China’s new activism on the border dispute provides an opportunity to take stalled negotiations forward

The People’s Liberation Army’s decision to dismantle its encampment on the Depsang plain abutting Aksai Chin makes it a bit easier to assess the motivation and goals of recent Chinese actions.

If the Chinese action on the ground on the Depsang plain, initiated on April 15, is taken in conjunction with President Xi Jinping’s March 29 statement in Durban that the border issue should be resolved “as soon as possible”, we can conclude that China is signalling a new activism in its border dispute with India. This also becomes evident through Beijing’s official statements of the past two weeks that accompanied their three week-long non-threatening, but provocative, military action.

China steadfastly refused to acknowledge that its forces had in any way breached the Line of Actual Control (LAC) but agreed that the issue could be resolved through diplomacy and negotiations. “The two sides are in communication through the working mechanism for consultation and coordination on boundary affairs… for a solution to the incident…” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters last Friday.

She added that both countries were “committed to resolving disputes, including the boundary ones, through peaceful negotiations and [to] try to ensure that this kind of dispute will not affect the development of the bilateral relations”.

The Chinese action needs to be viewed at two levels. The first is an established pattern where the PLA keeps nibbling at Indian territory to create new “facts on the ground” or a “new normal” in relation to their claimed LAC. They do this, as they have done in the past — occupy an area, then assert that it has always been part of their territory, and offer to negotiate. In this very sector, Chinese claim lines have been varying since 1956. At that time, for example, the entire Chip Chap and Galwan river valleys were accepted by China as being Indian territory. But in 1960 China insisted that these areas were within their claim line and occupied them following the 1962 war. The April 2013 Depsang encampment seemed to be pushing even further westward.

The fact that the border is neither demarcated nor inhabited, and there is no agreement on the alignment of the LAC in many areas, aids this process. We need to keep a sharp watch in the coming months to see if this pattern is repeated in other areas where there are differing perceptions as to the LAC’s location.

Indian build-up

At another level, China appears to be expressing its unhappiness over the Indian military build up on the Sino-Indian border. In the past five years, India has activated forward airfields in the Ladakh sector, completed important road building projects in the Chumar sector, begun work on the road to link Daulat Beg Oldi with Leh, and moved high-performance fighter aircraft to bases proximate to Tibet. In addition, it has raised two new mountain divisions, plans to establish two armoured brigades across the Himalayas and may raise a new mountain strike corps. In other words, the Indian posture is moving from the purely defensive vis-à-vis the PLA in Tibet, to one which could also include offensive action. In addition, India’s strategic forces have begun to mature with the test of the Agni V and the launch of the Arihant.

If you faced a country with which you have a disputed border, you would not be happy about its growing military profile. But China seems to have developed some amnesia here. After all, its own infrastructure and military build up has outpaced that of India’s by at least a decade and a half. In this period, China has developed a railway, an extensive road network in Tibet and Xinjiang. In addition it has deployed powerful forces, which include armour, rocket artillery and battlefield support missiles. They have developed new airfields and have conducted as many as four major military exercises in Tibet in 2012.

It is useful to look back at the last major crisis which took place in 1986-1987 over Sumdorong Chu. This coincided with ‘Exercise Chequerboard’ involving the movement of forces from the plains of Assam to the Arunachal mountains. When the panicked Chinese moved forward their forces, India began Op Falcon and used its heavy helicopter lift capability to build up rapidly across the entire LAC and even deployed infantry combat vehicles and tanks in some areas.

Far-reaching agreements

The result was the 1993 and 1996 confidence building agreements. They are far reaching and important, and yet they have never been seriously implemented. For example clause 2 of the 1993 agreement accepted that there should be ceilings on forces on either side, that the two sides would reduce their forces along the LAC and that the “extent, depth, timing, and nature of reduction of military forces” would be determined through mutual consultations. Article 3 of the 1996 agreement specified that the major category of armaments such as tanks, infantry combat vehicles artillery guns, heavy mortars, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles would be reduced with the ceilings to be decided through mutual agreement.

However, to implement such an agreement required one key step spelt out in Article 10 of the 1996 agreement — that the two sides would work out a common understanding of the alignment of the LAC. But the Chinese have baulked at working this out and so the key clauses of the agreements remain in a limbo.

Indian chicken hawks who have been advocating a military response to the Chinese action on the LAC are wrong on two counts. First, we are in the middle of our modernisation cycle, lacking vital elements such as mountain artillery and heavy lift helicopters. Second, an over-the-top military response to what was a non-threatening military action on the part of the PLA would have needlessly escalated the situation. In the last count there appeared to be five tents and seven men and a dog in the Chinese encampment. In retrospect, the handling of the situation which involved a symmetrical non-threatening military response by Indian forces, along with patient diplomacy, paid off.

The message from China right now seems to be that it is ready to engage India across the entire spectrum, which includes the disputed border. There is nothing in Chinese actions suggesting that they are looking for a fight. New Delhi needs to firmly tell the Chinese not to put the cart before the horse, and that it cannot and will not freeze its border dispositions or its modernisation schemes.

The upcoming visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang should be used to push the long pending exchange of maps detailing the Chinese and Indian versions of the LAC as a prelude to working out a common alignment of the LAC in a time-bound manner. Only this will ensure peace and tranquillity on the Sino-Indian border and open up the possibility that the border dispositions are not only frozen, but actually drawn down as per the 1993 and 1996 agreements. This in turn could give life to the stalled Special Representative process which was set up in 2003 to work out a mutually agreed border.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

More In: Comment | Opinion