Unresolved Territorial Dispute: The Firewall
Of all the areas of concern that have dampened relations between the two countries, it is the long-standing territorial and boundary dispute that is the most disconcerting. The genesis of the territorial dispute is well known and is not repeated here. Since well before the 1962 border war, China has continued to be in occupation of large areas of Indian territory. In Aksai Chin in Ladakh, China is in physical possession of approximately 38,000 square kilometres (sq km) of Indian territory since the mid-1950s. China surreptitiously built its alternative route from Tibet to Sinkiang through this part of Aksai Chin. In addition, in March 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian (J&K) territory in the Shaksgam Valley of the Northern Areas of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (north of the Siachen Glacier and west of the Karakoram Pass) to China under a boundary agreement that India does not recognise. Through this area China built the Karakoram highway that now provides a strategic land link between Sinkiang, Tibet and Pakistan.
In India’s north-eastern region, China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sq km of Indian territory that includes the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh even though the territory is physically under Indian control. In terms of physical area, Arunachal Pradesh is over three times the size of Taiwan. Sun Yuxi, the then Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi, had publicly reiterated this claim just before President Hu Jintao’s visit in November 2006. The ambassador single-handedly ensured that his President received a cold shoulder in Delhi and the visit turned out to be inconsequential. Since then, Chinese interlocutors have claimed several times that the Tawang Tract is part of Tibet because one of the Dalai Lamas was born there. Chinese scholars visiting New Delhi always hint that the merger of the Tawang Tract with Tibet is non-negotiable. China’s often stated official position on such issues is that the reunification of Chinese territories is a sacred duty. The concern exhibited by the Chinese authorities for a former Dalai Lama is indeed touching as they lose no opportunity to revile the living Dalai Lama.
An inherently destabilising situation stems from the omission that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China, implying de facto control after the 1962 war, is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. The LAC is quite different from the disputed 4,056 km long boundary between India and Tibet. The un-delineated LAC is a major destabilising factor as patrol face-offs are not uncommon and could result in an armed clash between patrols. Also, incidents such as the Nathu La border clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung standoff of 1986 can recur. Such incidents have the potential to escalate into another border conflict similar to the war of 1962.
Even after over 15 meetings of the Joint Working Group and the Experts Group, it has not been possible for the two countries to exchange maps showing the respective versions of the LAC claimed by the two armies in the contentious Western (Ladakh-Aksai Chin) and Eastern (Arunachal Pradesh) sectors. Discussion of the varying positions can begin only after marked maps are first exchanged. The only positive development has been that maps have been exchanged for the least contentious Central Sector, that is, the Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh borders with Tibet where almost no fighting had taken place in 1962. It clearly shows how intractable the challenge is.
Early in 2005, India and China had agreed to identify “guiding principles and parameters” for a political solution to the five-decade old dispute. Many foreign policy analysts had then hailed it as a great leap forward. Eleven years down the line, the two countries are still stuck with the principles and a solution is nowhere in sight. In fact, even the sanctity of the principles accepted by the two sides is in doubt as China has violated the agreed principle that “settled populations will not be disturbed” while arriving at an acceptable solution by so vociferously laying its claim to Tawang. This is not the first time that India has signed a “feel-good” agreement with the Chinese. The Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) signed with the Chinese in 1993 and the agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field signed in 1996 were expected to reduce the operational commitments of the army from having to permanently man the difficult LAC with China. However, it has not been possible to withdraw a single soldier from the LAC so far.
