India-China border clash: Is there a way forward? (Part II of three-part series)

We need to step out of the stated and irrevocable positions taken, think out of the box, accept existing ground realities, create the right atmospherics amongst the people and international community and come up with a pragmatic solution, writes Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Lt Gen P R Kumar (retd) Jun 23, 2020
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In the first part of this three series article, I discussed the strong civilizational connect (recorded formal interaction dates to 2nd Century BC) between India and China which prevented any sort of confrontation let alone conflict, and India’s official position of the boundary between the two countries. The history, geography, geopolitics and strategy, economy, technology, military potential, comprehensive national power and most importantly individual personalities (leaders) have a direct bearing on the way forward. 

With the June 15 violent face-off between India and China – the first deadly clash in 45 years - in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh, one now needs to focus on the ways to reach a decisive resolution to the boundary impasse and ignore the tactical and realpolitik irritants that should not impinge on national interests and objectives of nations being more permanent in nature. 

There is, however, a rising trend of nationalism either propped up by the government/regime or due to insecure and unstable security environment, which gets exacerbated in case of boundary disagreements/disputes, because a pivotal manifestation of nationalism is protecting one’s integrity and sovereignty. Just like a human can’t think of anything else till his/her basic needs like food and water is met, there will always be turbulent relations between two nations who have a boundary/border dispute. One can manage a complex boundary issue and focus on other mutual commons only for so long, but sooner rather than later it is imperative that boundary differences are resolved expeditiously. 

Geography has dictated/destined that the two most populous nations China and India, with the immense potential of human and natural resources, are contiguously located. Both China and India, ancient, proud civilizations with glorious histories are destined by their geography, size, population, resources, and history to be great powers in the world order. While the debate on shared and contested strategic space can carry on, one indisputable fact remains that one of the primary irritants is the boundary dispute between China and India. The 'Asian Century' will initially see a lot of jostling and balancing for space, creating and dominating areas of interest and influence between nations within Asia, and intervention of global powers like the US, Russia and the EU. This will lead to insecurity and potential conflict situations.

In the India-China context, however, complex the boundary question may be in terms of history, and the firm irretrievable stance taken by both countries, it is imperative for world peace, and for prosperity and aspirations of China and India to resolve their boundary dispute with mutual understanding and cooperation, in the atmospherics of ‘give and take’ in the near future, as the time for procrastination is over. Everybody acknowledges the fact that the boundary issue is a political matter of state and calls for visionary leadership and statesmanship of the highest order from both sides for its resolution. 

China wants to change status quo in Asia 

International Relations Theory and Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT) postulate that territorial pre-eminence (military) is more potent and powerful than non-territorial domains in the security calculus and regional security zones are fairly independent of globalisation and global political trends due to their strong emotional, geographical, and historical links.  The central idea in RSCT is that since most threats travel more easily over short distances than over long ones, security interdependence is normally patterned into regionally based clusters/security complexes. Thus despite globalisation, for the majority of states (except for global powers), the main game of security is defined by their near neighbours. 

China the rising dragon has arrived and is announcing her presence demonstrably by changing the status quo in Asia, to establish herself as the dominant power in Asia. India on her part has been acting with great maturity, responsibility and resolve through all the Chinese interventions and border standoffs along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China’s building of massive infrastructure projects along with a large Chinese workforce presence in PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) as part of CPEC (China–Pakistan Economic Corridor), her stance regarding abrogation of Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India in the UNSC when the entire world has accepted that it is entirely an internal matter of India; her stubborn support to Pakistan in every issue; and turning a blind eye to the relentless proxy war and acts of terrorism being conducted by Pakistan demonstrates the fact that China is not too concerned about Indian sensitivities, which does not help matters for the rapprochement on the border issue.  

Initiation of the Boundary Resolution Process

The 1993 Bilateral Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA) was a political milestone post-independence, which created an expert group of diplomatic and military personnel to ‘advice on the resolution of differences between the two sides on the alignment of the LAC. The September 7, 1993 Agreement effectively delinked settlement of the boundary from the rest of the relationship and delinked it also from the maintenance of peace on the border. Both countries also formally renounced the use of force to settle the issue. It also spoke of confidence-building measures (CBMs) to be mutually agreed to in the future, including restrictions on-air activity and limits of the size of military exercises near the LAC and possible redeployment of forces. 

