Publication for Observer Research Foundation
There is an old saying – coming events cast their shadows before them. This is certainly true in India-China relations. For three years prior to the 1962 war with China, there were clear signs that disagreements on the border were becoming sharper but Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was unwilling to believe that China would resort to war.
And yet again, in recent years India has ignored the writing on the Chinese wall, assuming that the slew of agreements signed, beginning in 1990s would ensure a peaceful border. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was perhaps so convinced of the virtues of his personal diplomacy with President Xi Jinping over 18 summits since 2014 that the darkening shadows cast by the cumulative evidence of increasing incursions and what these implied were disregarded. Even as the official statements talked of disengagement to ease the 45-day stand-off, the gloves came off and more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the fighting at Galwan Valley in Ladakh on the night of 15-16 June. Unconfirmed reports put the number of Chinese casualties at over 40.
These are the first casualties since October 1975 when four Indian soldiers from Assam Rifles were ambushed at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh. In keeping with the three-decade old understanding, no shots were fired; the present casualties resulted from iron rods, batons studded with barbed wire, stones and hand to hand combat which only makes it more grisly. Why have things come to such a pass when India and China have concluded multiple agreements regarding maintenance of peace and tranquillity and confidence building measures during the last three decades? How did India fail to register the changing ground reality?
The current priority will be to restore normalcy to the border through negotiations leading to disengagement and restoration of status quo ante. However, the important challenge is for India to undertake a deeper examination that has been long overdue about the premises on which its China policy has been conducted in recent decades. Growing evidence in the last decade would indicate that these premises are in need of review and many of the understandings based on them have outlived their utility.
The 1988 Opening With China
The process of re-normalising ties with China after the 1962 war began in 1988 with the visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi when both countries agreed to put the boundary dispute on the backburner and focus instead on building economic, commercial and cultural aspects of the relationship so that a more conducive environment could be created over time that would enable both sides to address the boundary issue. A Joint Working Group on Boundary Question was also set up to keep matter under review.
The underlying thinking on both sides was that while neither side was in a position in 1988 to be able to achieve an acceptable solution to the boundary dispute, hopefully, after a passage of time, it would be better placed to reach an outcome that would be better and more acceptable. Such an assumption on both sides would only be natural and reflective of a sense of pragmatism that led to the shift in the relationship in 1988.
The first major development thereafter was the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, concluded in 1993. The clunky title reflected a compromise. The concept of a Line of Actual Control (LAC) had been suggested by the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to Prime Minister Nehru in his letter dated 7 November 1959 “as the line up to which each side exercises actual control”. This was significant for settling the boundary dispute in the western sector while in the eastern sector, the Chinese leader suggested that the LAC coincided broadly with the 1914 McMahon line. Nehru rejected the notion because India considered the India-China boundary in the western sector to be defined by the 1865 Johnson Line, a point disputed by China.
Following the 1962 war, China asserted that it had withdrawn 20 kms behind its claimed LAC, a notion that India had never accepted. India took the stand that China had illegally occupied Aksai Chin area which was part of Indian territory. The language of the 1993 Agreement marked a shift by acknowledging the LAC. The shift was justified on the ground that the reference to the LAC was without qualifying it either as the 1959 or the 1962 LAC; this enabled India to claim that it interpreted the reference as its own version of the LAC.
Para 1 of the 1993 Agreement commits both states to resolve the boundary question “through peaceful and friendly consultations” and that pending an ultimate solution, “the two sides shall strictly respect and observe the line of actual control between the two sides”. However, given that India and China did not share a common understanding of the LAC, the 1993 Agreement added “In case the personnel of one side cross the line of actual control, upon being cautioned by the other side, they shall immediately pull back to their own side of the line of actual control . When necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the line of actual control where they have different views as to its alignment”. This fudge or creative ambiguity lay at the heart of the 1993 Agreement.
This was followed three years later by the 1996 Agreement on Confidence- Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. Since India and China perceived the LAC differently, any use of this term had to be accompanied with the phrase “in the India-China Border Areas”. Both sides agreed to reduce military presence in these areas and also added constraints on the size and nature of military exercises in these areas. Both sides also committed not to “open fire” within two kilometres of the line of actual control. Evidently this restraint was observed at Galwan even though more barbaric means were employed.
A significant addition was in Article X – “Recognising that the full implementation of some of the provisions of the present Agreement will depend on the two sides arriving at a common understanding of the alignment of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas, the two sides agree to speed up the process of clarification and confirmation of the line of actual control”. It reflected the realisation that differing perceptions of the LAC carried the potential for misunderstanding and conflict. The common understanding was to be reached through exchange of maps, an exercise completed for the middle sector (pertaining to the border falling in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) in 2001 as this was the least contentious; thereafter the process stalled.
