The 1993 agreement adds to woes of the Indian Army
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
The need for the Indian Army to match PLA’s offensive Border Management Posture has been accentuated by the 1993 ‘Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement’ (BPTA) between India and China. Signed during the visit of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to Beijing, the agreement has placed an enormous pressure for good border management on the India Army. Between 1962 and until the signing of the 1993 agreement, there were two recorded border skirmishes/show of strength incidents: the 1967 series of firings at Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim and the 1986 Sumdorong Chu crisis in Arunachal Pradesh. However, after the agreement was signed, and especially after India’s nuclear tests in 1998 when relations between the two countries nose-dived, the number of Chinese intrusions inside Indian territory increased manifold. The reason is that, consequent to the BPTA the entire 4,056km traditional border with China has been renamed the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a term which suggests a creation by military force or presence. Explaining why India decided to sign this agreement which provides unrequited concession to China, a former foreign secretary says, “There is always a pressure within the establishment to show all Prime Minister visits to China as a grand success.” Considering that India had demonstrated its military firmness in the 1986 Sumdorong Chu incident, there was little need for India to bend-backwards and fall into the Chinese trap.
The 1993 agreement has two implications. One, as both sides have agreed to call the entire 4,056km Sino-Indian border as the LAC, the McMahon line does not exist any more. Unlike the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, the LAC is not agreed on common maps (delineated), hence is not binding or sacrosanct. It is open to interpretations. Moreover, the Chinese appear to be in no hurry to tell how they define it. Worse, India is equally hesitant to share with its Parliament and people its interpretation of the LAC. Replying to a question in Parliament on 25 April 2000, the then foreign minister Jaswant Singh said, “China’s position is that the boundary (read LAC) between the two countries has not been formally delimited and that there exists a traditional customary line formed by the extent of jurisdiction exercised historically by each side. The two sides have different interpretation of the position of the traditional customary line.” It is obvious that until the delineation and demarcation of the LAC is mutually agreed, the LAC is open to changes by military presence/force. And this is precisely what the PLA has been doing.
To mark the first anniversary of FORCE in August 2004, we decided to turn east. FORCE visited Sikkim in July 2004, an area with the highest concentration of troops in the world. In the week that we spent there, FORCE travelled to both Nathu la and North Sikkim. The result was this comprehensive cover story, spanning past, present and the future. Read on
Unfortunately, New Delhi would have the people believe that the Sino-Indian border has two faces. One is of the border claimed differently by the two countries. The other is of the LAC which was imposed on India by China through the 1962 war, and which it is unwilling to define. The reality is that following the Chinese unilateral withdrawal after the 1962 war, the LAC physically came into being only in the Western Sector. This LAC was a 320km stretch from Daulat Beg Oldi to Demchok in Ladakh and had a 20km demilitarised zone on either side. India referred to the Eastern Sector (the state of Arunachal Pradesh) as the traditional border running along the McMahon Line. The Chinese did not recognise the McMahon Line, considered it illegal and claim 90,000sqkm territory of the state of Arunachal Pradesh as occupied by India.
China’s claim in Arunachal Pradesh goes back to the 1914 Simla conference between the representatives of Tibet and China which was hosted by the British- Indian foreign secretary, Sir Henry McMahon. It was a dubious meeting where Sir Henry divided Tibet into Outer and Inner regions by a line, called the McMahon line, which would make modern surveyors squirm; the thickness of the line drawn on a small scale map could mean anything up to 50km on the ground. China never ratified the 1914 treaty which it claimed was signed by its representative under duress, nor did it accept the division of Tibet. Moreover, China never promised autonomy to Tibet. This was an illusion maintained by British-India and continued up to 1959 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The disputed area between the 1914 Outer line and the McMahon line covers an area of 90,000sqkm, which according to China are the three districts of Tibet; Monyul, Loyul and Lower Zayul. For India, this area is the present state of Arunachal Pradesh, formerly called the North East Frontier Province of Assam state.
And two, the BPTA has pushed the border resolution into the distant future by adding an additional time-consuming step of first agreeing to a LAC. China has been utilising this time-bonanza to both further cement ties with the tested all-weather ally Pakistan, and nibble inside Indian territory by consolidating gains through good border management. Until the Sino-Indian border is finally resolved it would be difficult for India to utilise sizeable troops facing China for a war with Pakistan. Worse, an added burden has been put on India to match Chinese border management to delay if not completely stop Chinese occupation of and intrusions by aggressive patrolling in neutral and disputed areas inside Indian territory. This assists China in raising fresh claims on Indian land.
