23 May 2015

India Hardens Stand On Boundary Issue With China – Analysis

By Brigadier Arun Sahgal, PhD (Retd)

There are multiple interpretations of Indian PM recent visit to China. Fundamentally while there has been significant movement on the economic side in terms of trade, investment and opening of markets, there has been little progress on major irritants impacting relations such as the boundary, water issue or the Chinese – Pakistan economic corridor passing through POK which India claims as its territory. There remains an unmistakable shadow of lack of mutual trust and unwillingness on the part of the Chinese to address any of these irritants. In fact during the visit an attempt was made to vitiate the atmosphere by showing an Indian map exclusive of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.

The vast gulf in perceptions forced the Indian PM to highlight these differences twice during the visit. Once during the Joint Statement, which specifically states early settlement of the boundary question serves the basic interests of both countries and should be pursued as a strategic objective by the two governments. This was followed up during his address at Tsinghua University, by stressing the need to clarify the LAC as means to maintaining peace and tranquility on the borders. He emphasised that the non resolution of outstanding issues leads to hesitation, doubts and even distrust in our bilateral relationship.

From the Prime Minister’s candor two quick inferences can be drawn. One: the Chinese were obviously not very forthcoming for on early resolution of the boundary dispute, harping on standard narrative of historical legacy. We had an inkling of this during Track II Dialogue with Chinese counterparts, in late January 2015. The overriding Chinese position was that political determination for boundary resolution with India had not yet been made, the outcome of the visit highlights that the period of sizing up new Indian government continues.

What is however more significant is the fact that an Indian PM standing on a podium in Beijing was telling his Chinese counterparts that the “historical narrative” has outlived its utility and lost its shine. If the two countries have to have normal relations, the boundary issue can no longer be put on back burner. From the editorials in Global Times and Xinhua it appears that message has gone home, with Global Times editorially praising Modi’s strategic insights and pragmatism; which could be a game changer like that of Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.

There is yet another context to PM Modi’s assertions for early resolution of boundary disputes. He was holding a mirror to the Chinese leadership that attempts at creating an China centric Asian century will be in jeopardy if it persisted with assertive behavior and put off boundary resolutions (both continental and maritime) on specious grounds. He was in a way reassuring strategic partners in Asia of the emergence of India as a benign regional balancer whom they could look up to?
CBM’s in Context

As brought out by the PM in Beijing, the existing border disputes between the two countries is a major impediment not only to bilateral relations, but for broader peace and security in Asia. CBMs or Confidence-Building Measures between the two countries are essential for reducing tensions, preventing escalations of hostilities, maintaining peace and tranquility along the disputed border, and building mutual trust and confidence. CBMs can be broadly defined as “measures that address, prevent, or resolve uncertainties among states. They are particularly pertinent in addressing and working towards the resolution of long-term political stalemates.” The main objective of these CBMs is to provide a framework within which border security confidence can lead to the eventual settlement of the boundary issue. It calls for reduction of troops deployed along the border region and military disclosure when either of the parties is undertaking major military exercises.

India has two major outstanding border disputes one with Pakistan and the other with China. The Line of Control with Pakistan is clearly defined but despite this, there are regular instances of firing at the border and incidences of cross border infiltration leading to casualties and turbulence. On the other hand, the Line of Actual Control which is un-demarcated marks the disputed boundary between India and China; which has, witnessed reasonable peace and tranquility with no major instances of firing or skirmishes since the Sumdorong Chu valley incident of 1987.
Boundary Issue: State of Play

Since the 1962 conflict and tensions between India – China remain high despite years of attempts to resolve the boundary issue with no signs of early resolution. The border runs along an imaginary line called the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which complicated by its myriad and differing perceptions.

Since Rajiv Gandhi’s breakthrough visit to China in 1988, significant attempts have been made for the restoration of friendly relations. The India – China CBMs, unlike other CBMs, is not a knee-jerk response under some possible threat of an impending nuclear apocalypse, but instead have put in place an elaborate mechanism that represents several areas of interest for bilateral relations. The main objective is to construct a framework that focuses on the resolution of the boundary question. Additionally, it also provides a platform for dialogue regarding other areas of bilateral and mutual interest. The strategy is essentially, threefold. The first step is laying down the foundation of the political principles which are to guide the process of settlement; the second step involves ensuring a framework for the implementation of these guiding principles; and the third and the most important step is to demarcate and delimit the boundary.

The first CBM in 1993 was path-breaking in its arrival at the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the LAC which was a virtual no-war pact. 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 tranquility along the border. The Declaration of Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation was signed in 2003 in which The Joint Working Group that was set up and functional at a purely bureaucratic level was upgraded to a meeting of Special Representatives, thereby providing 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.

Additionally, it was responsible for the establishment of border meeting points at Kibithu-Damai in the Eastern Sector and Lipu Lekh Pass in Uttaranchal in the central Sector, together with the facilitation of exchanges between commanders of the respective India and China military regions. The exchanges between training institutions, and sports and including cultural formed other CBM’s.

A comprehensive push on promoting bilateral military relations remained on track following the visit of the 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 three week long confrontation at Depsang valley in Ladakh, two sides signed Border Defence Cooperation Agreement 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.

The several measures adopted as part of the CBMs can be broadly categorized into declarative principles, information exchange and constraining measures. The inhibiting factor with regards the effectiveness of these CBMs is that most of the current measures undertaken fall primarily under the first two categories, with less importance being given to the third category.

With regards the boundary issue, the CBMs that were adopted followed a two-track policy with the twin objectives of maintenance of security along the Line of Actual Control and the permanent resolution of the border dispute. The tackling of the boundary issue was always viewed from the perspectives of border management and not border resolution.

