The Border Defence Cooperation agreement is a win-win for China than India
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed nine agreements during his recent visit to China (October 23 and 24). The most awaited agreement, which took a long time to get mutually accepted, and on which both sides have expressed complete satisfaction was on Border Defence Cooperation (BDC). This has been hailed by the Prime Minister as the bedrock of harmonious relationship, without which the bilateral relationship may come unstuck.
All experts, without exception, have assessed the BDC agreement as a step forward. It is felt that while it will not prevent border intrusions, it will help resolve things faster. According to India’s ambassador in China, S. Jaishankar, the BDC agreement lays out a protocol to prevent incidents like the April-May Depsang (Ladakh) intrusions when Chinese troops came and sat 16km inside Indian territory; and importantly it does not put any restrictions on India to develop border infrastructure or enhance military capabilities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Elaborating, Jaishankar said that according to the ‘principle of mutual and equal security’ emphasised in the BDC, both countries are free to take military measures according to their security needs.
This is not true. India is legally committed under the 1993 and 1996 agreements, which have been unambiguously mentioned in the BDC agreement, to get China’s consent before enhancing even an iota of its military capability on the 4,000 km LAC. The 1993 agreement says that the two sides will have military forces along the LAC ‘in conformity with the requirements of the principle of mutual and equal security to ceilings to be mutually agreed’. Thus, the operative words in the principle are ‘mutually agreed ceilings.
The 1996 agreement, which provides details of the confidence building measures (CBMs) along the LAC, once again emphasises on ‘mutually agreed ceilings’ by stating that, ‘major categories of armament to be subjected to ceilings include: combat tanks, infantry combat vehicles, guns with 75mm or bigger calibre, mortars with 120mm or bigger calibre, surface-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles and other weapons system mutually agreed upon.’
The 1993 and 1996 agreements are testimony to Chinese foresightedness and involvement of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); both qualities lacking on the Indian side. To obfuscate matters, the BDC agreement has been drafted cleverly and mentions only ‘the principle of mutual and equal security’, and says that this should be read in conjunction with the 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012 agreements. This way India has been helped by China to sell the BDC proposition back home by saying that India would be free to enhance its military prowess along the LAC according to its wishes. This, of course, has been forbidden by previous bilateral agreements.
To put matters further into perspective, the principle of ‘mutual and equal security’ enshrined in the 1993 agreement, was a blunder by India. Three Chinese military advantages make this principle meaningless. One, India will never be able to match Chinese rapid troops’ mobilisation through its excellent infrastructure including road and rail links to Tibet from the heartland, and enormous airlift capability. Two, Chinese troops have no requirement for acclimatisation in Tibet battlefield. Indian troops would need a minimum 21 days after its relatively slow mobilisation to be ready for war. And three, China being a closed society can easily hide its ballistic missiles in Tibet, something India will not be able to do.
This is not all. Coming back to the BDC agreement, it states that, ‘the two sides… shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the LAC.’ Except for the 553km Middle sector, there is no mutual understanding on the remaining LAC in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Thus, Chinese patrols could once again walk past the LAC to where they want and stay for whatever duration they want on India land. All they have to do is assert that they are on their side of the LAC. And, unlike the Depsang incident, they, under the BDC, will not be ‘tailed’ by Indian forces. Think about the humiliation of Indian soldiers purportedly guarding the LAC at freezing heights of 10,000 feet to 18,000 feet round the year, when they will find Chinese patrols go merrily past them and they watch haplessly waiting for instructions from Delhi. The latter, under the BDC, will then activate more communication channels to negotiate status quo with China.
Given these realities, the BDC agreement has de facto demoted the military-held LAC to a frontier between India and China, akin to what it was during the heydays of the British rule in India. The word ‘frontier’ is defined as the limit of a nation’s political and military influence, while ‘LAC’ denotes the limit of national sovereignty that has to be defended at all costs. As China, today, is relatively more powerful politically and militarily, the free trespassing of the LAC will be a one-way affair. A catch-up with the Chinese growing political and military power will, for various reasons, would not be possible for India in the foreseeable future. Thus, crossing the LAC is unlikely to become a two-way affair. As Chinese patrols go deeper and deeper into India territory, are we not looking at an unfolding scenario where Sun Tzu’s famous words, ‘to defeat the enemy without a battle,’ may come true?