAC, and it flows east to Ladakh, where it meets the Shyok river on India’s side of the LAC.
The valley is strategically located between Ladakh in the west and Aksai Chin in the east, which is currently controlled by China as part of its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
At its western end are the Shyok river and the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road.
Its eastern mouth lies not far from China’s vital Xinjiang Tibet road, now called the G219 highway.
Where does the Line of Actual Control lie?
The LAC lies east of the confluence of the Galwan and Shyok rivers in the valley, up to which both India and China have been patrolling in recent years.
After the June 15 clash, however, China has claimed the entire valley lies on its side of the LAC.
Since early May, China has been objecting to India’s road construction activities at the western end of the valley, in the area between the Galwan-Shyok confluence and the LAC.
Beijing is now saying the entire valley is on its side of the LAC, which pegs the line further west near the Shyok river. India has rejected the claim as “exaggerated and untenable”.
Are China’s claims new?
Most Chinese maps show most of Galwan river on China’s side of the line, but short of the confluence.
This broadly corresponds with the LAC as India sees it – and in India’s view, as China saw it, until recently.
“Chinese maps that I have seen show almost all of the Galwan River as lying within the territory China claims in the area,” said M. Taylor Fravel, a professor at that Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes.
“The one discrepancy would be the western tip of the Galwan River as it meets the Shyok River. Here, the last few kilometres of the Galwan River are often depicted as lying beyond China’s border.”
What do maps tell us?
In 1959, then Premier Zhou Enlai said a 1956 map portrayed the correct alignment.
This showed the entire Galwan Valley as a part of India.
However, in June 1960 China put out a map claiming sovereignty over the valley.
A Chinese map from November 1962 also claims the entire valley, but subsequent maps have not shown the western tip of the river as a part of China.
By citing its territorial claims, can China alter the Line of Actual Control?
Territorial claims and LAC claims are not the same.
Regardless of whether or not China claims territorial rights to the valley, the LAC that both countries abided by until recently ran through the valley.
The distinction between territorial claims and LAC claims is sometimes blurred.
The LAC refers to territory under the effective control of each side, not to their entire territorial claim.
For instance, India’s territorial claims extend 38,000 sq km on the other side of the LAC across all of Aksai Chin, but the LAC India observes runs through the valley.
It is true that the LAC has never been demarcated and there are differences in perception of where it lies in more than a dozen spots, but there have not been previous incidents in the valley.
By now staking a claim to the entire Galwan Valley and up to the confluence of the rivers, China is, in India’s view, unilaterally altering the LAC here.
According to the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA), India and China agreed to “strictly respect and observe the LAC between the two sides”.
This referred to the LAC at the time, rendering irrelevant the line of actual control in 1959 or 1962.
It also says that “when necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the line of actual control where they have different views as to its alignment.”
Clarifying the LAC has also been explicitly codified in the 1996 agreement on confidence-building measures and subsequent agreements.
China, however, has refused to exchange maps in the western sector to take this process forward.
The BPTA also said “the two sides agree that references to the line of actual control in this agreement do not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question.”