Despite effective border management measures some more of which have been suggested in the joint Statement following PM’s recent visit the reality is that incursions by the Chinese are on the increase. According to Union Ministry of Home Affairs’ figures, China has transgressed into Indian boundary over 1600 times during January 2010 to August 2014. Two most recent and serious violations were the Depsang incursion of 2013 and the Chumar incident of 2014; later took place during Chinese President’s maiden visit, to India. Main question is what is provoking China? What does it gain from these, is it an attempt to creep forward and occupy vantage points along the LAC useful for future operational contingencies, gaining better intelligence or for trade of during eventual settlement?

However, as far as boundary resolution is concerned, a broad framework for settlement has been defined but nothing more concrete has been achieved. The fundamental perception of threat and the security outlook which has its roots in hostility and suspicion has not changed. In spite of progress in economic and political relations, the wide security gap remains un-bridged. Development attempts undertaken by the Chinese in terms of communication technology and infrastructure upgrades in the Tibetan region is also a cause of worry for India.

Another major limitation of the framework for resolution as achieved by these agreements is the lack of clarity regarding the principles on which talks of resolution are to be defined – whether it is the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control that is the objective or the definition of the area within it or is it concerned with the exchange of maps which till date has not been done for the eastern and western sectors?
Differing Approaches

India and China have differing approaches on the boundary issue. The Chinese approach has been to ensure peace and tranquility along the borders and prevent major flare up which could draws its attention from internal political consolidation, reigning wayward economy and dealing with tensions in South China Sea and in North East Asia. Thus peace and tranquility along the India – China border allows Chinese a period of strategic consolidation without compromise. This also allows time for executing its new Silk Route policy of “one belt one road” aimed at consolidating its economic, trade and political influence in SE and South Asia and the sea lanes of Indian Ocean. In Chinese calculations next 5 to 10 years are critical for execution of these plans and undermine India’s strategic interests in the region creating a sense of isolation in Asia – Pacific and containing its Act East Policy. If the above hypothesis has validity then China is unlikely to agree to border resolution any time soon.

India until now i.e. the PM’s recent visit to China was sanguine to make haste slowly on the resolution of boundary dispute. It was content with maintenance of peace and tranquility along the borders while concentrating on building strong economic relations. The new government in Delhi is attempting to shift the discourse from this gradualist approach to the boundary question by pushing China for early resolution. Their concerns from the face of it are less geo strategic i.e. allowing China period for economic and political consolidation but are more driven by recent events of border intrusion underscoring the tenuous nature of peace and tranquility. An underlying calculation being given India’s improving relations with the US, Japan, Australia, Vietnam etc provides India with a leverage to push China on the boundary issue – a sort of classic opportunity?
Path Ahead

It has been more than 50 years since the Indo-China border war. The CBMs have been successful in providing a framework for the continuation of talks and friendly relations, especially, economic relations and preventing military conflict; but is that sufficient? For all the border management that the CBMs have achieved, they have barely accomplished anything tangible with regards the permanent resolution of boundary disputes and long term security along the LAC.

Chinese approach to CBMs and border resolution indicate a clear rhetoric for political resolution of the boundary issue. However this sentiment hasn’t been translated into political action nor is it clearly decipherable how the Chinese intend their long term relationship with India to be developed. There is a lack of clarity regarding whether the approach to be adopted should be one of co-engagement or co-competition. The resolution of this dilemma would be crucial in furthering political, strategic and economic interactions between the two countries.

From the Indian perspective, there are further challenges that present themselves. The main question that one needs to address is whether we want to push for an early resolution or allow the issue to fester. Apart from the factors discussed earlier, there is the consideration of growing asymmetry, of power which will get only accentuated over time. Feeling one gets is that China looks upon this growing asymmetry as a strong leverage to seek favourable resolution and draw India into its circle of influence. Added to it is the issue of Dalai Lama. As long as a closure on next Dalai Lama on terms favourable to China does not take place the two issues will always remain linked.

The Indians and the Chinese differ in their approaches towards each other. The question of perception also plays a huge role. Differences in value systems, worldviews and strategic objectives are also factors to be considered. The Chinese are largely concerned with the development of a China-centric and China-dominated Asia and in keeping with its revisionist tendencies, considers India as the status-quoist and militarily weaker state. The Indian narrative till now has emphasised relationship based on friendship, sentimentalism, wishful thinking and engagement. PM Modi during his recent visit has sought to change this discourse by clearly pointing to the Chinese the festering border issue as a crude coercive tactic aimed at keeping tensions alive which India will not countenance.

Brigadier Arun Sahgal, PhD (Retd) is Secretary General of recently established think tank “Forum for Strategic Initiative” focusing on policy initiatives in security and diplomacy.

He is founder Director of the Office of Net Assessment, Indian Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), created to undertake long-term strategic assessments. Other academic pursuits include Head Center for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI of India and Senior Fellow, IDSA.

Research areas comprise scenario planning workshops, geopolitical and strategic assessments related to Asian security, including co-authored books and Net Assessments for IDS, DRDO and National Security Council among other international clients. He has been a member of Task Force on Net Assessment and Simulation, under NSC, consultant with DRDO Institute for System Studies and Analysis. He has been conducting simulation and strategic games at institutions like Integrated Defence Staff, Ministry of Defence, National Defence College, IAS Academy, and International clients among others.

Recent works include co authored books, Reconnecting India and central Asia, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University, National Bureau of Research, Washington, publication Strategic Asia 2012-13, dealing with Chinese Military Challenge. Other Project include Indian Doctrine of Anti Access and Area Denial, Study on Regional Dynamics of the Asia – Pacific Region (2025) with Specific Reference to China’s Influence in India’s extended Negihbourhood, Report on Defence Technology Vision 2050 and Pakistan’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: Logic and Use.

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