Visit of the Chinese Defence Minister: A Missed Opportunity to Establish Hot Line between the Two Armies?
Col Shubhankar Basu, SM, VSM, Senior Fellow, VIF

The Chinese Defence Minister, Lieutenant General Wei Fenghe, visited India for four days, from 21 to 24 Aug 181. This visit was significant from more than one perspective. First, it was the first visit by a defence minister from China not only after the Doklam standoff, but also in the last six years. The last six years are significant as it is generally after 2012 that border stand offs like Demchok in Apr 14 and Mar 162, Chumar in 20143, Yangtse in Jun 164 and Doklam last year have taken place. The transgressions and face-offs between patrols are not uncommon due to the varying perception of Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries. However, the severity has increased over the last few years. Secondly, the composition of the delegation has been a statement in itself, as it was a 24-member strong team with participation from important departments of the Central Military Commission (CMC).

The next salient aspect about the visit was its timing - it was scheduled after the path-breaking Wuhan Summit in Apr 18. At Wuhan, Prime Minister Modi and President Xi acknowledged the sensitivity required in management of the LAC. They also agreed to issue strategic guidelines to the respective armed forces to strengthen mutual communication in order to build trust and understanding and to enhance predictability as well as effectiveness in the management of border affairs5. Hence, this visit was being considered as a turning point in the India-China defence equation and generated much interest as well as expectations on both sides of the LAC. This article analyses as to what both countries are likely to achieve out of the visit, or if the meeting has been another missed opportunity. The analysis is based on statements issued from both sides.

Progress on CBMs. According to the press release of Ministry of Defence (MoD) on 23 Aug 18, both sides decided to work on a fresh memorandum of understanding (MoU) to replace the MoU signed in 2006. Both sides also agreed to increase the interactions between their armed forces in the fields of training, joint exercises and professional events. These developments are very encouraging and would have positive implications. In addition to this, a press release also mentioned that both sides have agreed towards full implementation of the Confidence Building Measures (CBM) signed earlier to include early operationalisation of a ‘Hot Line’ between respective departments6. An exclusive mention of establishment of Hot Lines in the statement indicates that the proposal was high on agenda; however, not much progress has been made.

Importance of Establishment of Hot Line. The varying perception of LAC is a complex issue. As the border is not yet demarcated, each country has its own understanding of the LAC. Simultaneously, each country has its own perception about understanding of the LAC by the other side. Thus, a border which is approximately 3488 km7 long and not yet demarcated, may have four variations of perception between the stake holders. So, maintaining absolute peace and tranquility may not be easy with patrols coming face to face. However, in the current decade, such face-offs between the patrols have not only increased but have escalated to stand-offs, with the last one at Doklam being the longest, i.e. over 70 days. This pattern of increasing hostility during the face-offs can be attributed to dynamic factors like perception of LAC at the point of contact, sensitivity of the area where contact has taken place, personality of local commanders, and the directions from higher ups. Such incidents need to be managed immediately by higher headquarters to avoid any escalation of the situation, especially considering that both nations are military powers with nuclear weapons.

Stumbling Blocks in Establishment of Hot Line. To avoid escalation of patrol face-offs on the LAC, a large number of CBMs and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) are being followed by both the sides. Establishment of Hot Line between the armed forces of the two nations is one such CBM which has been on cards since 20128. The issue has been raised time and again and most recently at the Wuhan informal summit 9 where the necessity of a Hot Line was discussed between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi. Even in 2015, this aspect was deliberated by the two leaders. However, implementation of this proposal has been stuck in the issues of protocol and technical aspects. Accordingly, this visit by the Defence Minister, Gen Wei Fenghe, would obviously have had the Hot Line on its agenda. However, the official statement post the visit from either side has not given any specific timeline for its implementation. The reason for no headway seems to be the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) demand to keep the Hot Line between India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and the Deputy Theatre Commander at Chengdu, it being the headquarters of the newly formed Western Theater Command10 (Refer Picture 111).

The Indian view is rightfully based on the fact that as three Indian geographical commands are facing the Western Theatre of the PLA, hence the DGMO is best suited to manage any critical situation. PLA or the Chinese opinion is probably a continuation of the thought process pre-2015, i.e. when the Military Regions were not yet reorganised into Theatre Commands. Pre-2015, the modalities were being worked out based on having two Hot Lines, i.e. one between China’s Lanzhou Military Region and India’s Northern Command and second one between Chengdu Military Region and Eastern Command of Indian Army. However, post the military reforms in China, the critical issue of Hot Line has got stuck in protocol issues.

While it’s a fact that the various CBMs and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) signed in 2013 have been working well and no bullet has been fired in the last 30 years howsoever tense the local ground situation may have been, but incidents like the ones at Nathu La and Cho La in 1967 and Sumdorong Chu in 1987 had the potential to escalate into full-blown war between the two nations. There is an enormous difference in the situation that existed in 1967 or 1987 and that of today. Today, hyper activism of the media can generate or fuel nationalistic rhetoric to a point where pragmatic decision-taking capability of the government may get affected. During the Doklam incident, the media on both sides went overboard. Hence, taking lessons from history and considering the dynamic factors which dictate the course of incidents on the LAC, establishment of Hot Line remains a priority.

