A feel-good agreement with China BDCA fails to address the root cause of face-offs on border

A close examination of the BDCA reveals that it falls substantially short of removing the anomalies and impracticalities of the previous agreements that have not worked well, including the Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Tranquility Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, September 7, 1993; the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, November 29, 1996; the Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, April 11, 2005; the Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in India-China Border Areas, April 11, 2005; and, the Agreement on Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, January 17, 2012.
The Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and Tibet is quite different from the disputed 4,056 km-long international boundary. The term LAC implies de facto military control over respective areas and came into use after the 1962 border war. However, the LAC is yet to be physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps. The un-delineated LAC is a major destabilising factor as major incidents such as the Nathu La clash of 1967 and the Wang Dung stand-off of 1986 can recur. In fact, the two sides have failed to even exchange maps showing their perception of the LAC except in the least contentious central sector, the Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh borders with Tibet. Even though so many agreements had been signed in the past, it has not been possible for India to withdraw a single soldier from the LAC so far despite their lofty rhetoric. It clearly shows how intractable the challenge is. 
Despite all the previous agreements, there are frequent incidents of Chinese transgression of the LAC both in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Both sides habitually send patrols up to the point at whichthe LAC runs in their perception. These patrols leave "tell-tale" signs behind in the form of "burjis" (piles of stones), biscuit and cigarette packets and other similar markers in a sort of primitive ritual to lay stake to territory and assert their claim. While no violent incident has taken place in the recent past, there have been many occasions when Indian and Chinese patrols have met face-to-face. Such meetings have an element of tension built into them and, despite the best of military training, the possibility of an armed clash can never be ruled out. An armed clash that stretches over several days and in which there are heavy casualties can lead to a larger border incident that may not remain localised.
While the government invariably advises caution, it is extremely difficult for commanders of troops to advocate a soft line to their subordinates. There is an inherent contradiction in sending soldiers to patrol what they are told and believe are Indian areas and simultaneously telling them that they must not under any circumstances fire on "intruding" or "transgressing" Chinese soldiers. This is the reason why it is operationally critical to demarcate the LAC on the ground and map. Once that is done, the inadequacy of recognisable terrain features can be overcome by exploiting GPS technology to accurately navigate up to the agreed and well-defined LAC on the ground and even unintentional transgressions can be avoided. 
Chinese intransigence in exchanging maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the western and eastern sectors, while talking of high-sounding guiding principles and parameters to resolve the territorial and boundary dispute, is neither understandable nor condonable. It can only be characterized as an attempt to put off resolution of the dispute "for future generations to resolve", as Deng Xiao Ping had famously told Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. China's obvious negotiating strategy is to resolve the territorial dispute with India when the Chinese are in a much stronger position in terms of comprehensive national strength so that they can dictate terms. 
Instead of signing a new agreement, efforts should have been made to fine-tune the operationalisation of the Agreement on Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, signed on January 17, 2012. The agreed measures include regular consultations and flag meetings or telephonic and video conferences during emergencies along the LAC. The mechanism was expected to help prevent misunderstanding between the two countries arising from incursions into each other's territory. The joint mechanism was also expected to study ways to strengthen exchanges and cooperation between military personnel on the ground. None of this has obviously happened as serious Chinese incursions continue and tensions persist, as witnessed by the deep transgression by PLA troops at Depsang new Daulat Beg Oldie in May 2013.
The BDCA has failed to address the root cause of most transgressions and patrol face-offs, that is, the non-demarcation of the LAC, which leads to varying perceptions about where it runs. As such, it is an uninspiring agreement that has not brought the two sides any closer to a final settlement of the territorial dispute and has achieved virtually nothing substantive to further even the immediate necessity of improving border management. In short, it is merely yet another "feel good' agreement.
The writer is a Delhi-based strategic analyst