1 October 2014


01 October 2014 

It is no longer feasible for India-China trade relations to remain insulated from the border question. A final resolution must be sought by 2025, even as an early clarification on the LAC should become time-bound

T he cover of The Economist (September 20-26 ) reads, ‘Xi Who Must Be Obeyed — How One Man Now Rules China’. Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese President, could not have known that the People’s Liberation Army was poised to intrude into Chumar on September 10, as this pre-dated his arrival in India on September 17. The resultant stand-off was timed to coincide with his visit and was fully defused only after a meeting between Foreign Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Wang Yi. With this intrusion, China has raised the bar that high-level meetings can take place even as thousands of PLA and Indian soldiers are locked in confrontation on the disputed border. Last year, under the United Progressive Alliance Government, the visit of Prime Minister Li Keqiang came under a cloud over an intrusion into a nearby sector, Depsang, but the PLA withdrew much before the visit, after high-level diplomatic intervention. At that time, the now ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, then in Opposition, demanded the visit be called off unless the intrusion was vacated. This time around, the more muscular and robust China policy of the BJP yielded to Mr Xi’s charm offensive, and did not call off the talks even as the PLA stayed put.

A Chinese warship and submarine docked in Colombo port from September 7 to 13, left three days before the arrival of Mr Xi in Sri Lanka and will return later this year in October and November. These vessels were there when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Sri Lanka, in obviously another case of unpropitious timing. Mr Xi’s visits to Maldives and Sri Lanka, skipping Pakistan, are calibrated to contain India. In Hambantota Port, whose development was offered first to India, China will have control over four of seven berths for 35 years, and Chinese companies will operate this port as well as Colombo port, both of which lie on international sea lanes of communication from the Gulf to Malacca Straits. China is investing heavily in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan to counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘neighbourhood-first’ policy. This will keep India firmly anchored in South Asia.

Chumar in Ladakh is a strategically important piece of real estate of vantage, where the Chinese keep nibbling away and where India has built dominant observation posts. Demchok, another contested area, is an excellent launch pad for an Indian offensive mechanised operation into Xinjiang province. The PLA’s insecurities emanate from India’s tactical advantages and capabilities to exploit the terrain. Ladakh is contiguous with China’s proposed Kashgar-Gwadar railroad highways, passing through disputed Gilgit-Baltistan. It is understood that the compromise worked out, entailed India dismantling its bunkers at Chumar, which is precisely what the PLA wanted, leaving the PLA constructed road incomplete.

Post November 2012, the new leadership in China is firmly in control of the PLA which postures aggressively and assertively in the border areas, supporting Mr Xi’s dream of National Renewal. Mr Xi has said that China would never compromise on territorial issues including South and East China Sea. Three days after his India visit, he told PLA Staff Commanders to improve their combat readiness and sharpen their ability to win a regional war in the age of information technology. While the signal is clear that local wars may be fought over territorial disputes (India and Bhutan), the PLA’s last battle was in 1979 in Vietnam where it got a bloody nose and Deng Xiao Peng called the PLA bloated and lax.

It is hardly surprising that border transgressions/intrusions occur despite a surfeit of mechanisms — at least six since 1993 and the last in 2013 — as the PLA has been ordered to activate disputed and coveted border areas. This along with altering ground realities with the use of civilian graziers and PLA will strengthen their claim lines in any future border settlements. Shaken by Chumar, and to a lesser extent, the mirage of the China-promised $100 billion shrinking to $20 billion in investment, a befuddled Mr Modi called for maintenance of peace and tranquility on the border and for the first time since 2003 sought clarification of the Line of Actual Control. Mr Xi apparently ignored this demand and said in a contradiction of terms, that such incidents will happen as the LAC is not clarified, but that events can be controlled by existing mechanisms.

India should have pressed for the LAC clarification during the formal Hyderabad House talks, due to the obvious failure of the existing mechanisms, and more importantly, the 17 rounds of Special Representative dialogues which broke down over the Chinese interpretation of ‘due interest of populated areas’. Translated on the ground, it signals that China wants possession of Tawang in South Tibet (Arunachal Pradesh) over which it has presented documentary evidence. China is not willing to revert to the LAC clarification process abandoned earlier and replaced with the SR talks which were meant to jump to a political solution, skipping the identification of the LAC. In the joint statement, there was no mention of continuing SR talks even as Special Counsellor Yang Yiechi was present in the Mr Xi delegation. The Indian representative for the border talks, a toss up between former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran and NSA Ajit Doval, was expected to be named during this visit. This did not happen, leaving the future of SR talks in doubt.

New Delhi’s choice of returning to the process of defining the LAC is the right one as, according to Beijing, the border problem is a legacy of history and should be left to the future generations to resolve. Mr Modi took Mr Xi by surprise by demanding a clarification of the LAC. He has now to stick to this and jointly explore a new fast-track mechanism to locate and delineate a mutually acceptable LAC and exchange suitably marked maps.

Beijing will be unwilling to accept this as it does not wish to disclose its perception of LAC. It knows that by delaying indicating the LAC, it is imposing a heavy financial and psychological cost and using the undefined LAC as a strategic leverage.

It is no longer feasible that India-China trade and economic relations remain insulated from the border question which has been reduced to managing differences over it. While a three to five year time-frame should be imposed on clarifying the LAC, a final resolution be sought by 2025. Mr Xi and Mr Modi are strong leaders and can do it, provided Mr Xi plays ball.

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