Will the forthcoming visit of the PM to China change the ground reality in Indo-China relations?
Formal consultations for an early visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China in 2015, which Beijing has been pressing for, have begun. The visit will be preceded, and maybe decided, by the 18th round of Special Representatives (SRs) talks on border resolution led by National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval in Beijing.
Given that the government gives high priority to border resolution, especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s controversial September 2014 India visit, importance is being accorded to Mr Doval’s talks to gauge Chinese sincerity on India’s concern.
BJP spokesperson, M.J. Akbar is of the view that ‘India and China have established stable-instability on their border. It is not ideal, but better than any alternative.’ Former diplomat Saurabh Kumar opines that ‘it is time for the SRs to return to basics. The top-down approach should be reversed to a bottom-up one’, implying that instead of working on the framework for border resolution, India should go prepared with alignment of the border it wishes to sign upon.
Both comments betray a lack of understanding of military power on the 3,488km disputed border (on icy cold heights ranging from 12,000 feet to 17,000 feet) which is neither agreed on maps nor on ground. Ironically, since the 1993 agreement on peace and tranquility which re-named it as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – by definition a military-held line which can be moved by force -, it is a more dangerous military-line than the 746km Line of Control (LC) with Pakistan. Moreover, the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), which followed the April-May 2013 three-week long Chinese forces’ intrusion in Depsang plains in north Ladakh, has added to Indian troubles.
After the 1993 and especially after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, Peoples’ Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) transgressions along the LAC have increased exponentially. Unlike the Indian side, Chinese have excellent infrastructure including rail and roads network right till the border; it has state-of-the-art surveillance means comprising satellite in low and polar synchronous orbits, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and better human intelligence as people of border areas are of Chinese ethnicity and China is a closed society; and mindboggling airlift capabilities.
Thus, unlike the Indian security forces (army and Indo Tibetan Border Police), which are physically policing forward posts, the PLA has no troops, but only border guards (paramilitary forces) in hundreds of kilometers apart penny pockets along the LAC. Think for the moment how much psychological pressure such an environment would have on thousands of Indian troops, who lug their food and oil supplies for as many as four days to reach their posts, and have no enemy facing them?
Let’s now consider the BDCA, whose central tenet is that one side will not follow or tail patrols of the other side in border areas where there is no common understanding of the LAC (there is none anywhere). In reality this means if a PLA patrol manages to find a gap anywhere in the 3,488km long LAC and slips in, Indian Army will not follow or tail it by pitching tents close to them or obstructing its logistics line (like it did in Depsang plains). Given this restriction, the only option left for Indian security forces will be to physically monitor the entire LAC without gaps so that Chinese intruders are held up at the LAC itself and persuaded to go back through ‘banner drill’ — blocking their way with banners marked ‘you have crossed the LAC’ without provocation, use of arms or any means which suggests aggressiveness. Conscious of the entailed huge manpower obligation, India was dragging its feet from signing the Beijing BDCA draft till compelled to fall in line by the Ladakh intrusion.
The BDCA has forced Indian security forces to guard the 3,488km LAC round the clock and gap-free with serious implications of increased manpower, annual defence budgets and military modernisation. The Indian Army’s 17 Mountain corps (60,000 troops), whose raisings was cleared by the CCS on 17 July 2013 and actual raising began on 1 January 2014, owes itself to the BDCA. The PLA vacated Depsang only after Delhi agreed to sign the BDCA; following this, the CCS hurriedly cleared the army’s new corps proposal. Why? The army made the case for more manpower for increased policing task. What the army has called a strike corps (it is absurd to think that army can strike in high altitude areas where survival itself is a feat) is really meant for rest and relief and for filling surveillance gaps along the border. The Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) has done the same, with the Union home Minister, Rajnath Singh recently announcing an accretion of 12,000 ITBP to man additional 48 forward posts.
This is not all. Following the Depsang incursion, the PLA has disallowed Indian security forces to patrol till their perception of the LAC in the Western Ladakh. As India did not want to escalate matters, its security forces have willfully restricted their patrolling limits well short of Track Junction where the PLA had pitched tents for three weeks. Thus, the new ‘limit of patrol’ has become the new LAC in Ladakh, according to a report submitted by the chairman of the National Security Advisory Board, Shyam Saran to the Prime Minister Office.
Meanwhile, in order to formalise its Depsang gains, the PLA issued new ‘battle maps’ to its troops so as to facilitate their patrolling till Chinese new territorial claims. According to the PLA Daily, ‘units were earlier using maps which were made between the Sixties and Seventies. To address this issue, the PLA’s general headquarters started revision of maps in the second half of 2013.’ Once the troops were familiar with new battle maps and military preparedness for border management and war fighting on the new LAC, senior PLA generals reportedly visited forward areas in north Ladakh close to Karakoram pass and areas ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963. In a rare gesture not done in decades, a year after the Depsang incursion, a vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, Gen. Xu Qiliang visited all PLA formations, from the highest military area commands to smallest garrisons associated with the new LAC alignment in north Ladakh.
How does such a border have stable-instability? The non-visible PLA transgresses at will, India accepts the new LAC, and Indian troops are perched in high altitude doing policing duties because firings or aggression is not allowed. Compare this with the LC, where the border is defined, the enemy visible, and army does guarding duty which means firing when necessary. Troops are under no psychological pressure and surely, they prefer LC to the LAC duties.
Given all this, what are the forthcoming SRs talks about? India will ask China for clarification of the LAC, a request made by Modi to Jinping during his India visit. To Modi’s query for an early clarification of the LAC at the joint media interaction in Delhi, Jinping replied that the two sides are ‘fully capable to ensure such incidents do not impact on the bilateral relationship.’
The unanswered question is how can the LAC be defined after China in December 2010 publicly said that its border with India is mere 2,000km long? Taking India by surprise, China, in a major foreign policy shift, has negated having a border with India in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir) which is 1,488km. Compelled to respond, India’s ambassador to China, S. Jaishankar told the media that the disputed border is 3,488km. How will the SRs reconcile the difference of 1,488km for border resolution and by extension the LAC? How can India have a 3,488Km long LAC with 1,488km on what Chinese now say is Pakistani land? This explains, why during the 15th round of SR talks held after Chinese spectacular announcement, both sides broadened the agenda moving from resolving to managing the border. This is to be done by the ‘Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China affairs’ under officials of both sides.
Moreover, when asked in October 2013 whether the BDCA would place restrictions on India developing border infrastructure or enhancing military capabilities along the LAC, ambassador Jaishankar replied in the negative. Quoting from the BCDA preamble, which states the ‘accepted principle of mutual and equal security’, Mr Jaishankar said that both countries were free to decide their respective security needs. This is not correct. The BDCA states under Article-I that ‘the two states shall carry out defence border cooperation on the basis of their respective laws and relevant bilateral agreements.’ A relevant bilateral agreement like the 1993 BPTA states under its Article Two that the two sides, ‘will keep military forces by the principle of mutual and equal security to ceilings to be mutually agreed.’ The inference is clear: India cannot enhance military capability close to the LAC without China’s consent. So, where will it train its 17 mountain corps for war, and will China object to them even doing policing?
While there is no restriction on infrastructure building close to the LAC, the PLA, having pushed the goalpost, has been objecting to observation posts and towers of Indian security forces close to the LAC. China has even expressed its displeasure at India’s plans to construct a 1,800km industrial corridor in Southern Arunachal Pradesh, which it considers a disputed area.
India, since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s term, has consistently followed an appeasement policy with disregard to military power, which China understands well. The questions are what will be Mr Doval and later Prime Minister Modi’s agenda during their China visits?