Is all well between President Xi and PLA Army? The relationship between President Xi and PLA Army needs to be analysed through the prism of current events on the LAC. Post-Wuhan Summit, what has been the strategic guidance from Beijing to PLA Army? Does President Xi genuinely want to keep the situation on border peaceful? If so, then why the movement on the proposal of Hot Line is so slow, or is there some internal discontent behind the delay? Is it there any reluctance in PLA Army to implement the reforms being pushed by Xi? Was the face off at Chumar in Sep 14, a day before visit of President Xi to India, pre-meditated? If yes, then was President Xi informed of it or did it come as a surprise to him as well? While the answers to these questions may not be available easily, but such queries do focus at the current relations between President Xi and the PLA Army. In last five years, President Xi has side lined more than 50 top Generals of PLA and got them replaced with Generals who are close to him12. The design of reforms itself indicate the intent to tighten the control of the Party on PLA13. Time and again, since taking over the reins, President Xi has made public announcements over the PLA’s commitment and loyalty towards the Party. The latest was on 20 Aug 18, when the Chinese Defence minister was visiting India14. Earlier, on 26 Oct 2017, while addressing a military gathering, President Xi highlighted that in the last five years, the CMC has strived to build a military that upholds the absolute control of CPC over PLA. In 2014, Xi visited Guitan, where 85 years ago Mao had laid the foundation of the doctrine which says that the PLA is the army of the Party and not of the Chinese Government. During the visit President Xi said, “PLA is still the Party’s Army”15. Do these statements indicate that the Party has been losing its control over the PLA? Since 2014, Xi has embarked on reforms that have practically affected every vertical and compartment of PLA and this definitely wouldn’t be comfortable to the PLA hierarchy.

The Way Ahead. Whatever may be the internal dynamics of the CMC and the PLA, what remains important for India is to continue diplomatic pressure on China for early establishment of the Hot Line. In case protocol issues remain and the PLA Army insists of retaining the Hot Line at Chengdu, then possibly an option of having two Hot Lines from India, i.e. one from Udhampur and other from Kolkata, but both leading to Chengdu, may be worked out. The distance between Eastern Ladakh and Sikkim or Arunachal Pradesh being what it is, even the PLA Army will most likely have two separate operational set ups at Chengdu Theatre Command Headquarters to manage these areas. Such out-of-box ideas need to be considered, as the end result is to avoid a routine patrol clash at border from escalating into another Doklam or Natu La incident of 1967.

End Notes:
  1. “PIB release” at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/pmreleases.aspx?mincode=33 (Accessed August 30, 2018)
  2. India China standoff at Demchok in The Hindu on 03 Nov 16, at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/India-China-stand-off-in-Demchok/article16057899.ece (Accessed August 30, 2018).
  3. India, China set to end 16-day Chumar stand-off at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/ articleshow/43467644.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst(Accessed on August 31, 2018).
  4. How China is provoking India: 250 soldiers intrude into Arunachal, Beijing blocks India's NSG bid at https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/china-transgression-arunachal-pradesh-india-nsg-bid-13894-2016-06-13 (Accessed on August 31, 2018).
  5. “India-China Informal Summit at Wuhan” MEA Press Release of 18 Apr 18 at https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29853/IndiaChina_Informal_Summit_at_Wuhan (Accessed on August 31, 2018).
  6. “PIB release” at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/pmreleases.aspx?mincode=33 (Accessed August 30, 2018).
  7. “Department of Border Management at https://mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/DEpartment_of_Border_23042018.pdf(Accessed on September, 04, 2018).
  8. ‘India-China Border Talks Shift From Resolving Disputes to Managing Them’ by Roop Narayan Das in James Town Foundation 20 Feb 2014 at https://jamestown.org/program/india-china-border-talks-shift-from-resolving-disputes-to-managing-them/( Accessed on August 31, 2018).
  9. “India-China Informal Summit at Wuhan” MEA Press Release of 18 Apr 18 at https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29853/IndiaChina_Informal_Summit_at_Wuhan (Accessed on August 31, 2018).
  10. India-China ties: Functional hotline key to peace along LAC, not merely a tool to establish 'equivalence' By Arun Sahni, in First Post 05 Jun 2018, at https://www.firstpost.com/india/india-china-ties-functional-hotline-key-to-peace-along-lac-not-merely-a-tool-to-establish-equivalence-4495047.html(Accessed on August 31, 2018).
  11. PLA’s New Organisational Structure, at https://jamestown.org/program/the-plas-new-organizational-structure-what-is-known-unknown-and-speculation-part-1/ (Accessed on September 04, 2018).
  12. “Xi Jingping is More Vulnerable Than You Think” By David Igantius, Wahington Post 26 Oct 17, at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/xi-jinping-is-more-vulnerable-than-you-think/2017/10/26/8cf1a666-ba8f-11e7-be94-fabb0f1e9ffb_story.html?utm_term=.413366cf5682(Accessed on August 31, 2018).
  13. “China military reforms help to ensure political security” The South China Morning Post , 11 January 18 at https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2127705/china-military-reforms-help-ensure-political-security (Accessed on September 06, 2018).
  14. “Chinese President Xi Jinping returns to public stage with renewed call for military loyalty to the Communist Part” at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2160400/chinese-president-xi-jinping-returns-public-stage (Accessed on August 31, 2018).
  15. ‘Xi’s Model New Army’ The Economist, 16 Jan 2016 at https://www.economist.com/china/2016/01/16/xis-new-model-army (Accessed on August 31, 2018).

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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