Strategic stability but tactical aggressiveness

As fragile bilateral relations continue to be marked with contentious issues like stapled visas, border incursions and territorial claims, the military gap between India and China is growing steadily due to the double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defence budget while India's military modernisation continues to remain mired in red tape.

CHINESE Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's recent visits to India and Pakistan achieved diametrically opposite results. His visit here fell much short of Indian expectations and failed to resolve the recent logjam in the security relationship between the two countries. However, in Pakistan he further consolidated the "all-weather" strategic partnership and, according to the joint statement, the relationship has gone "beyond bilateral dimensions and acquired broader regional and international ramifications". 
It had been widely anticipated in India that 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 US$ 16 billion were signed and the two sides agreed to raise mutual trade from US$ 60 billion this year to US$ 100 billion by 2015. (In contrast, China signed trade agreements with Pakistan worth US$ 35 billion during his visit.) 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 residents of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), instead of being stamped on their passports. 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. The visit also reinforced Indian views that China is increasingly leaning on Pakistan in its Kashmir policy. 
Relations between India and China have been fairly stable at the strategic level. Economic relations are much better now than these have been in the past. Mutual economic dependence is growing rapidly even though the balance of trade is skewed in China's favour. The two countries have been cooperating in international fora like WTO talks 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. Instability in the security relationship, in particular, has the potential to act as a spoiler and the security relationship will ultimately determine whether the two Asian giants will clash or cooperate for mutual gains. The major cause for this instability is the half-century old territorial and boundary dispute over which the two countries fought a border war in 1962. 
The pointers to the future are not particularly positive. China continues to be in physical occupation of large areas of Indian territory in J&K. On the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh, China is in possession of approximately 38,000 square kilometres of territory since the mid-1950s. In addition, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km 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. Close to this area, the Chinese 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 sq km 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. In 2005, India and China had agreed on "guiding principles and parameters" for a political solution to the territorial dispute. One important parameter was that "settled populations will not be disturbed". In the case of Tawang the Chinese have gone back on this. If such errant behavior continues, India will find it difficult to accept Chinese assurances of peaceful resolution of the territorial dispute at face value. 
The Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. 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 and the presence of Indian graziers at their traditional grazing grounds. 
Patrol face-offs are commonplace and usually end with both the sides warning each other to go back to their own territory. While no such incident has resulted in a violent clash so far, the probability of such an occurrence is high. Demarcation of the LAC without prejudice to each other's position on the territorial dispute would be an excellent confidence building measure but little progress has been made in 14 rounds of talks between the two special representatives. Under the circumstances, China's intransigence in exchanging maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the western and the eastern sectors is difficult to understand. 
The military gap between Indian and China is growing steadily as the PLA is modernising at a rapid pace due to the double-digit annual growth in the Chinese defence budget while India's military modernisation plans continue to remain 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 then dictate terms. The rapidly blossoming strategic partnership between China and Pakistan is also a major cause for concern. 
During any future conflict with either China or Pakistan, India will have to contend with a two-front situation as each will collude militarily with the other - a situation for which the Indian armed forces are not prepared. Hence, 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. 
The author is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi