By Rakesh Sood
There is an old saying – coming events cast their shadows before them. This is certainly true in India-China relations. For three years prior to the 1962 war with China, there were clear signs that disagreements on the border were becoming sharper but Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was unwilling to believe that China would resort to war.
And yet again, in recent years India has ignored the writing on the Chinese wall, assuming that the slew of agreements signed, beginning in 1990s would ensure a peaceful border. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was perhaps so convinced of the virtues of his personal diplomacy with President Xi Jinping over 18 summits since 2014 that the darkening shadows cast by the cumulative evidence of increasing incursions and what these implied were disregarded. Even as the official statements talked of disengagement to ease the 45-day stand-off, the gloves came off and more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the fighting at Galwan Valley in Ladakh on the night of 15-16 June. Unconfirmed reports put the number of Chinese casualties at over 40.
These are the first casualties since October 1975 when four Indian soldiers from Assam Rifles were ambushed at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh. In keeping with the three-decade old understanding, no shots were fired; the present casualties resulted from iron rods, batons studded with barbed wire, stones and hand to hand combat which only makes it more grisly. Why have things come to such a pass when India and China have concluded multiple agreements regarding maintain peace and tranquillity and confidence building measures during the last three decades? How did India fail to register the changing ground reality?
The current priority will be to restore normalcy to the border through negotiations leading to disengagement and restoration of status quo ante. However, the important challenge is for India to undertake a deeper examination that has been long overdue about the premises on which its China policy has been conducted in recent decades. Growing evidence in the last decade would indicate that these premises are in need of review and many of the understandings based on them have outlived their utility.
The 1988 opening with China
The process of re-normalising ties with China after the 1962 war began in 1988 with the visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi when both countries agreed to put the boundary dispute on the backburner and focus instead on building economic, commercial and cultural aspects of the relationship so that a more conducive environment could be created over time that would enable both sides to address the boundary issue. A Joint Working Group on Boundary Question was also set up to keep matter under review.
The underlying thinking on both sides was that while neither side was in a position in 1988 to be able to achieve an acceptable solution to the boundary dispute, hopefully, after a passage of time, it would be better placed to reach an outcome that would be better and more acceptable. Such an assumption on both sides would only be natural and reflective of a sense of pragmatism that led to the shift in the relationship in 1988.
The first major development thereafter was the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, concluded in 1993. The clunky title reflected a compromise. The concept of a Line of Actual Control (LAC) had been suggested by the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to Prime Minister Nehru in his letter dated 7 November 1959 “as the line up to which each side exercises actual control”. This was significant for settling the boundary dispute in the western sector while in the eastern sector, the Chinese leader suggested that the LAC coincided broadly with the 1914 McMahon line. Nehru rejected the notion because India considered the India-China boundary in the western sector to be defined by the 1865 Johnson Line, a point disputed by China.
Following the 1962 war, China asserted that it had withdrawn 20 kms behind its claimed LAC, a notion that India had never accepted. India took the stand that China had illegally occupied Aksai Chin area which was part of Indian territory. The language of the 1993 Agreement marked a shift by acknowledging the LAC. The shift was justified on the ground that the reference to the LAC was without qualifying it either as the 1959 or the 1962 LAC; this enabled India to claim that it interpreted the reference as its own version of the LAC.
Para 1 of the 1993 Agreement commits both states to resolve the boundary question “through peaceful and friendly consultations” and that pending an ultimate solution, “the two sides shall strictly respect and observe the line of actual control between the two sides”. However, given that India and China did not share a common understanding of the LAC, the 1993 Agreement added “In case the personnel of one side cross the line of actual control, upon being cautioned by the other side, they shall immediately pull back to their own side of the line of actual control . When necessary, the two sides shall jointly check and determine the segments of the line of actual control where they have different views as to its alignment”. This fudge or creative ambiguity lay at the heart of the 1993 Agreement.
This was followed three years later by the 1996 Agreement on Confidence-Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. Since India and China perceived the LAC differently, any use of this term had to be accompanied with the phrase “in the India-China Border Areas”. Both sides agreed to reduce military presence in these areas and also added constraints on the size and nature of military exercises in these areas. Both sides also committed not to “open fire” within two kilometres of the line of actual control. Evidently this restraint was observed at Galwan even though more barbaric means were employed.
A significant addition was in Article X – “Recognising that the full implementation of some of the provisions of the present Agreement will depend on the two sides arriving at a common understanding of the alignment of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas, the two sides agree to speed up the process of clarification and confirmation of the line of actual control”. It reflected the realisation that differing perceptions of the LAC carried the potential for misunderstanding and conflict. The common understanding was to be reached through exchange of maps, an exercise completed for the middle sector (pertaining to the border falling in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh) in 2001 as this was the least contentious; thereafter the process stalled.
Realising that the Joint Working Group on Boundary Question was unable to get around politically sensitive boundary issues, a new dialogue channel was added following PM Vajpayee’s visit to China in 2003. Both sides agreed to appoint a Special Representative (SR) “to explore from the political perspective of the overall bilateral relationship the framework of a boundary settlement”. On the Indian side, the National Security Adviser has been the SR while on the Chinese side it has been the State Councillor; currently Foreign Minister Wang Yi also holds this position and is the SR. Twenty-two rounds of talks have been held between the SRs but clearly, the “clarification and confirmation” of the LAC as well as the contours of a “boundary settlement” have remained elusive.
There was a sense of optimism when the Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question was concluded in 2005 but it turned out to be short lived. Among the principles identified were “the principle of mutual and equal security”, aligning the boundary “along well-defined and easily identifiable natural geographical features” and safeguarding “due interests of their settled populations in border areas”. These were widely interpreted to mean that Arunachal Pradesh which had a settled population would remain part of India and in the western sector, India would have to make adjustments in keeping with geographical features so that Chinese connectivity through Tibet to Xinjiang was not impaired. However, the SR level talks failed to sustain the 2005 momentum and translate these expectations into forward movement.
By 2005, the number of incidents where patrols of both countries often came face to face had started growing. Accordingly, a Protocol to the 1996 Agreement on CBMs was concluded 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. Article IV of the Protocol defines the procedure for exercising restraint in such situations – On coming face to face, both sides were to refrain from advancing further, return to their bases, inform their respective Headquarters to enable consultations, not use or threaten to use force, treat each other with courtesy and refrain from provocative actions. However, these provisions have been ignored in recent years as there have been increasing reports of pushing and shoving and stone throwing causing injuries though neither side suffered fatal casualties till the present showdown in Galwan area.