By Rakesh Sood
It is clear that 2005 was the high point in terms of registering some forward movement, though incremental, in terms of managing the situation in the border areas. After 2005, summit level meetings have continued to take place regularly and some new agreements were also concluded but these did not further the boundary dispute resolution. The SRs have met regularly but were also unable to register progress on the boundary question. Part of the reason is that in recent years, the agenda of the SR’s talks has expanded and now encompasses the entire gamut of the bilateral relationship as well as exchanging views on regional and global developments, thereby diluting the focus on the core issue.
In 2012, an Agreement on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs was concluded. It provided for the Joint Secretary level officers in the respective Foreign Ministry(s) to “study ways and means to conduct and strengthen exchanges and cooperation between military personnel and establishments of the two sides in the border areas”. Art V of this Agreement states that they “will not discuss resolution of the Boundary Question or affect the Special Representatives Mechanism”.
The following year saw another Agreement on Border Defence Cooperation being concluded after a prolonged stand-off in Depsang in Ladakh. Art VI enjoined both sides not “to follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas”. It reiterated the need for exercising maximum restraint as agreed in the 2005 Protocol. Significantly, the 2012 and 2013 agreements did not reflect material progress on the LAC or boundary issue; these merely reiterated suggestions that were no longer working on the ground.
How the ground reality changed
The future is always marked by uncertainty and a policy is an attempt to provide a map for the foggy road ahead. Looking continuously into the rear-view mirror for assurance that one is on the right road creates a bias that will lead to a crisis, exactly as has happened with China. Underlying political realities had changed dramatically from 1988 but Indian policy makers and leaders found reassurance in policy continuity.
In 1988, when both countries embarked on the new chapter in their relationship, Indian GDP was $296 billion (in 2010 dollar value) and Chinese GDP was $312 billion. In per capita terms, India was marginally better off. The defence budget of both countries was at par, at $20 billion each. A decade later, in 1998, Indian GDP rose to $421 billion while China moved faster to reach a trillion dollars. Indian defence spending rose to $24 billion while Chinese spending went up to $33 billion. This gap grew larger and in 2008, as Indian GDP reached $1.2 trillion, Chinese economy was nearly four times larger at $4.6 trillion. Indian defence budget was $44 billion while Chinese budget had reached $133 billion. During the last decade, the gap has further widened; Chinese GDP is estimated at five times that of India while its defence budget has climbed to four times that of India.
A similar gap was growing in other areas too. From near zero in 1988, bilateral trade registered a modest beginning, crossing $2 billion by 1998. By 2008, China had emerged as India’s biggest trading partner with a $41 billion turnover and the imbalance was evident in India’s $21 billion trade deficit. This has only grown further to over $50 billion at present, indicating that continued engagement in the current manner was placing India at a disadvantage on account of a non-level playing field.
In other words, the growing gap in capabilities across the board was an unmistakable trend that undermined the political basis of the 1988 policy. The basic assumption in 1988 that India would be better placed after a passage of time to achieve a more acceptable resolution to the boundary dispute was no longer valid. While it is true that India had registered considerable progress between 1988 and 2008 and had improved its standing vis-à-vis many countries but relative to China, India’s position had worsened.
As the account of the discussions on boundary CBMs indicates, it is around the same time that progress in these dialogue mechanisms began to stall. References to the 21st century as the Asian century that included the rise of both China and India had been an accepted phraseology in bilateral statements but no longer found mention after 2008.
The LAC clarification process had stalled even as both countries stepped up patrolling. The number of “transgressions” reported by India began to grow to over 400 a year. India embarked on improving its connectivity infrastructure in the border areas. Since no progress had been made on clarification of the LAC and each side was engaged in more robust patrolling up to its perception of where the LAC lay, face-offs became more frequent. Transgressions became prolonged stand-offs, requiring diplomatic and political intervention. New agreements merely reiterated restraint but remained unable to address either the underlying reasons or impose restraints on patrolling. In short, it was just a matter of time that a face-off would turn violent and get out of hand and this is what happened on the night of 15 June.
A New Policy Reset
Currently, analysts are speculating more about the proximate causes that have led to the crisis. These span a range of factors – domestic compulsions on the Chinese leadership facing troubles at home, distraction from the criticism on China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, unhappiness with India’s statements following the declaration of Ladakh as a union territory last year, concerns about India’s expanding infrastructure in border areas, signalling aimed at growing Indian ties with the US as US-China ties remain locked into a downward spiral, or just part of China’s growing assertiveness also on display with Taiwan, Hong Kong and in South China Sea in recent months. However, the Indian analysis needs to dig deeper and examine the changed political drivers behind China’s behaviour.
Right now, both sides have taken firm stands but it is not in either side’s interest to escalate matters. Nevertheless, a prolonged stand-off appears likely. This will force India to review its plans on building infrastructure in border areas by ensuring adequate security and surveillance. In this case too, the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road had been in the making for years and occupying heights at vulnerable points to secure the road would have avoided the unpleasant surprise that faced us in 2020.
Since the 2020 incursions are seen as different from the recent incidents as being larger in scale and across multiple locations, it can only be concluded that the Chinese side wanted to unilaterally force India back from its perceived LAC. India has therefore sought a restoration of status quo ante, as in April. It is difficult to predict how and when this is going to be achieved through negotiations. The Chinese attempt in Ladakh seems to be similar to its salami slicing tactics in the South China Sea where the steady land reclamation has enabled it to convert atolls into islands with runways and missile defences, creating a new military reality. But suffice to say, China’s unilateral approach has forced India to rethink on the fundamental basis of the relationship by making it clear that the 1988 assumption is no longer tenable.
Therefore, what is needed is a thorough review of the three-decade old policy. It has become evident that an ambiguous LAC is unlikely to remain peaceful and tranquil. Creative ambiguity worked for a while but its time was running out, a fact that Indian policy makers should have foreseen but were somehow reluctant to accept. China did not face a similar compulsion because it had improved its relative standing and continuing ambiguity was to its advantage. Formalising an understanding of the respective perceptions is only the first step; then will come the harder challenge of resolving the differences. And in the meantime, a new set of CBMs will need to be worked out to guide activities in the grey zone of overlapping LACs, in order to prevent future incidents.
These negotiations are going to be long and contentious. Compared to the 1990s when the early agreements were concluded, today the bilateral relationship has become multi-dimensional providing both sides with additional leverages and also a stake in not allowing the situation to spin out of control. At the same time, areas of concern have also grown. In the past, it was China’s defence, nuclear and missile cooperation with Pakistan that remained a constant irritant for India but was never discussed; it still exists today and CPEC adds to it. However there is a host of other issues – trade imbalances, market access, foreign investment entry regulations, non-tariff restrictions on commercial activities, China’s growing footprint in India’s neighbourhood including in the Indian Ocean, developments in South China Sea, BRI, interpretation of free and open Indo-Pacific and role of Quad, and many more, including some that both sides have not taken up in recent years but could be revived like Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang.
In sum, since the basis of the old modus vivendi is no longer tenable, both sides need to start by asking how they visualise their relationship in the coming decades.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
Read the first part here