Strategic stability, tactical aggression

The Wen Jiabao visit proved to be a watershed in Sino-Indian relations because both sides have struck a mutually assured development paradigm despite retaining the option for conflict. As for the border dispute, it’s left for the generations (N.B. These two sentences were not written by me.)

It will take a long time, perhaps many years, for the full impact of the WikiLeaks’ disclosure of thousands of US diplomatic cables to become known. Make no mistake: this is an event of historic importance — for all governments, and not only the US. (N.B. These two sentences have no bearing to my article and were also not written by me.) 

It had been widely anticipated in India that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit would not result in the satisfactory resolution of India’s major concerns. The joint statement issued at the end of the visit on December 16, 2010, bears out the apprehensions of Indian analysts. 

Agreements for bilateral trade amounting to $16 billion were signed and the two sides agreed to raise mutual trade from $60 billion this year to $100 billion by 2015. However, India did not agree to sign a free trade agreement; instead the joint statement proposes ‘’measures to promote greater Indian exports to China with a view to reduce India’s trade deficit.’’ Six joint agreements were signed on culture, green technology, media exchanges, river data and banking, all of which are relatively less significant aspects of the bilateral relationship. 

China remained non-committal on the ticklish issue of visas being stapled to the passports of the resident of the Indian state of J&K, instead of being stamped on their passports. It reinforced Indian views that China is increasingly leaning on Pakistan in its Kashmir policy. China did not agree to either mention Pakistan as the source of terrorism or condemn the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror strikes. It also did not specifically endorse India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In turn, India did not accept a reference to the one-China policy and, instead, the principle of “mutual respect and sensitivity for each other’s concerns and aspirations” was included in the joint statement.

Relations between India and China have been fairly stable at the strategic level. Political and economic relations are much better now than these have been since the 1962 war. Mutual economic dependence is growing rapidly; and, the two countries have been cooperating in international fora like WTO and climate change negotiations. There has even been some cooperation in energy security. However, at the tactical level, China has been exhibiting a markedly aggressive political, diplomatic and military attitude. The security relationship, in particular, has the potential to act as a spoiler and would ultimately determine whether the two Asian giants will clash or cooperate for mutual gains. The major cause for this is the half-century-old territorial and boundary dispute over which the two countries fought a border war in 1962.

China continues to be in physical occupation of large areas of Indian territory. On the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh in J&K, China is in physical possession of approximately 38,000 sqkm of Indian territory since the mid-1950s. In addition, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sqkm of Indian territory to China in 1963 in the Shaksgam Valley of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir under a bilateral boundary agreement that India does not recognise. Through this area China built the Karakoram highway that now provides a strategic land link between Xinjiang, Tibet and Pakistan. China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sqkm of Indian territory in the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls Southern Tibet.

Chinese interlocutors have repeatedly claimed that the Tawang Tract, in particular, is part of Tibet and that the merger of this area with Tibet is non-negotiable. Early in 2005, India and China had agreed to identify “guiding principles and parameters” for a political solution to the five-decade-old dispute. However, in the case of Tawang, the Chinese have gone back on the agreed parameter that “settled populations will not be disturbed”.

It is not so well known that the Line of Actual Control (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. The LAC is quite different from the disputed 4,056 km long boundary between India and Tibet. The un-delineated LAC is a major destabilising factor as incidents such as the Nathu La clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung standoff of 1986 can recur. 

In fact, despite the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) signed with the Chinese in 1993 and the agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field signed in 1996, border guards of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have transgressed the LAC repeatedly to intrude into Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. They have even objected to Indian road construction efforts. These intrusions have been periodically reported in the media and discussed in Parliament. While no such incident has resulted in a violent clash so far, there have been occasions when Indian and Chinese patrols have met face to face before backing off. Such meetings have an element of tension built into them and the possibility of an armed clash can never be ruled out. 

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 difficult to understand. It can only be described as another attempt to put off the dispute “for future generations to resolve”, as Deng Xiao Ping had famously told Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. 

The military gap between Indian and China is growing steadily as the PLA is modernising at a rapid pace and India’s military upgradation plans are mired in red tape. China’s negotiating strategy is to stall resolution of the dispute till the Chinese are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can dictate terms. It is in India’s interest to strive for the early resolution of the territorial dispute with China so that India has only one major military adversary to contend with.