Defused by diplomacy

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Chinese troops display a banner asking Indian soldiers to 'Go Back' in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh. (Right) An aerial view of five tents erected by the Chinese on Indian territory. Photo: PTI

The recent tensions between Indian and Chinese troops along the Line of Actual Control end without a shot being fired thanks to calm diplomacy.

THE brief exercise in brinkmanship on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between Chinese and Indian military patrols in the eastern Ladakh region finally ended on an amicable note, as most serious military and political analysts had predicted.

Indian and Chinese soldiers briefly faced each other in a standoff that started on April 15. It was announced on May 5 that both the Indian and Chinese patrols that had pitched tents on territory that was unoccupied until recently would withdraw to their original positions. The issue was hyped up by the Indian media, with support from sections of the Indian establishment. The issue had briefly threatened to derail the high-profile visits Chinese and Indian leaders had planned in the coming weeks and months.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid is scheduled to be in Beijing in the second week of May for talks and to prepare the groundwork for the visit of the new Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, to India in the third week of May. During the fortnight of China-baiting in the Indian media that preceded the return of normalcy, there were loud demands from the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party for the Minister to call off his trip. Defence Minister A.K. Antony, under pressure from the opposition and a media barrage, suggested that all options were open to resolve the minor military impasse that had developed along the LAC. “India will take every step to protect its national interests,” the Defence Minster said. After the May 5 agreement, highly placed Indian sources are now claiming that the Indian media were getting their inputs from “those who were not in the loop”.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was more restrained in his comments, when he said that it was “a localised problem” which could be solved. This time, the tensions lingered a little longer than necessary as it was allowed to be hijacked by a jingoistic media. In comparison, there was very little coverage of the incident in the Chinese media, an indication that Beijing did not want to dramatise a minor flare-up along the LAC.

According to External Affairs Ministry officials, even when flag meetings on the LAC between Indian and Chinese military officers were going on, the matter was taken up expeditiously by Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai. He called up the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi on April 18 and asked for the restoration of the status quo ante on the LAC. He coordinated with the military authorities and Indian Ambassador in China S. Jaishankar while talking to senior officials in Beijing. The Indian side, according to sources involved in the negotiations, had concluded at the outset that the incident was a “very localised” one and could easily be sorted out. Their optimism was justified.

The official spokesman for the External Affairs Ministry issued a statement on May 6 which said that the governments of China and India had agreed “to restore the status quo ante along the LAC in the western sector of the India-China boundary as it existed before April 15”.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a terse statement that both the countries had “terminated the standoff at the Tiannan River Valley area”. The statement went on to add that both the sides had “moved forward and adopted a constructive and cooperative attitude and calmed the tensions through border-related mechanisms, diplomatic channels and border defence meetings”. The official spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the agreement was reached keeping “in mind the larger interests of bilateral relations”.

The dispute

Senior sources in the Indian government have said that the tin structure that the Indian Army had built in the Chumar area has been dismantled but that no other commitments or concessions were demanded or given. According to reports, the Chinese patrol had pitched its tents when it discovered the Indian Army’s presence there. India claims that the area is well within its side of the LAC and that the Chinese had pitched their tents 19 kilometres inside Indian territory. China has strongly differed with this assertion, stating that its troops were very much on the Chinese side of the LAC.

As things stand today, the border between the two countries has not been completely demarcated, leading to varying perceptions about the exact location of the LAC in many parts of its 3,500-km-long boundary. In fact, there is no line of control that is recognised by either side in the area where the recent dispute arose. Indian officials have been saying that demarcating the LAC clearly “would be helpful”. This issue is going to be discussed during Khurshid’s visit to Beijing.

An agreement on “Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Area” signed in 1993 between the two countries relating to the border issue clearly states that the references to the LAC should not prejudice their respective positions on the boundary question, as no commonly accepted alignment of the LAC exists. Both sides patrol the inhospitable and desolate stretch of land but had desisted from putting up permanent structures. According to Indian sources, New Delhi will be considering a recent proposal by Beijing for the signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). The BDCA draft submitted to India focusses on ways to improve communications between the troops deployed on both sides of the LAC so that untoward incidents along the border can be avoided.

The Indian side involved in the recent negotiations said that its primary objective was to get the “relationship back on track”, before it spun out of control. It was obvious that the leadership of both the countries did not want to jeopardise the forthcoming high-level visits. The Prime Minister is also scheduled to visit China before the end of the year.

“Aggressive patrolling”

In recent years, both sides have been resorting to what is being described as “aggressive patrolling” along the LAC. The Chinese side has not taken kindly to the new military airports being constructed by India adjacent to the LAC and an increase in Indian troop numbers. The latest incident, according to the Chinese side, was triggered by the infrastructure build-up and construction of bunkers by the Indian military in the Fukche and Chumar regions of Ladakh.

There was an agreement in 1996 between the two countries to keep a ceiling on troop levels along the LAC. A 2005 border protocol signed between the two countries also bans the construction of permanent structures in disputed areas. The construction of structures in a disputed area led to the latest incident. According to reports, India has agreed to address some of China’s concerns about permanent structures being put in southeast Ladakh’s Chumar area. The Indian Army had put up forward observation posts and bunkers and deployed surveillance equipment in the area.

The Army’s build-up along the LAC started in the middle of the last decade. Two new mountain divisions were created to defend Arunachal Pradesh and three Air Force bases were created for the deployment of Su-30s in Assam, along with several batteries of Akash missiles. Eight Advanced Landing Grounds were refurbished along the LAC to facilitate easy landing of a heliborne force.

The Army has announced plans for the creation of a mountain strike force to be put on the ground by 2017. The Chinese side could have been more worried by the Army’s deployment of two additional infantry brigades in south-eastern Ladakh. Advanced Landing Grounds have already been activated by the Army in Daulat Beg Oldi.

China had offered a draft proposal to India in April suggesting that both sides freeze their troop levels along the LAC. India already has more troops than China along the border. The Indian Army, however, argues that the transport infrastructure China has across the LAC makes it easy for it to move troops at short notice to the border. Indian troops, on the other hand, have to depend mainly on air transport to move around the rugged Himalayan terrain.

Beijing may not be viewing the recent event in isolation. It is warily watching the evolving strategic and defence relationship between India, the United States and Japan. The latest crisis has coincided with the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” whose unstated goal is to contain the rise of China to the status of a leading global power.

As Indian and Chinese military officers were meeting at the LAC to resolve the latest border tangle, India, the U.S. and Japan held their latest round of trilateral dialogue in Washington, the fourth so far.

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