In fact, despite the 1996 agreement on CBMs, several incidents of Chinese transgressions of the LAC at Asaphi La and elsewhere in Arunachal Pradesh and in Ladakh have been periodically reported in the Indian press and discussed in the Indian Parliament. Defence Minister A K Antony stated in the Rajya Sabha (the lower house of India’s Parliament) in mid-May 2012 that China had violated the LAC over 500 times since January 2010. India refers to such violations as transgressions and not intrusions as intrusions have a sense of permanence about them. The PLA Border Guards even intruded across the Sikkim border with Tibet in Area Finger in North Sikkim and were pushed back. This is a settled portion of the border and is marked by recognisable landmarks and 21 Crains in North Sikkim portion. While no violent incident has taken place in the recent past, there have been occasions when Indian and Chinese patrols have met face-to-face in areas like the two “fish-tail” shaped protrusions in the north-east corner of Arunachal Pradesh. Such meetings have an element of tension built into them and despite the best of military training the possibility of an armed clash can never be ruled out. An armed clash in which there are heavy casualties can lead to a larger border incident that may not remain localised.
The PLA has been flexing its muscles through an aggressive border management policy to stake claim to disputed areas in all the three sectors – western (Ladakh), middle (Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh) and eastern (Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh). Armed vehicle mounted and motorised boat patrols in the strategically-located Trig Heights and Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh have also been intensified by the PLA since 2009. Chinese troops damaged a 200-feet long stonewall in Yangtse area of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in 2011, which was subsequently re-built by India after lodging a strong protest with China. India hopes the new bilateral boundary coordination mechanism, which has become operational after being inked during the 15th round of border talks between India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and his Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo in January 2012, will help prevent border flare-ups between the two armies.
In the Western sector in Ladakh-Aksai Chin, the LAC is even more ambiguous because the paucity of easily recognisable terrain features on the Aksai Chin makes it difficult to accurately co-relate ground and map. Both the sides habitually send patrols up to the point at which, in their perception, the LAC runs. These patrols leave “tell-tale” signs behind in the form of burjis (piles of stones), biscuit and cigarette packets and other similar markers in a sort of primitive ritual to lay stake to territory and assert their claim. While the government invariably advises caution, it is extremely difficult for commanders of troops to advocate a soft line to their subordinates. There is an inherent contradiction in sending soldiers to patrol what they are told and believe are Indian areas and then giving them orders that they must not under any circumstances fire on “intruding” Chinese soldiers. This is the reason why it is operationally critical to delineate the LAC on the map and demarcate it on the ground. Once that is done, the inadequacy of recognisable terrain features can be overcome by exploiting GPS technology to accurately navigate up to the agreed and well-defined LAC on the ground and avoid transgressing it even unintentionally. However, this may push the resolution of the International Boundary off the radar permanently.
In this light, the Chinese intransigence in not being willing to exchange maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the Western and the Eastern sectors is difficult to understand. In 1988, China’s leader Deng Xiao Ping had told visiting Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that the territorial dispute is a problem left over from history and it should be left for future generations to resolve. Early resolution of the dispute is in the interest of both the countries as it will end the suspicions and hostility of the past and free both the countries to shape a more friendly future for mutual gains. China and India must resolve the territorial and boundary dispute on the basis of historical records, geography, security parameters and the interests of the people who live in the area. Meanwhile, it is in the interest of both the countries that peace and tranquility should continue to prevail on the border.
The military gap between Indian and China is growing steadily as the PLA is modernising at a rapid pace due to the double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defence budget while India’s military modernisation plans continue to remain mired in red tape. The Chinese armed forces have surged ahead of India in many areas of defence modernisation; the gap is slowly becoming unbridgeable. China’s defence budget is growing annually between 16 and 18 per cent. In 15 to 20 years from now, China may attempt to force a military solution to the territorial dispute with India after settling the Taiwan issue and India may be forced to accept an unequal settlement due to its military weakness.
China’s negotiating strategy on the territorial dispute is to stall resolution of the dispute till they are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can then dictate terms. The rapidly blossoming strategic partnership between China and Pakistan is also a major cause for concern. During any future conflict with either China or Pakistan – even though the probability is low, India will have to contend with a two-front situation as each is likely to collude militarily with the other – a situation for which the Indian armed forces are not prepared. Hence, it is in India’s interest to strive for the early resolution of the territorial dispute with China so that India has only one major military adversary to contend with.
