The peaceful resolution of Despang impasse was a great relief not only to India but as well to China. In the end, the persistent diplomacy by both and the working mechanisms that were set up for management of borders and conflict resolution are the winners. In pragmatic terms, both the countries now need to prepare for the road ahead and work out means to build up on the goodwill generated consequent to successful handling of the stand-off.
Since beginning, China at no stage clearly indicated the alignment of LAC as per their perception and understanding. This became the root cause for all the bickering and misunderstanding.
Considering the forthcoming high profile visit of India’s External Affairs Minister to China and the visit of China’s Premier Li Keqiang to India later in May, the weeks ahead offer a great opportunity to both to further strengthen the relationship and carry forward the confidence building measures (CBMs) agreed upon by both in the 1993 “Agreement for maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India China border areas”, the 1996 “Agreement on CBMs in the military field along the LAC in the India China border areas”, the successor Protocol of 2005 on implementation of border CBMs and the Memorandum of Understanding entered into in 2006 between India and China.
The above agreements though concluded and ratified years ago, these are yet to be implemented fully in letter and spirit; the major stalling factor being the exchange of maps. Some skeptics expressed the view that these agreements only contain noble intentions and are unlikely to be translated into actions. While there may be some scope for such apprehensions, the very fact that these two countries could come to such understanding and conclude such path breaking agreements and protocol itself is creditworthy. Indian effort should be not to let these fade into oblivion. It is also most likely that the “Border Defence Cooperation Agreement” (BDCA) proposed by China in March 2013 will also come up for discussion during the ensuing visits. When comprehensive agreements concluded earlier already exist awaiting implementation, the reasons for proposing a new agreement will not be known unless one reads the fine print. Details of the proposed agreement are not made public.
According to sources in know of the proposals, these focus on enhancing friendly contacts and communications between the troops. It is said that these proposals do not replace but supplement the existing Agreements and Protocol of 1993, 1996 and 2005. While some defence analysts reported that the draft proposals envisage freezing of troop levels and defences on the LAC institutionalizing India’s disadvantage, Sandeep Dikshit in a column published in The Hindu dated 08 May 2013 conveyed that, “Contrary to reports in some sections of the media, the BCDA draft does not contain proposals to restrict the construction of border infrastructure”. India needs to exercise utmost caution in this regard lest it fall into a covert trap to freeze the ongoing defence modernisation and development of border infrastructure.
It is a test fort the Indian statesmanship which should prevail upon China to ensure implementation of the above without any further delay.
Sino-Indian Boundary Problem
Out of the above framework of agreements, Article X of the 1996 Agreement on CBMs is very significant. It states that both had agreed to exchange of maps indicating their respective perception of the entire Line of Actual Control as soon as possible. Since beginning, China at no stage clearly indicated the alignment of LAC as per their perception and understanding. This became the root cause for all the bickering and misunderstanding. The Wangdung incident of 1986 or the DBO incident of 2013 are a result of this misunderstanding or differently put are due to lack of mutually agreed and commonly understood LAC on the map and ground. Though a period of more than 16 years had passed since signing of 1996 Agreement, there was no exchange of maps as agreed. There seems to be no initiative from China in this direction. In the absence of a clear understanding of the LAC, most of the CBMs enunciated in the Agreements and Protocol referred above have little value and will almost become redundant.
In the context of present ground realities, Sino-Indian boundary problem must be viewed at two levels; the first one as the boundary problem and the second as the territorial problem. These two are distinctly different. Whether the LAC runs South of DBO or to its North is a boundary problem. While whether Aksai Chin is part of India or China is a territorial problem. In terms of Article X of 1996 Agreement, both sides seem to have agreed to address the boundary problem first and keep the second dormant pending resolution of the first and creation of a conducive atmosphere for ultimate settlement. Hence the starting point for any meaningful resolution of Sino-Indian Border problem is expeditious action in terms of agreeing to a mutually acceptable LAC without prejudice to the respective legal position and claims.
Ms Han Hua, a leading South Asian scholar at Peking University and director of its Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament told Global times, a Communist Party tabloid known for its nationalist views that “China’s grand strategy was to avoid troubled relations with its neighbours. The new leadership adjusted its policies and now seeks a stabilised relationship with India”. According to Sandeep Dikshit, “A number of sources believe the incursion by PLA across LAC was China’s way of bringing the border settlement talks, which its previous leadership had clearly put on the back burner, back on the agenda”. Statement made by the Chinese President Mr. Xi Jinping on 29 March in Durban that the border issue should be resolved as soon as possible lends credence to the assessments made hitherto, and shows willingness of China for early resolution. India must utilise this opportunity to impress upon the Chinese leadership on the urgent need for exchange of maps and follow up action to arrive at a mutually agreed LAC. It is a test fort the Indian statesmanship which should prevail upon China to ensure implementation of the above without any further delay. It is said that Dr. BR Ambedkar once famously remarked that “Boundary marking is the task of a surveyor; boundary making is the task of a statesman”.