CBM measures should be based on the concept of ‘mutual and equal security’ rather than on parity or other simple formulas. Two portions of BPTA have yet to be implemented or discussed in detail by the two countries. One is the provision that “military forces in areas along the LAC will be kept to the minimum level compatible with the friendly and good neighbourly relations between the two countries”. The other is the provision for “mutual and equal security,” which has not yet been discussed conceptually or explored or implemented by China and India, even though it provides a theoretical basis for mutual and reciprocal security, which could prove valuable as security environment turns more volatile, and stronger military capabilities and increased military presence on both sides of the border make accidents and mistakes more likely. 

What followed in 1996 was the Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC. The primary objective of these measures was the commitment to the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the border. The Declaration of Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation was signed in 2003 in which The Joint Working Group (JWG) that was set up and functional at a purely bureaucratic level was upgraded to a meeting of Special Representatives (SR), thereby providing the much-desired political impetus for resolution. These agreements led up to the adopting of the ‘Political Guidance Principles for the Settlement of Boundary Question’ signed in 2005. The exchanges between training institutions, participating in sports and including cultural activities formed other CBM’s.  

A comprehensive push on promoting bilateral military relations remained on track following the visit of then Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, to China in May 2006. The visit led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that called for the institutionalization of frequent exchanges between the officials of the Defence Ministries and the armed forces through an Annual Defence Dialogue, in addition to developing an annual calendar for joint exercises and training programmes. In April–May 2013, following a three-week-long confrontation at Depsang valley in Ladakh, the two sides signed the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) to address tactical problems and to prevent their escalation. 

To further enhance mutual cooperation and promote understanding between the two armed forces, the two sides have also conducted low-level tactical military exercises whose scope is being increased to naval and air cooperation. A hotline between the Indian DGMO (Director General of Military Operations) and an equivalent appointee from the Chinese Central Military Headquarters has also been agreed to expeditiously resolve tactical and border crisis situations and avoid miscalculation and escalation of any border conflagration. All the committees/groups have held numerous meetings. While the other groups mainly focus on maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border, the SR meeting does discuss political resolution methodologies of the boundary question. Despite the SRs meeting numerous times (20 times), there has been very little forward movement/change in their respective stance regarding the boundary. Post the Doklam face-off, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at Wuhan during April 2018, and they agreed to issue “strategic guidance to the respective militaries to strengthen communication to build mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in managing borders”.

It is pertinent to mention that the Indo-China border/LAC is very different from the international boundary and Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan. With Pakistan, India has for the most part an agreed-upon international boundary. For the rest, the LoC delineated on a map signed by the DGMOs of both the armies of India and Pakistan has international sanctity of a legal agreement behind it. Nevertheless, both the IB and LC with Pakistan are “hot” or “live”, crossed by terrorists and militants (and even regulars by Pakistan, like prior to Kargil conflict) and regular cross border firing occurs. 

With China, the LAC is a concept; neither the LAC nor the boundary is agreed upon by the two countries, let alone delineated on a map or demarcated on the ground, yet this is one of the most peaceful contested borders in the last 43 years where not a single shot has been fired in anger. The LAC is the basis of peace and peace would remain fragile without an agreement as to where the line lies. The Indian side has always pressed for both sides to together clarify the entire LAC without prejudice to the final boundary agreement, which while agreed to initially by the Chinese have not been actioned due to a possible lack of trust. Despite the lack of clarity, both sides had been able to maintain peace and tranquility, though broken by the June 15 violent clash, along the LAC for three main reasons; firstly, each side has a fairly good idea from the other side’s patrolling patterns and other behaviour of where the other side thinks the LAC lies; secondly, both sides have, by and large, kept to their interpretation of the LAC avoided provocation and implemented the operating procedures and other CBMs that the Agreement called for, and lastly, both sides have not been in direct contact along most of the line. 

Even in the areas that both consider as lying on another side of the line, both sides generally refrained from establishing a permanent presence or changing the status quo significantly. A change of attitude and actions is discernible in Chinese actions and patrolling patterns. They have become more aggressive, more frequent and insistent on continuing even when confronted by Indian patrol. And as Chumar (2014), Doklam (2017), series of intrusions during summer of 2020 indicate they have burrowed down and built permanent structures and even deployed.

