Scant progress India-China boundary dispute and sustained dialogue

Despite the much hyped improved relations between the two Asian giants India and China, there is not much visible change of positions on the ground. But both sides are talking of an Asian century and seeking cooperation of each other to march forward in their new role as emerging power houses. There is no doubt that political and economic relations between India and China are much better today than the post 1962 war.

Mutual economic dependence is growing rapidly every year, with bilateral trade increasing at a brisk pace. Bilateral trade is expected to cross US $40 billion well before the projected period of 2010. However, despite prolonged negotiations at the political level to resolve the outstanding territorial and boundary dispute between the two countries, there has been little progress in this sensitive issue. The security relationship has the potential to act as a spoiler and will ultimately determine whether the two Asian giants will clash or cooperate for mutual gains.

China continues to be in occupation of large areas of Indian territory. In Aksai Chin, which is part of Ladakh, China is in physical possession of approximately 38,000 square kilometres (sq km) of Indian territory since the mid-1950s. In addition, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of Indian territory in the Shaksgam Valley of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, north of the Siachen Glacier, to China in 1963 under a boundary agreement that India does not recognise.

Through this area China built the Karakoram highway that now provides a strategic land link between Sinkiang, Tibet and Pakistan. China continues to stake its claim to about 96,000 sq km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh. The then Chinese Ambassador Sun Yuxi in New Delhi had reiterated this claim in a not too diplomatic manner before President Hu Jintao’s visit in November 2006. Since then, Chinese interlocutors have claimed several times that the Tawang Tract is part of Tibet. It has been implied that the merger of this area with Tibet is non-negotiable. China’s often stated official position is that the reunification of Chinese territories is a sacred duty. In the last Party Congress of Communist Party of China (CPC), there are some four resolutions pertaining to India and they talk of unifications of their perceived lost territory. More new projects have been sanctioned by Central Military Commission after the Party Congress for an enhanced military build up in case of any hostility. China has already amassed a large number of troops in Tibet and constructed the metalled Western Express Highway as well as world’s unique railway lines which can witness faster mobilisation of troops from Gansu and Qinghai region in case of war. Already the PLA has deployed two major missile bases in Tibet that can aim towards India.     

Line of Actual Control

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. The only positive development has been that after over a dozen meetings of the Joint Working Group and the Experts Group, maps showing the respective versions of the two armies have been exchanged for the least contentious Central Sector of the LAC, which is the Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh borders with Tibet where no fighting had taken place in 1962. It clearly shows how intractable the challenge is. 

Early in 2005, India and China had agreed to identify “guiding principles and parameters” for a political solution to the five-decade old dispute. Many foreign policy analysts had hailed it as a great leap forward. This is not the first time that India signed a “feel-good” agreement with the Chinese. 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 were expected to reduce the operational commitments of the army from having to permanently man the difficult LAC with China. However, it has not been possible to withdraw a single soldier from the LAC so far. 

In fact, despite the 1996 agreement, several incidents of Chinese intrusions at Asaphi La and elsewhere in Arunachal Pradesh have been periodically reported in the press and discussed in Parliament. While no violent incident has taken place in the recent past, there have been occasions when Indian and Chinese patrols have met face-to-face in areas like the two “fish-tail” shaped protrusions in the north-east corner of Arunachal Pradesh. 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 in which there are heavy casualties can lead to a larger border incident that may not remain localised.

More complicated

In the western sector in Ladakh, the LAC is even more ambiguous because the paucity of easily recognizable terrain features on the Aksai Chin makes it difficult to accurately co-relate ground and map. Both sides habitually send patrols up to the point at which, in their perception, the LAC runs. 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 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 then tell them that they must not under any circumstances fire on “intruding” 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 avoid transgressing it even unintentionally. 

In this light, the Chinese intransigence in exchanging maps showing the alignment of the LAC in the western and the eastern sectors, while talking of lofty guiding principles and parameters to resolve the territorial and boundary dispute, is neither understandable nor condonable. It can only be classified as another attempt to put off resolution of the dispute “for future generations to resolve”, as Deng Xiao Ping had famously told Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. The military gap between India and China is growing steadily. Clearly, China’s negotiating strategy is to resolve the dispute when 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 an early resolution of the territorial dispute with China so that India has only one major military adversary to contend with. India will then be able to re-deploy some of the mountain divisions of the army and a few squadrons of the Indian Air Force to its western border to gain a decisive military edge against Pakistan. India may even be able to consider ‘downsizing’ a few army divisions and utilise the savings for the qualitative upgradation of the army. It is in this direction that the Government of India must nudge the Chinese leadership during future diplomatic engagements.

(The author is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, Delhi.)