Cooperative Security Framework for the Indo-Pacific
Speaking at the Raisina Dialogue sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs on March 2, 2016, Admiral Harry Harris, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Command, called for quadrilateral Australia-India-Japan-US consultations for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. He said, “Together, we can develop a roadmap that leverages our respective efforts to improve the security architecture and strengthen regional dialogues. Together, we can ensure free and open sea lanes of communication that are critical for global trade and prosperity.”
Admiral Harris also announced that the next set of naval exercises in the trilateral annual Malabar series, comprising India, Japan and the US, will be held in the northern Philippine Sea, close to the South China Sea. The Chinese perceive such efforts as attempts to gang up on them and, therefore, their reaction was fast and furious. Hong Lei, spokesperson of China’s Foreign Ministry, said, “We urge the US government to put some restraint on them (US commanders) and stop them from irresponsible sensationalisation and hyping up so as to avoid undermining regional peace and stability.”
China has deep internal fault-lines. Its rapid economic growth, now slowing, has been fairly uneven and non-inclusive. There is a deep sense of resentment against the leadership of the Communist Party for the denial of basic freedoms. The discontentment simmering below the surface could boil over and lead to an uncontrollable spontaneous implosion. David Shambaugh, a well-known China scholar, is the latest to have jumped on to the China-may-implode bandwagon. The recent crash of Chinese stock markets and continuing volatility also point to the possibility of a meltdown.
Most Asian leaders are apprehensive of China’s intentions and worry that China may behave irresponsibly somewhere in the Indo-Pacific. It could decide to intervene militarily in the South China Sea, or to occupy one or more of the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands or decide to resolve the remaining territorial disputes, like that with India, by using military force. Though President Xi Jinping has denied plans to ‘militarise’ the South China Sea, surely China is not building air strips there to fly in Japanese tourists.
Both the contingencies – implosion and military adventurism – have a low probability of occurrence, but will be high impact events with widespread ramifications should either of them come to pass. In such an eventuality, India and the US will both need strong partners to deal with the fallout and to manage the consequences. Hence, the India-US strategic partnership makes eminent sense as a hedging strategy for both countries.
India must join the US and other strategic partners, such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, to establish a cooperative security framework for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and for the security of the global commons – air space, space, cyber space and the sea-lanes of communication – to enable freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade. If China is willing to join this security architecture it should be welcomed. However, it is unlikely to do so as it believes that ‘one mountain cannot contain two tigers’ and sees itself as the lone tiger on the Asian mountain.
US leaders have expressed their support for India’s emergence as a major power several times in the last ten years. They have used phrases like the US is committed “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century” (briefing by US official after the visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 2005); “India is not just a rising power, it has already risen” (President Obama, 2010).
The US hopes India will soon become a “net provider of security” in the region. The expectations include India joining international counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation efforts; sharing intelligence; upholding the rules and norms governing maritime trade; providing help to the littoral states to meet their security needs; helping to counter piracy and narcotics trafficking; and, continuing to taking the lead in humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations in the region. All of these expectations are unexceptionable and India has been contributing extensively to achieving these common goals.
India must not hesitate to intervene militarily in conjunction with its strategic partners if its vital national interests are threatened in its area of strategic interest. This extends from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west. India would prefer to intervene under a UN flag but may join a coalition of the willing in case consensus is difficult to achieve in the UN Security Council. India must develop robust tri-Service capabilities for military intervention.
Indo-US defence cooperation, a key component of the strategic partnership, must be enhanced to take it to the next higher trajectory to enable the two countries to undertake joint threat assessment; contingency planning for joint operations; sharing of intelligence; simulations and table-top exercises – besides training exercises with troops; coordination of command, control and communications; and, planning for operational deployment and logistics support. All of these activities must be undertaken in concert with India’s other strategic partners in Asia. Only when a cooperative security framework is in place will the India-US strategic partnership realise its true potential as a force for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.