India-China Border Talks: No Progress to Show
Brig Gurmeet Kanwal

The Special Representatives of the Prime Ministers of India and China met on March 23, 2015 at New Delhi to discuss the resolution of the territorial dispute. This was the 18th round of border talks that have made little progress so far. A typically bland statement was issued by the Ministry of External Affairs after the talks: “The Special Representatives continued the discussions to reach a mutually acceptable Framework for resolution of the Boundary Question on the basis of the Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles.”

The Special Representatives noted that the interaction between the border management forces had been growing. They said such contacts should be expanded as “these constitute important confidence building measures for maintaining peace and tranquility in the border areas.”

The two sides should have accorded the highest priority to discussing the measures that are necessary to give practical effect to the implementation of the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), signed during then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip to Beijing in October 2013, and its previous avatars so that the occurrence of destabilising incidents along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) can be minimised. This is important because of the recent instances of Chinese military assertiveness along the LAC.

The BDCA commits the two sides to “periodic meetings” of military and civilian officers and to exchange information – including information about military exercises, aircraft movements, demolition operations and unmarked mines. It emphasises the avoidance of border patrols “tailing” each other and recommends that the two sides “may consider” establishing a hot-line between military headquarters in both countries.

A close examination of the BDCA reveals that it falls substantially short of removing the anomalies and impracticalities of similar agreements that have not worked well in the past. These include the Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, September 7, 1993; the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, November 29, 1996; the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, April 11, 2005; the Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in India-China Border Areas, April 11, 2005; and, the Agreement on Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, January 17, 2012.

The Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and Tibet is quite different from the disputed 4,056 km-long international boundary. The term LAC implies de facto military control over respective areas and came into use after the 1962 border war. However, the LAC is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. The un-delineated LAC is a destabilising factor as major incidents such as the Nathu La clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung stand-off of 1986 can recur. In fact, the two sides have failed to even exchange maps showing their perception of the LAC except in the least contentious Central Sector, that is, the Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh borders with Tibet. Despite the lofty rhetoric of all the agreements, it has not been possible for India to withdraw a single soldier from the LAC so far. It clearly shows how intractable the challenge is.

There are frequent incidents of Chinese transgression of the LAC both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Both sides habitually send patrols up to the point at which the LAC runs in their perception. On many occasions in the recent past, Indian and Chinese patrols have met face-to-face. Such meetings have an element of tension built into them and, despite the best of military training, the possibility of an armed clash can never be ruled out. An armed clash that stretches over several days and in which there are heavy casualties can lead to a larger border incident that may not remain localised.

This is the reason why it is critically important to demarcate the LAC on the ground and map. Once that is done, the inadequacy of recognisable terrain features can be overcome by exploiting GPS technology to accurately navigate up to the agreed and well-defined LAC on the ground and even unintentional transgressions can be avoided.

Chinese intransigence in exchanging maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the western and the eastern sectors, while talking of high-sounding guiding principles and parameters to resolve the territorial and boundary dispute, is neither understandable nor condonable. It can only be characterised as an attempt to put off resolution of the dispute “for future generations to resolve”, as Deng Xiao Ping had famously told Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. China’s obvious negotiating strategy is to resolve the territorial dispute with India only when the Chinese are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can dictate terms.

Fresh efforts need to be made to fine-tune the operationalisation of the Agreement on Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, signed on January 17, 2012. The agreed measures include regular consultations and flag meetings or telephone and video conferences during emergencies along the LAC. The mechanism was expected to help prevent misunderstanding between the two countries arising from incursions into each other's territory. The joint mechanism was also expected to study ways to strengthen exchanges and cooperation between military personnel on the ground.

None of this has obviously happened as serious Chinese incursions continue and tensions continue to persist. This has been evident in recent incidents of reckless behaviour. The deep transgression by PLA troops at Depsang near Daulat Beg Oldie in May 2013 could have led to an armed clash if the PLA had not backed off. In September 2014, even as President Xi Jinping was being entertained by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the bank of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad, Chinese and Indian troops were once again engaged in a tense face-off at Chumar in Ladakh.

The BDCA has failed to address the basic issue that is the root cause of most transgressions and patrol face-offs, which is the non-demarcation of the LAC, which leads to varying perceptions about where it runs. As such, it is merely another “feel good’ agreement that has not brought the two sides any closer to a final settlement of the territorial dispute and has achieved virtually nothing substantive to further even the immediate necessity of improving border management. Finally, it is in India’s interest to strive for early resolution of the territorial dispute so that there is only one military adversary to contend with. It is in this direction that the Government of India must firmly nudge the Chinese leadership during future meetings of the political interlocutors.

Published Date: 6th April 2015, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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