The way forward 

India is justified in feeling that China is keeping the issue in the backburner to pull it out for strategic, political, diplomatic, and military considerations and advantages. While looking for political solutions, both sides must concurrently, strengthen ‘commons, especially economic and diplomatic’ and focus on national aims and aspirations. Policymakers on both sides feel that it would be prudent to maintain the present course of multi-directional engagement with each other and their neighbours, and, simultaneously India focusses more on building and enhancing its own comprehensive national power (CNP). That alone will gradually change the regional environment and provide incentives to cultivate a serious and strategic equation. We need to step out of the stated and irrevocable positions taken, think out of the box, accept existing ground realities, create the right atmospherics amongst the people and international community and come up with a pragmatic solution. 

The package deal as once offered by China for the boundary question or resolution sector-wise needs to be studied based on mutual understanding of the deal which can become a ‘win-win’ for both and find broad acceptance with the people of both countries. Both sides need to enlighten their citizens that old stands are not cast in stone. Shedding the old baggage would provide surprising breakthroughs.

 It is pertinent to mention here, that closely related to the boundary issue is the question of Tibet. The British had sought to maintain Tibet as a buffer state, free of external influences, particularly Russian. Hence, they only acknowledged China’s ‘suzerainty’ – as opposed to sovereignty – over Tibet. In practice, this meant that British India maintained direct diplomatic ties with Lhasa, and enjoyed other privileges such as trading rights and armed detachments in Tibet. After independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the interest of peaceful relations with China acknowledged Tibet's suzerainty by China, despite enjoying independent diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations with Tibet over centuries.  In 1954, India signed an agreement with China on Tibet, renouncing its inherited prerogatives and recognising Tibet as a ‘region of China’. Neither side sought to discuss the boundary issue during the negotiations. India’s stately and generous action should be acknowledged by China at a time when China was still settling down in the international stage facing numerous adversarial circumstances.

Another way is to provide a new name (other than McMahon Line) to the mutually accepted boundary along with the lines of the Burma boundary the resolution, which does away with the historical legacy and baggage especially of the imperial/colonial exploitative era. 

China has always considered the highway through Aksai Chin (Highway 219) between Tibet and Xinjiang as a strategic road and non-negotiable. With another highway connecting both regions traversing through an area away from Aksai Chin, thus leading to diminishing the strategic importance of the Tibet-Xinjiang NH, a possible reconsideration of the stance by the Chinese may be advocated. 

At the LAC and operational and tactical level numerous CBMs have been highlighted, followed by the Wuhan Summit provides enough space to resolve any irritants on the ground. It is recommended that actions along the LAC should remain within the military domain of peaceful resolution (which has endured) and needs political intervention only if it goes beyond military parleys, rather than get politicised (especially with media sensationalism and nationalistic uproar created) in the initial stages itself. This by itself will keep the tensions tempered and pave the way for political parleys. The expeditious fruition of the DGMO hotline would be a welcome move to ensure immediate military resolution of operational and tactical situations emanating along the LAC. Delineation and demarcation of the LAC as perceived by both sides on ground and map should be the next logical step, which will ensure peaceful borders.

Whether the solution lies via a package deal/whole of boundary approach or incremental/sectoral negotiations can be reviewed and both countries should re-evaluate. The Indian intelligentsia, for its part, must enlighten the body politic and the public that its original claims to Aksai Chin are not sacrosanct. But India must also cast its gaze on global geopolitics and discern changing trends with a sober outlook and always with an eye on its own long-term interests. It would be a premature and even dangerous premise to visualise that India's relative global position enables it to actively play triangular or quadrilateral geopolitics with China. To 'swing' towards an anti-Chinese alignment or be 'weaned away' by China is unlikely to work in practice. Neither country can afford to coerce the other given the current security environment and balancing alliances. The resolution of the boundary issue is surely a ‘win-win’ situation for both and will lead to peace, prosperity and stability in Asia and the World.

India needs to continually watch and study the developing situation, continue building her own comprehensive national power, build her external alliances, and ensure freedom to operate within her growing strategic space and showcase herself as a mature balancing power. 

(The writer, an Indian Army veteran,  was Director-General of Military Operations. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at perumo9@gmail.com)

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