Realising that the Joint Working Group on Boundary Question was unable to get around politically sensitive boundary issues, a new dialogue channel was added following PM Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003. Both sides agreed to appoint a Special Representative (SR) “to explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement”. On the Indian side, the National Security Adviser has been the SR while on the Chinese side it has been the State Councillor; currently Foreign Minister Wang Yi also holds this position and is the SR. Twenty-two rounds of talks have been held between the SRs but clearly, the “clarification and confirmation” of the LAC as well as the contours of a “boundary settlement” have remained elusive.
There was a sense of optimism when the Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question was concluded in 2005 but it turned out to be short lived. Among the principles identified were “the principle of mutual and equal security”, aligning the boundary “along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features” and safeguarding “due interests of their settled populations in border areas”. These were widely interpreted to mean that Arunachal Pradesh which had a settled population would remain part of India and in the western sector, India would have to make adjustments in keeping with geographical features so that Chinese connectivity through Tibet to Xinjiang was not impaired. However, the SR level talks failed to sustain the 2005 momentum and translate these expectations into forward movement.
By 2005, the number of incidents where patrols of both countries often came face to face had started growing. Accordingly, a Protocol to the 1996 Agreement on CBMs was concluded on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. Article IV of the Protocol defines the procedure for exercising restraint in such situations – On coming face to face, both sides were to refrain from advancing further, return to their bases, inform their respective Headquarters to enable consultations, not use or threaten to use force, treat each other with courtesy and refrain from provocative actions. However, these provisions have been ignored in recent years as there have been increasing reports of pushing and shoving and stone throwing causing injuries though neither side suffered fatal casualties till the present showdown in Galwan area.
It is clear that 2005 was the high point in terms of registering some forward movement, though incremental, in terms of managing the situation in the border areas. After 2005, summit level meetings have continued to take place regularly and some new agreements were also concluded but these did not further the boundary dispute resolution. The SRs have met regularly but were also unable to register progress on the boundary question. Part of the reason is that in recent years, the agenda of the SR’s talks has expanded and now encompasses the entire gamut of the bilateral relationship as well as exchanging views on regional and global developments, thereby diluting the focus on the core issue.
In 2012, an Agreement on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs was concluded. It provided for the Joint Secretary level officers in the respective Foreign Ministry(s) to “study ways and means to conduct and strengthen exchanges and cooperation between military personnel and establishments of the two sides in the border areas”. Art V of this Agreement states that they “will not discuss resolution of the Boundary Question or affect the Special Representatives Mechanism”.
The following year saw another Agreement on Border Defence Cooperation being concluded after a prolonged stand-off in Depsang in Ladakh. Art VI enjoined both sides not “to follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas”. It reiterated the need for exercising maximum restraint as agreed in the 2005 Protocol. Significantly, the 2012 and 2013 agreements did not reflect material progress on the LAC or boundary issue; these merely reiterated suggestions that were no longer working on the ground.
How The Ground Reality Changed
The future is always marked by uncertainty and a policy is an attempt to provide a map for the foggy road ahead. Looking continuously into the rear-view mirror for assurance that one is on the right road creates a bias that will lead to a crisis, exactly as has happened with China. Underlying political realities had changed dramatically from 1988 but Indian policy makers and leaders found reassurance in policy continuity.
In 1988, when both countries embarked on the new chapter in their relationship, Indian GDP was $296 billion (in 2010 dollar value) and Chinese GDP was $312 billion. In per capita terms, India was marginally better off. The defence budget of both countries was at par, at $20 billion each. A decade later, in 1998, Indian GDP rose to $421 billion while China moved faster to reach a trillion dollars. Indian defence spending rose to $24 billion while Chinese spending went up to $33 billion. This gap grew larger and in 2008, as Indian GDP reached $1.2 trillion, Chinese economy was nearly four times larger at $4.6 trillion. Indian defence budget was $44 billion while Chinese budget had reached $133 billion. During the last decade, the gap has further widened; Chinese GDP is estimated at five times that of India while its defence budget has climbed to four times that of India.
A similar gap was growing in other areas too. From near zero in 1988, bilateral trade registered a modest beginning, crossing $2 billion by 1998. By 2008, China had emerged as India’s biggest trading partner with a $41 billion turnover and the imbalance was evident in India’s $21 billion trade deficit. This has only grown further to over $50 billion at present, indicating that continued engagement in the current manner was placing India at a disadvantage on account of a non-level playing field.
