Even as President Xi Jinping was being hosted to a Gujarati dinner by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the bank of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad, Chinese and Indian troops were once again engaged in a tense face-off at Chumar and Demchok in Ladakh. Despite the Chinese President’s message to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to back off, the stand-off continued. The intruders had to be confronted with show of force by an Indian infantry battalion. So far this year there have been an unprecedented 335 transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by the PLA.
It was no wonder then that in the press statement after his meeting with the Chinese President, PM Modi expressed ‘serious concern over repeated incidents along the border’. He pointed out that ‘clarification’ – or demarcation – of the LAC would enhance ‘efforts to maintain peace and tranquillity’. And, he sought an ‘early settlement’ of the territorial dispute. In turn, President Xi Jinping said China is determined to ‘work with India through friendly consultations to settle the boundary question at an early date,’ and to ‘maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas’ till the dispute is resolved. No Indian Prime Minister has used such strong language in a summit meeting with a Chinese President before, but given the rather aggressive border management policies of the PLA, the Chinese had it coming.
Relations between India and China have been fairly stable at the strategic level since then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s summit meeting with Deng Xiaoping in 1988. Mutual economic dependence is growing rapidly. Bilateral trade is now worth US$ 65 billion and is expected to cross US$ 80 billion by 2017 – even though the balance of trade is heavily skewed in China’s favour. India and China have been cooperating in international fora like the WTO and climate change negotiations. Limited cooperation has taken place in energy security. However, China’s political, diplomatic and military aggressiveness at the tactical level is acting as a dampener for the further normalisation of the relationship.
Prolonged negotiations have been conducted at the political level to resolve the long-standing territorial and boundary dispute. The Special Representatives of the two Prime Ministers have met seventeen times. However, there has been little progress on this sensitive issue. The fragile security relationship has the potential to act as a spoiler and will ultimately determine whether the two Asian giants will clash or cooperate for mutual gains.
In recent years, China has raised the ante by way of frequent transgressions across the LAC and unprecedented cyber-attacks on Indian networks. China either denies Visas to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir or issues stapled Visas to them on the grounds that these are disputed territories.
China’s behaviour is in keeping with its recent military assertiveness in the disputed island territories of the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Clearly, the current Chinese leadership has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s 24-Character Strategy: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
China continues to be in physical occupation of large areas of Indian territory. On the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh, China is in physical possession of approximately 38,000 sq km of Indian territory since the mid-1950s. In addition, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of territory in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Jammu and Kashmir to China in 1963 in the Shaksgam Valley, north of the Siachen Glacier, under a bilateral boundary agreement. China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sq km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls Southern Tibet. Chinese interlocutors claim that the Tawang Tract, in particular, is part of Tibet and that the merger of this area with Tibet is non-negotiable. China’s official position is that the reunification of Chinese territories is a sacred duty for the PLA.
The 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. This is a major destabilising factor as it leads to frequent transgressions. Both sides send their patrols up to their ‘perception’ of the LAC. Patrol face-offs are common and have an element of tension built into them though both sides usually exercise restraint. Major incidents in the recent past include those at Depsang near Daulat Beg Oldie in April-May 2013; and, Chumar and Demchok in September 2014. There was an armed clash at Nathu La in 1967 and a prolonged standoff at Wang Dung in 1986. Hence, though the probability of conflict is low, its possibility cannot be ruled out.
Early demarcation of the LAC without prejudice to each other’s position on the territorial dispute would be an excellent confidence building measure. China’s intransigence in exchanging maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the western and the eastern sectors is neither understandable nor condonable. Perhaps it is part of China’s strategy to leave the dispute “for future generations to resolve”, as Deng Xiaoping had famously told Rajiv Gandhi. Under the circumstances, Prime Minister Modi did well by asking President Xi Jinping to resume the stalled process of demarcation of the LAC.
The military gap between Indian and China is growing steadily as the PLA is modernising at a rapid pace and India’s military modernisation plans remain mired in red tape. China is also steadily upgrading the military infrastructure in Tibet to enable rapid deployment. China will stall resolution of the territorial dispute till it is in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so as to be able to dictate terms. It is in India’s interest to strive for early resolution of the territorial dispute so that there is only one military adversary to contend with. It is in this direction that the Government of India must firmly nudge the Chinese leadership during future meetings of the political interlocutors.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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