The statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on the India-China Army Commanders meeting that took place on Saturday, 6 June, was anodyne. Expecting anything more at this stage would be premature.
The operative line of the statement is that “the two sides will continue the military and diplomatic engagements to resolve the situation and to ensure peace and tranquility in the border areas.”
Having heard each other out – at the Chusul-Moldo point on the Line of Control, near Pangong Tso Lake – in two sessions totalling six hours, India’s 14 Corps Commander Lt Gen Harinder Singh and the South Xinjiang Military District Commander Maj Gen Liu Lin wanted their respective headquarters in New Delhi and Beijing to weigh in on the issue, before making any commitments to each other, let alone revealing the outcome to the media.
On Friday, there had been a video conference between the Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Navin Srivastava and the Director-General in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) Wu Jianghao, to discuss bilateral relations, including the Ladakh issue.
Note a key point here. Unlike India, where the MEA and the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval are responsible for the border policy, in China, the PLA is a power unto itself and it may or may not consult, or even inform the MOFA of issues.
The two meetings on Friday and Saturday suggest that getting the Chinese to back off from the positions they have taken in the Galwan Valley, Gogra/Hot Springs and Pangong Tso could take time.
Given the systematic manner in which the PLA has acted, it would suggest that the process would not be easy, since the action itself is not the reflex of some local commander, but something carefully thought through with a particular end in view.
The problem, however, is to determine just what that end could be, taking into account the possibility that China is working to obtain more than one goal.
What the events of the past month and more are signalling is a breakdown of the long and laboriously-constructed Confidence Building Measures (CBM) regime, that had been established to maintain peace along the LAC.
If Beijing is not willing to move back from the positions it has seized in this period, the past CBMs stand nullified and we could see a tit-for-tat process of both sides occupying suitable positions on the LAC.
This would be dangerously escalatory. And the Chinese should be forewarned that with the improvements in the infrastructure on the Indian side and our denser deployments along the LAC, they could find the going tougher than they may have anticipated.
Confidence Building Measures
The first CBMs arose from the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (BPTA). This gave rise to the very notion of a “Line of Actual Control (LAC)” marking their border on the Himalayas. Since there were varying perceptions regarding where the LAC lay, they committed themselves to jointly checking and fixing the parts of the line where they had “different views as to its alignment”.
Associated with this was the notion that the two sides would progressively reduce their military deployments along the LAC to a “minimum level”, based on the principle of “mutual and equal security”. This far-reaching agreement was aimed at not only calming the LAC, but building a peaceful trajectory to Sino-Indian relations.
The follow-on second CBM was the 1996 agreement on “Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas”, spelt out some measures to clarify the LAC and to work out limits of their respective militaries and various armaments such as tanks, infantry combat vehicles, howitzers, SAMs and SSMs on the LAC. Combat aircraft and helicopters were barred from flying within 10 km of the LAC.
A decade later came the third big military CBM, which was the 2005 “Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas”, which was essentially built on the 1996 agreement.
The agreement spelt out the standard operating procedures on what would happen when patrols met each other on the territory that both countries claimed. They would display a first banner emblazoned, “This is Indian/Chinese territory”. They would then flash the second banner, on which would be written, “Turn around and go back to your side”. Instances when these banners had to be shown were later termed “face-offs”.
Since 2008, alarmed at the Indian actions in strengthening their border defences, China began proposing that the two sides sign a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). Beijing somewhat ingenuously wanted India to freeze border construction, arguing that it was not necessary in the light of the other CBMs. But India demurred.
In January 2012, the two sides signed a fourth CBM on the establishment of a working mechanism for consultation and coordination on India-China border affairs. This was seen as a move to replace the old joint working group process that linked the two foreign ministries. But this was not enough to prevent the Depsang face-off in March 2013.
Following the event, the fifth agreement, BDCA was finally signed on 13 October 2013. Significantly, while all the other CBMs and MoUs were signed by civilian officials, the signatories of the BDCA were India’s Defence Secretary and Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA.
It was evident then, and it should be now, that the PLA plays an autonomous role in shaping Chinese foreign policies.
This agreement reiterated the previous agreements and enhanced the interactions of the military operations departments and the defence ministries. The two countries agreed that even while observing the provisions of the past agreements, they would not tail the patrols of the other side in areas where there was no common understanding of the LAC.
Subsequently, the PLA wanted to discuss a sixth pact which would be a code of conduct on the border areas. In his visit to China in 2015, Prime Minister Modi strenuously advocated that the two sides must take measures to resolve their border issues, and if not, return to the 1993 process of clarifying the LAC. The Chinese side-stepped the issue saying that the process of clarifying the LAC had “encountered difficulties.”
The process of clarification was agreed to through the 1993 and 1996 agreements. The two sides exchanged maps revealing their perceptions of where the LAC lay. Then, in 2000, they exchanged maps of the western sector.
But, according to Indian officials, so varied was the perception of the LAC here, that the Chinese side called off the process. The Chinese side clearly sees an advantage in an unsettled LAC, and after the BDCA failed to resolve all the issues, they began suggesting that the outstanding problems could be incorporated in a CoC that the two sides would adhere to.
All these agreements understood that there were differing perceptions of the LAC. To paraphrase the witty general: The Chinese have a version of the LAC, and the Indians have their own; and then you have the Chinese understanding of where the Indians place the LAC and an Indian view of the Chinese perception of their LAC.
But these differing perceptions were limited to 14-18 points along the LAC and both sides patrolled to where they saw their LAC. The CBMs were aimed at reducing – if not eliminating – tensions arising from this. But now, the Chinese seem to be suggesting that those agreements are no longer valid – they will not let the Indians do what they have been doing all this while. If this is indeed so, we are in for difficult times.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)