Since occupation of Tibet in Fifties, as part of its assimilation and integration, China had developed a network of roads in Tibet connecting Lhasa to Sinkiang and other parts including to border areas adjacent to India.
Force Levels, Weapons and Development of Border Infrastructure
Another aspect of significance is Article III of 1996 Agreement which states that :
“The two sides agree to take the following measures to reduce or limit their, respective military forces within mutually agreed geographical zones along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas:
(1) The two sides reaffirm that they shall reduce or limit their respective military forces within mutually agreed geographical zones along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas to minimum levels compatible with the friendly and good neighbourly relations between the two countries and consistent with the principle of mutual and equal security.
(2) The two sides shall reduce or limit the number of field army, border defence forces, para-military forces and any other mutually agreed category of armed forces deployed in mutually agreed geographical zones along the line of actual control to ceilings to be mutually agreed upon. The major categories of armaments to be reduced or limited are as follows: combat tanks, infantry combat vehicles, guns (including howitzers) with 75 mm or bigger calibre, mortars with 120 mm or bigger calibre, surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles and any other weapon system mutually agreed upon.
(3) The two sides shall exchange data on the military forces and armaments to be reduced or limited and decide on ceilings on military forces and armaments to be kept by each side within mutually agreed geographical zones along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas. The ceilings shall be determined in conformity with the requirement of the principle of mutual and equal security, with due consideration being given to parameters such as the nature of terrain, road communications and other infrastructure and time taken to induct/ de-induct troops and armaments”.
Viewed in future perspective, as and when both the countries decide to implement the above provisions, given the current levels of border infrastructure, India will have to face a situation of serious asymmetry in terms of troops induction and build up in an event of emergency. Though Sub-Paragraph (3) of Article III makes provision for asymmetries in terms of nature of terrain, road communications, other infrastructure and so on while mutually agreeing to ceiling on troop levels, assessment of these are always subjective and relative to individual perceptions and interests. There is no certainty that China will offer suitable and commensurate concessions to India in this regard. There is always the possibility of discrete induction of troops by China, utilising its superior border infrastructure and induction capability, prior to launching any military action without affording enough warning time to India. The critical issue is that India needs to have a matching capability in terms of time and space dimensions.
India’s problems in developing border roads is further accentuated due to the rugged nature of terrain on the Indian side vis-a-vis the terrain on the Chinese side which is more conducive for road building.
Decades ago, China had realised the importance of roads in high altitude mountainous terrain as the “Game Changer” in military operations. Since occupation of Tibet in Fifties, as part of its assimilation and integration, China had developed a network of roads in Tibet connecting Lhasa to Sinkiang and other parts including to border areas adjacent to India. The earlier constraints of China in inducting troops from Mainland China and logistically sustaining them in Tibet are no longer as serious. The network of Highways including the Central, Eastern and Western Highways and the roads to border areas, augmented with Gormo-Lhasa pipeline, and the recent construction of railway line connecting Mainland to Lhasa, coupled with accretions to available airlift have significantly enhanced the Chinese capabilities to induct and sustain troops in Tibet. Commencing from early Nineties, Chinese have been developing and improving their forward airbases at Rudhok, Khotan and elsewhere in addition to constructing a number of ALGs.
In comparative terms, Chinese are a decade plus ahead of India in terms of Infrastructure. A remark attributed to P.Stodan, a former Indian ambassador who is from Ladakh aptly summarises the existing imbalance when he pointed out that, “Around Ladakh, the Chinese can move at 400 KMs a day. We (India) can do a leisurely 150-200 KMs if we are lucky”. India needs to get over this asymmetry at the earliest. India’s problems in developing border roads is further accentuated due to the rugged nature of terrain on the Indian side vis-a-vis the terrain on the Chinese side which is more conducive for road building. Further, with a view to reduce induction and build up time, India may take a leaf from the Israeli scheme of mobilisation and construct dumps, particularly of ammunition, FOL and Ordnance stores at selected locations in the concerned sectors, commensurate with the visualisation of anticipated operations and pre-position operationally requisite stocks with suitable plans for turn-over. Even some of the armament may be pre-positioned and kept under heavy preservation for which shelters need to be constructed.
India is reported to be in the process of developing her infrastructure and enhancing her operational capabilities in terms of men, material and modernisation in a phased manner. While all these are progressive and welcome measures, the biggest obstacle and pinprick to India’s quest for development is likely to come from China in the form of DBO type coercive incidents or through any other intimidating means. India must, with the requisite degree of firmness and skilful diplomacy , make it clear to the Chinese leadership that she will not stop the infrastructural development works being undertaken in the border areas nor will freeze the force enhancement and modernisation plans. The Agreements of 1993 and 1996 emphasise the principle of “Mutual and Equal Security”. As Chinese enjoy comparative ascendency in respect of infrastructure, force levels and capabilities, the Indian endeavour must be seen merely as an effort towards seeking a modicum of equal security and not be viewed either as provocative or hostile.