‘No LAC’ In India-China Accord: Can Status Quo Ante Now Change? 

Joint statement uses ‘border areas’ instead of ‘LAC’. This may mean the definition of status quo ante could change.

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Opinion
5 min read
Image of the site of the May 20202 India-China clash, and an illustration of a radar, used for representational purposes.
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Is it an illusion, or are we really seeing some kind of a light that is visible in the dreary tunnel of of Ladakh? The joint statement issued by the two countries following the Thursday (10 September) meeting between their respective Foreign Ministers, S Jaishankar and Wang Yi in Moscow, at the sidelines of an SCO meet, is being hailed as the ‘harbinger of peace’.

The language of the statement is anodyne, and dependent on a lot of ‘ifs’, but the very fact that a ‘joint’ statement was issued is a plus point: it’s the first good news in a week when it appeared that India and China were drifting towards an armed clash in the Pangong Tso area.

The joint statement encapsulated a five point agreement between the two sides to:

  1. Be guided by the consensus of the leaders (PM Modi and President XI) on developing relations and preventing differences to become disputes
  2. The need for the border forces to continue their dialogue, ‘quickly disengage’, and ease tensions
  3. Abide by the agreements and protocols on the Sino-Indian border issues to maintain peace and tranquility on the borders
  4. Continue the dialogue through the Special Representative mechanism, involving NSA Ajit Doval and Wang Yi, as well as the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on the India-China border issue at the Joint Secretary level
  5. To expedite and conclude new CBMs to maintain peace and tranquility

‘Number Of Chinese Troops & Equipment On LAC Not In Accord With 1993 & 1996 Agreements’

In his meeting with Wang Yi, EAM Jaishankar had spoken of the largely positive trajectory of Sino-Indian relations and the fact that the border areas had seen peace and tranquility most of the time. The relations had developed depth and involved a range of domains. The recent incidents in Ladakh had inevitably affected the bilateral relationship and therefore, there was need for urgent settlement of issues.

He pointed out that the number of Chinese troops and the equipment they had with them on the LAC were not in accord with the 1993 and 1996 agreements. Indeed, there was no explanation as to why they were there in the first place.

He told Wang Yi that the immediate task was to ensure a “comprehensive disengagement of troops” in all the areas of friction. The timing and phasing of the process could be worked out by military commanders.

According to the Chinese media, Wang Yi told S Jaishankar that the ties between the two countries had come to a crossroads, but he believed that the difficulties could be overcome.

Speaking a day later at a press conference after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Wang Yi said that both India and China were ready to ease tensions and expected that the five point agreement would be implemented effectively. But he once again repeated the Chinese position – that the provocative acts were the ‘handiwork of Indian personnel’, and said that the recurrence of shooting incidents must stop, and all personnel and equipment that had trespassed at the border must be moved to de-escalate the situation.

Snapshot
  • On Friday, 11 September, CDS Rawat told a Parliamentary Standing Committee that the Indian Armed Forces were ready for any eventuality. He informed them that the Army had now taken sufficient steps to foil any attempt by China to change or alter the LAC.
  • If the two sides follow the trajectory of the five point agreement, the next set of steps will be decided at the sixth round of the high-level military talks which is scheduled to be held soon.
  • There has been talk of creating ‘border zones’ in areas where the two have differences.
  • Now, as former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar points out, the joint statement no longer speaks of the LAC, but uses the term ‘border areas’.
  • This could well mean that the definition of ‘status quo ante’ itself could change.

At What Stage Has The India-China Problem Got Stuck?

In a comment after the joint statement, the Global Times, China’s belligerent Communist Party newspaper, waxed eloquent and said that the joint statement and the five point agreement “marked a substantial step in cooling down the current border situation, exceeding the expectations of most international observers.”

It added that this could well create conditions “for a possible future meeting between the leaders of the two countries.” But it added a caveat – that everything depended on whether “the Indian side can truly keep its word.”

The Indians put forward their own caveat on Friday, 11 September, when General Bipin Rawat, the CDS, told a Parliamentary Standing Committee that the Indian Armed Forces were ready for any eventuality. He informed them that the Army had now taken sufficient steps to foil any attempt by China to change or alter the LAC.

If the two sides follow the trajectory of the five point agreement, the next set of steps will be decided at the sixth round of the high-level military talks which is scheduled to be held soon.

The first stage now will be disengagement, and working it out effectively will set the stage for the de-escalation process. But this is where the problem has been stuck ever since limited disengagement was worked out in the Galwan River Valley.

Could Definition Of ‘Status Quo Ante’ Change At This Stage?

A positive interpretation of the five point agreement would see a qualitative shift in the engagement between the two countries. What could be the nature of the new Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) that Clause 5 of the agreement speaks off? For some time now, there has been talk for the need to move away from the usage of ‘Line of Actual Control’. There has been talk of creating ‘border zones’ in areas where the two have differences.

Now, as former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar points out, the joint statement no longer speaks of the LAC, but uses the term ‘border areas’. This could well mean that the definition of ‘status quo ante’ itself could change.

Navigating China’s Complex Govt & Admin Structure

But before all this, the mandarins in Beijing need to be on board. It is safe to assume that EAM Jaishankar has the confidence of the prime minister. But the Chinese system is infinitely more complex and bureaucratic. For example, Wang Yi, who is Foreign Minister and State Councillor (Cabinet rank minister), is not a member of the body which really makes Chinese foreign policy — the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, chaired by Xi and whose director is Yang Jichei, Wang Yi’s predecessor, who also happens to be a Politburo member which Wang Yi isn’t.

The second important entity is the PLA. Unlike our system where the External Affairs Ministry is the nodal one for foreign affairs, in China it is different. When it comes to the border where the military is deployed, the PLA has a greater say.

So it is one thing for Wang Yi to arrive at a set of agreements, but quite another to implement them if the PLA is not on board.

Now, of course, Xi is the chairman of everything — the foreign affairs commission and the central military commission. At the end of the day, the buck stops on his desk, and so does the fate of the agreement.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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