There are several perceptions of what constitutes the border—what the Indians think, what the Chinese think, and what, maybe, is the actual border

"Both sides patrol up to their respective perceptions of LAC." This is not a sundry line but a sentence from the 2018-19 annual report of the Indian defence ministry.

It is referring to the Indian and Chinese militaries patrolling the border. But the trouble is bound to rear its cantankerous head where perceptions diverge.

LAC refers to the Line of Actual Control which is the effective border between the two Asian neighbours.

This week again there was a bellicose outburst in the Indian media over alleged Chinese incursions into Arunachal Pradesh’s Anjou district near the Chaglagam area.

It was triggered by Lok Sabha MP Tapir Gao’s small video post on social media on September 3. The root of the ruckus—a small hanging bridge made of wooden strips from felled trees over splashing waters of a monsoon mountain stream.

Gao told Moneycontrol, the small bridge was laid across the stream by Chinese soldiers who had been camping at the very spot for long and that it has been happening for years. A local villager had sent the video to Gao.

But by now it has become a periodic ritual. Of allegations and counter-allegations, of transgressions by the respective militaries of India and China in the border areas of Arunachal Pradesh. But that is how quite a stretch of the border with China is like.

In August 2014, then junior Union Home Minister Kiren Rijiju, an Arunachali, reeled out figures in the Rajya Sabha—Chinese army transgressed the Sino-Indian border a total of 1,278 times between 2010-13. "However, there are cases of transgression due to difference in perception of Line of Actual Control," Rijiju added for good measure.

And again, two weeks back, on August 24, Indian Army vice-chief designate Lt Gen MM Naravane said that if China transgressed at the LAC a 100 times, the Indian Army did so on 200 occasions.

Extremely scantily inhabited by the Mishimi tribe, this area is very heavily forested, high altitude and mountainous. Most of this wild territory is frequented by hunters, food gatherers and herb collectors.

There are Mishimi tribe members in the Indian side and also up yonder on the Chinese side. There are cross-border intermarriages among them and the dialect spoken is much similar.

But besides a vague understanding no one is quite sure where the border exactly lies. Hence transgressions are frequent even as army patrols stumble across into each other’s perceptions of what makes for the border.

There are several perceptions of what constitutes the border—what the Indians think, what the Chinese think, and what, maybe, is the actual border.

India stands by the McMahon Line. Drawn by Arthur Henry McMahon in 1914, former foreign secretary of British India (1911-14) and one of the main architects of the Simla Accord, his markings on the map delineated the border between India and Tibet. It was agreed to by British India and Tibet.

But China refused to acknowledge the McMahon Line.

In a January 23, 1959 letter to Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru, Chinese PM Chou En Lai pointed out that while there was no treaty to formally delineate the India-China border as Tibet was not a sovereign country, the "McMahon Line was a product of the British policy of aggression against the Tibetan Region of China."

Accordingly, China lays claim to 65,000 sq km of territory in Arunachal Pradesh which it calls "Southern Tibet". Therefore, while the McMahon Line is the effective India-China boundary for India, it has no legal sanctity in China’s eyes.

At the same time, the McMahon Line was drawn on the basis of alignment with the mountain crest in the region in accordance with the watershed principle. At no time did McMahon actually physically visit the places where he drew a line upon on the map. It was small wonder then that at times the McMahon Line and the mountain crest line did not quite align and there were remarkable variances.

On top of that is the difficulty of undertaking patrols from the Indian side towards the LAC with the lack of roads being the least of the problems.

While the Chinese side is fairly well connected with good quality roads and related infrastructure, the Indian side is not. For long, the creation of such infrastructure towards the LAC was prevented by a conscious Indian policy of not developing the borders with China so as to create a buffer area. But while that policy has changed now, the effect of the long years of ‘masterly inactivity’ is yet to wear off.

Taking the sensitivity of Arunachal Pradesh where as many as 13 districts share international borders with China, Myanmar and Bhutan, building roads has been accorded a lot of priority now.

As of March 2018, of the 27 roads (length 1792 km) in the state border identified as ‘vital’ from the military and security point of view, 15 roads (663 km long) have been completed while work is under progress on 12 other roads (length 1,130 km).

But whether the development of infrastructure can lead to a better situation on the border, which in turn can reduce the prevalent neighbourly tensions, is something time will tell.