Realising the blunder done by the BPTA, the then Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee during his July 2003 visit to China persuaded the Chinese government to also hold the border talks at the political level. It was mutually agreed that India’s National Security Advisor would engage his Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo, who is also the executive vice-foreign minister to speed up the resolution of the border issue. After three rounds of talks by political representatives since October 2003, it is clear that, unlike on three past occasions, Beijing, this time around, perceives itself in a position of overall strength, and would not settle for a border agreement in the foreseeable future. The three missed opportunities were in 1959 and 1960 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai offered a give and take compromise to settle the border question. According to Zhou: Karakoram (the western sector) for China, the Himalayas (the eastern sector) for India, with the Tawang tract in the eastern sector to come to China. The third opportunity was in January 1980 when Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping suggested a settlement of the border issue along lines similar to the Zhou package. Unfortunately, even as the present political level talks would continue to drag on, Prime Minister Vajpayee could not resist the temptation to show his 2003 visit to China as a landmark moment. India linked the Tibet issue with Sikkim: India said in writing that Tibet is an autonomous region of China. In return, China continues to be ambiguous on the status of Sikkim.
Given that India had shown military firmness in the 1986 Sumdorong Chu incident, there was little need to sign the 1993 agreement. ‘There is always a pressure within the establishment to make PM visits to China appear a grand success,’ says a former foreign secretary
At the operational level for the Indian Army, the BPTA has two shortcomings which have worked to PLA’s advantage. One, China beguiled India in 1993 to accept the sector-by-sector approach in return for India calling the McMahon line as the LAC. Thus, a mutual troop withdrawal was de-linked from first defining the LAC. Instead, it is based upon a ‘sector wise approach.’ Such an approach adopted by mandarins in the India foreign office makes little military sense. A lesson of the 1962 war that professional military advice should be incorporated when making policies for border areas had not been learnt. How can a military theatre commander pull out troops when he does not know what he is required to defend, and what has been settled in his area of responsibility? A theatre commander should also know about his area of interest, meaning what his adjoining number is doing.
In the Indian context, it involves coordination amongst four army commanders: Western Sector is the responsibility of Northern and Western Army commanders, the Middle Sector is the operational area of Central Army commander, and starting from the Nepal-Sikkim border the Eastern Army commander takes on the disputed sector. The Chinese do not have this problem because the Tibet Autonomous Region is a single theatre command. Simply put, until the entire LAC is not mutually agreed upon, any sizeable troop withdrawal for India is unrealistic and is not likely to be accepted by the army. The truth is that until the LAC is mutually accepted, the 1993 and its follow-on agreement on ‘Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field’ signed in 1996 cannot be implemented.
Moreover, even after the LAC is settled in its entirety, the Indian Army would find it difficult to reduce substantial troops until the LAC is accepted as the border. The growing PLA ‘airlift’ capabilities makes the principle of ‘mutual and equal security’ for troops withdrawal as suggested in the agreement meaningless. The Chinese have a dual operational advantage: a growing capability to air-lift troops, and, unlike the Indian dilemma, no requirement for acclimatization of troops in Tibet.
Another issue that mocks the concept of ‘mutual and equal security’ is better intelligence gathering means with Beijing. China does not need to undertake periodic reconnaissance missions by aircraft as it already has high resolution satellites with low visitation periods in the Polar Sun Synchronous orbit. China has better human intelligence capability than India because people near the border are of Chinese ethnic stock and unlike India, China is not an open society. It is, therefore, not surprising that China has been very effective in hiding details of the numbers and types of surface-to-surface missiles in Tibet. Even if India manages to operationalize ballistic missiles against China, it would be difficult for it to mutually verify surface-to-surface missiles as agreed to in the 1996 agreement.
Sikkim resists the chilly winds blowing from China
Through the centuries, Sikkim has attracted nibblers
China has always kept India on tenterhooks
While PLA builds capabilities in Tibet, India watches on the sidelines
India should focus on improving its border management against Tibet
Chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling is an icon in Sikkim. He peers down from street hoardings, his face smiles from the front pages of the local newspapers and his name is reverentially invoked in conversation by the local population. Given that he is currently running his third term in a row since his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) came to power in 1994, his popularity is on an all-time high. As usually happens with icons, innumerable stories about him float around in the mint fresh air of Sikkim. A famous one goes that when he was a member of the legislative assembly in 1993 he raised his hand in the house to make a point. However, the Speaker, under the influence of the then chief minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari, disallowed him from speaking. Chamling took out a candle from his pocket and went around the house as if searching for something in candlelight. He ended his search by coming to the well of the House and saying in a clear voice, “I am looking for democracy in this House. Since it is not here, perhaps it is in the pockets of the chief minister.” A direct consequence of this cry for democracy was that his one-year-old party, SDF, swept the polls in 1994 and has been in power since. Born in 1950, to Nepalese-speaking parents, Chamling has authored a number of books, both in verse and prose. Apart from that, a few volumes of his collected speeches are also available. A recipient of a number of awards, including Chintan Puraskaar in 1987 for poetry, Bharat Shiromani in 1996 for national integration, public welfare and strengthening democracy and the Greenest Chief Minister of India in 1998, Chamling has successfully created an image of a visionary that elevates him from the status of a mere politician. He spoke to FORCE about the opening of the trade route and other issues related to the development of this border state.