The India-China border has been witnessing tensions over the past month, with incidents reported in at least four different locations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
On May 14, Indian Army Chief General said incidents at the Pangong lake in Ladakh on May 5 and at Naku La in Sikkim on May 9 had led to injuries, caused by “aggressive behaviour on both sides”.
Stand-offs at two other spots in Ladakh, in the Galwan valley and in Demchok, have reportedly escalated with a build-up of troops by both sides.
At the heart of India’s and China’s continued inability to make meaningful progress on the boundary issue are four agreements signed in September 1993, November 1996, April 2005 and October 2013 between the two countries.
Ironically, India and China keep referring to these agreements as the bedrock of the vision of progress on the boundary question.
Unfortunately, these are deeply flawed agreements and make the quest for settlement of the boundary question at best a strategic illusion and at worst a cynical diplomatic parlour trick.
Four agreements signed in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013: Deeply flawed agreements:
- India and China share a boundary that stretches 3,488 km from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. The border dispute still stands unresolved.
- The border between India and China is not fully demarcated and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is neither clarified nor confirmed by the two countries.
- This leads to different perceptions of the LAC for the two sides while soldiers from either side try to patrol the area.
- According to the 1993 agreement (on the maintenance of peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China border areas), “pending an ultimate solution”, “the two sides shall strictly respect and observe the LAC between the two sides. No activities of either side shall overstep the LAC”.
- Further, both the 1993 and the 1996 agreement (on confidence-building measures in the military field along the LAC) say they “will reduce or limit their respective military forces within mutually agreed geographical zones along the LAC.”
- This was to apply to major categories of armaments and cover various other aspects as well, including air intrusions “within ten kilometres along the LAC”.
Changing Dynamics Along the LAC:
India has been upgrading its roads and military infrastructure around LAC. Last year, India completed the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO) road which connects Leh to the Karakoram Pass. India also maintains a key landing strip at DBO at 16,000 feet.
India is rapidly catching up with China, who already enjoys an advantage in both terrain and infrastructure.
In this context, the stand-off in Ladakh appears to have been triggered by China to obstruct border infrastructure upgradation activity by India.
The strategy behind China’s transgressions across LAC (especially in Sikkim and Ladakh) may intend to signal India to reassess its strategic convergence with the US.
Transgressions are an instrument of Chinese policy:
The political resultant of these two approaches gives us the situation we have today.
There is a pattern of ‘normal’ transgression of the disputed boundary by both India and China to ensure that the respective claims are protected.
Over and above this, there is a pattern of creeping but consistent forward movement by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) which not only fortifies new positions on its territory but also transgresses into areas that we presumed were de facto ‘settled’, at least at the local level.
When Indian troops resist this and the field-level mechanisms fail to resolve the matter, the situation flares up and becomes a political challenge for the Indian government.
Way Forward: Utilise ties with Southeast Asian nations:
India should have done this in 2010, but it’s still not too late. We must immediately increase naval operations east of the Malacca Straits and follow up with a rapid tri-service expeditionary capability in the Indian Ocean Region.
This should grow into an expeditionary command. Instead of informal summits with Chinese President, Prime Minister Modi must meet the leaders of Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Timor-Leste.
The defence relationships we have built with many Southeast Asian countries over the years can be quietly utilised.
The South China Sea/Indian Ocean Region maritime domain presents us with the best options: they are far from our borders but not too far; we have the military capabilities to pursue the option; naval power is flexible; and the regional geopolitical context is favourable.
By disregarding the map, China is not bound in any way by New Delhi’s perception of the LAC, and therefore does not have to limit liberty of action. This was evident then and is especially evident now.
Because the nature of the terrain, deployment, and infrastructure and connectivity asymmetries in the border areas continue to be so starkly in China’s favour that it is clear that the Chinese are in no hurry to settle the boundary question.
They see that the cost to India in keeping this question open suits them more than settling the issue.
it is in the interests of both India & China and global peace, to avoid any military confrontation and seek peaceful co-existence.
Therefore, the immediate priority for both sides should be to use diplomatic channels and resolve the dispute peacefully.
Insights Current Affairs Analysis (I–CAN) by IAS Topper