India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made firm and thoughtful statements in the two Houses of Parliament on September 15 and 17 concerning the situation in Ladakh. Apart from lauding the indomitable courage and readiness of India’s armed forces to deal with any eventuality to protect the country’s territorial integrity, he gave a broad overview of the boundary question and the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
One of his key points was that there is no commonly delineated LAC in the border areas and that after 2003, the LAC clarification exercise ground to a halt due to China’s intransigence. China had agreed in the 1993 “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas” that, pending an ultimate resolution of the boundary question, the two sides shall strictly respect and observe the LAC. Further, there was agreement that, when necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the LAC where they have different views regarding its alignment. Article X of the 1996 “Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas” also commits the two sides to speed up the process of clarification and confirmation of the LAC in order to arrive at a common understanding.
It is clear that without exchanging maps depicting each other’s LAC, a common understanding will remain elusive. Even after reaching that goal, there would remain the challenge of ensuring that both sides refrain from activities in and along the overlapping areas that threaten peace and tranquillity. Confirmation of the LAC presupposes its delineation on a map and, thereafter, demarcation on the ground, of a single, mutually accepted line. This is an altogether more difficult task since it may entail territorial adjustments. So far, the first step of clarifying each other’s perception of the LAC has only been carried out in the middle sector.
Why has China declined to continue the LAC clarification exercise? In the western sector, China’s so-called LAC of November 7, 1959, is essentially coterminous with its boundary claim line, except in Demchok where it falls short. In some places, the post-1962 variant of its LAC went beyond the line that China had claimed before the conflict. When India-China border talks recommenced in December 1981, the Chinese side had essentially reiterated the “package proposal” first conveyed by Deng Xiaoping to then Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1979, and subsequently aired through Indian journalists, suggesting a settlement based on the de facto LAC in the eastern and western sectors. However, at the crucial Sixth Round in 1985, the Chinese did a volte-face. They claimed that the largest dispute lay in the eastern sector and that India would have to make substantial concessions, to which China would reciprocate with corresponding adjustments in the western sector. China subsequently never clarified the details.
China’s reluctance to clarify the LAC today stems from its specious position that India’s LAC claims are exaggerated concerning its actual control and effective jurisdiction. Little does this argument take into account the fact that China itself had never physically controlled any part of Aksai Chin until the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rolled into Xinjiang and Tibet in 1949 and 1950, respectively. Thereafter, the story of the Chinese LAC is one of the nebulous claims followed by an incremental acquisition of territory.
The recent meetings in Moscow between the defence ministers and foreign ministers of India and China, in quick succession, have provided an opportune moment for both sides to reduce tensions. The five-point consensus reached by the foreign ministers recognised the importance of dialogue, disengagement and bilateral confidence-building measures. The joint press release of the 6th round of senior commanders meeting is encouraging, since it speaks of strengthening communication, avoiding misunderstandings and refraining from any further action, including build-up of troops and unilateral attempts to alter the ground situation. In his statement at the 75th Session of the UNGA on September 22, President Xi Jinping made two key points — that China has no intention to fight a Cold War or “hot war” with any country, and that China will continue to narrow differences with others through dialogue and negotiations.
The bilateral consensus and subsequent pronouncements offer India and China an opportunity to break the impasse. The consensus reached so far can be further buttressed by both sides reiterating at their next meeting a key formulation contained in Article 1 of the 1993 agreement, that “neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means”. This, of course, requires China to sincerely walk the talk by refraining from unilateral action and military means to address differences. It would also require China to stop insisting on a unilateral interpretation of the LAC and to disengage meaningfully its unilateral military deployments that triggered the escalation in the first place.
Henceforth, the focus should shift to the maintenance of the status quo along each other’s perception of the LAC and within the overlapping areas in many of which both sides have patrolled in the past. It is here, as India has made clear to China, both through diplomatic and military channels, that any unilateral attempt to change the situation is unacceptable.
Despite the unrealistic claims made by the Chinese mouthpiece Global Times, the military balance in the border areas in eastern Ladakh is, in fact, fairly symmetrical. It is a tribute to India’s armed forces that neither the difficult terrain nor inclement weather has prevented them from responding robustly to the Chinese build-up in Ladakh, leaving Beijing in no doubt that any adventurism would prove costly.
By adopting the path of peaceful negotiations that President Xi mentioned in his UN address, China stands to benefit from a much-needed image makeover at a time when it faces wide-spread opprobrium for its unilateralism, aggression and “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
The last fundamental jolt to bilateral relations was in May 1998, when China had abruptly cancelled all engagements in the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests. The exception then was a pre-scheduled meeting of the Experts Group of Diplomatic & Military Officials (EG), led by this writer on the Indian side, which was used to gradually restart the process of engagement, leading to the visit of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh a year later and culminating in President K R Narayanan’s state visit in May 2000.
What is encouraging about the situation today, as compared to May 1998, is that dialogue has remained intact at all levels. It is noteworthy that while expressing India’s firm resolve to defend its territory, the defence minister also alluded in his speeches in Parliament to the desire to address the current situation through dialogue. Taken together, these recent developments provide an opening to China to grasp the nettle, and to recognise its own interest in building enduring ties with a large and populous neighbour like India, whose friendship and goodwill will continue to play a crucial role in endorsing the “peaceful rise of China”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 24, 2020 under the title ‘An opening in the impasse’
The writer, a former Ambassador of India and China specialist, is currently the director general of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Views are personal
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