In other words, the growing gap in capabilities across the board was an unmistakable trend that undermined the political basis of the 1988 policy. The basic assumption in 1988 that India would be better placed after a passage of time to achieve a more acceptable resolution to the boundary dispute was no longer valid. While it is true that India had registered considerable progress between 1988 and 2008 and had improved its standing vis-à-vis many countries but relative to China, India’s position had worsened.
As the account of the discussions on boundary CBMs indicates, it is around the same time that progress in these dialogue mechanisms began to stall. References to the 21 st century as the Asian century that included the rise of both China and India had been an accepted phraseology in bilateral statements but no longer found mention after 2008.
The LAC clarification process had stalled even as both countries stepped up patrolling. The number of “transgressions” reported by India began to grow to over 400 a year. India embarked on improving its connectivity infrastructure in the border areas. Since no progress had been made on clarification of the LAC and each side was engaged in more robust patrolling up to its perception of where the LAC lay, face-offs became more frequent. Transgressions became prolonged stand-offs, requiring diplomatic and political intervention. New agreements merely reiterated restraint but remained unable to address either the underlying reasons or impose restraints on patrolling. In short, it was just a matter of time that a face-off would turn violent and get out of hand and this is what happened on the night of 15 June.
A New Policy Reset
Currently, analysts are speculating more about the proximate causes that have led to the crisis. These span a range of factors – domestic compulsions on the Chinese leadership facing troubles at home, distraction from the criticism on China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, unhappiness with India’s statements following the declaration of Ladakh as a union territory last year, concerns about India’s expanding infrastructure in border areas, signalling aimed at growing Indian ties with the US as US-China ties remain locked into a downward spiral, or just part of China’s growing assertiveness also on display with Taiwan, Hong Kong and in South China Sea in recent months. However, the Indian analysis needs to dig deeper and examine the changed political drivers behind China’s behaviour.
Right now, both sides have taken firm stands but it is not in either side’s interest to escalate matters. Nevertheless, a prolonged stand-off appears likely. This will force India to review its plans on building infrastructure in border areas by ensuring adequate security and surveillance. In this case too, the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road had been in the making for years and occupying heights at vulnerable points to secure the road would have avoided the unpleasant surprise that faced us in 2020.
Since the 2020 incursions are seen as different from the recent incidents as being larger in scale and across multiple locations, it can only be concluded that the Chinese side wanted to unilaterally force India back from its perceived LAC. India has therefore sought a restoration of status quo ante, as in April. It is difficult to predict how and when this is going to be achieved through negotiations. The Chinese attempt in Ladakh seems to be similar to its salami slicing tactics in the South China Sea where the steady land reclamation has enabled it to convert atolls into islands with runways and missile defences, creating a new military reality. But suffice to say, China’s unilateral approach has forced India to rethink on the fundamental basis of the relationship by making it clear that the 1988 assumption is no longer tenable.
Therefore, what is needed is a thorough review of the three-decade old policy. It has become evident that an ambiguous LAC is unlikely to remain peaceful and tranquil. Creative ambiguity worked for a while but its time was running out, a fact that Indian policy makers should have foreseen but were somehow reluctant to accept. China did not face a similar compulsion because it had improved its relative standing and continuing ambiguity was to its advantage. Formalising an understanding of the respective perceptions is only the first step; then will come the harder challenge of resolving the differences. And in the meantime, a new set of CBMs will need to be worked out to guide activities in the grey zone of overlapping LACs, in order to prevent future incidents.
These negotiations are going to be long and contentious. Compared to the 1990s when the early agreements were concluded, today the bilateral relationship has become multi-dimensional providing both sides with additional leverages and also a stake in not allowing the situation to spin out of control. At the same time, areas of concern have also grown. In the past, it was China’s defence, nuclear and missile cooperation with Pakistan that remained a constant irritant for India but was never discussed; it still exists today and CPEC adds to it. However there is a host of other issues – trade imbalances, market access, foreign investment entry regulations, non-tariff restrictions on commercial activities, China’s growing footprint in India’s neighbourhood including in the Indian Ocean, developments in South China Sea, BRI, interpretation of free and open Indo Pacific and role of Quad, and many more, including some that both sides have not taken up in recent years but could be revived like Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang.
In sum, since the basis of the old modus vivendi is no longer tenable, both sides need to start by asking how they visualise their relationship in the coming decades.