"You have crossed the border. Please go back"
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th May 13
On Sunday, 40-50 Chinese border guards from the paramilitary People’s Armed Police withdrew from their temporary camp at Raki Nala near the Indian outpost of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in northern Ladakh. Thus ended a 20-day face-off with Indian jawans of the Indo-Tibet Border Police (ITBP), who had responded to the arrival of the Chinese patrol on 15th Apr by establishing an Indian camp adjoining the Chinese. From early messages coming out of South Block, New Delhi appears to have made no significant concessions in resolving this dispute [The bunker at Chumar which the Indian Army consented to vacate was built as a retaliation to the Chinese intrusion into the DBO sector on Apr 15th].
Notwithstanding the hype generated by an excitable Indian media that had reported the “eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation” in dire terms, at no stage of this incident were actual hostilities imminent, or even considered. Over the last two decades, both armies have complied with a framework of bilateral agreements that were designed to prevent physical conflict. Peace has been maintained even as both countries’ troops and border guards kept alive their territorial claims by patrolling and camping in disputed areas. The agreements include the 1993 “Agreement for Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC”; the 1996 “Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field”; and a successor protocol of 2005 on implementing border CBMs. A separate mechanism for resolving border incidents, such as DBO, was signed a year ago.
These protocols and agreements specify permissible modalities for engagement. These include verbal cautions over loudspeakers, and the unfurling and display of cloth banners that inform the other patrol that it has crossed the border and should return. In the two decades since the 1993 agreement, the two sides have developed the habits and practices of armed co-existence, which has drastically reduced the possibility of actual shooting.
This restraint was in the making even before 1993. In 1986, during a crisis that bore similarities to the DBO intrusion, a Chinese patrol unexpectedly established camp at the disputed Wangdung grazing ground, along the LAC north of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The Indian Army responded aggressively with a ferocious troop and logistical build up, creating overwhelming military superiority all around the intrusion site. But no fighting occurred and the crisis ebbed after the Chinese requested for a flag meeting.
During the DBO incident, the military’s laudable restraint and the government's "tread softly" approach faced sharp criticism from an aggressively nationalistic political opposition, media and public. In fact, the civil and military wings worked in close coordination with each other in engaging with the Chinese, for which adequate credit has not been given. That is partly because, without public information about Indian and Chinese positions and about the dialogue process, there is public apprehension that national interests were being secretly bartered away. The DBO intrusion highlights the need to inform the public that eastern Ladakh (like most of the Sino-Indian border) is disputed territory that New Delhi and Beijing are negotiating over.
Similar pressures on Beijing were not apparent in the Chinese public space, largely because the controlled media there barely reported the DBO incident. Had the face-off escalated, Beijing too would have faced nationalistic demands to “teach India a lesson,” especially on the Chinese social media, which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) takes seriously. There must also have been pressure on the Chinese leadership from the predictable hardliners --- the People’s Liberation Army, and CCP bosses in Tibet and Xinjiang. It is still too early to know how this crucial internal dialogue played out in China.
As the ripples of DBO abate, both Beijing and New Delhi must jointly insulate the LAC from unintended consequences. Beijing will most likely argue during the Salman Khurshid and Li Keqiang visits this month that India must freeze troop levels and defence infrastructure along the LAC, a proposal that it has officially submitted to New Delhi. This is unacceptable, especially any halt on road infrastructure, which India must create on an emergency footing. Meanwhile, New Delhi must avoid the triumphalism that was evident in the unnecessary announcements about refurbished landing strips in DBO and Nyoma.
Crucially, New Delhi must demand that Beijing spells out its perception of the LAC and its claim line, so that Indian decision-makers can contemplate clarity rather than the creeping Chinese expansionism that has eroded trust. Understanding each other's perceptions would be a solid step towards an eventual border settlement.
Finally, as a means of generating strategic leverage, New Delhi must signal to Beijing, in carefully crafted phraseology, that India has not entirely foreclosed its options on Tibet. If Beijing continues to treat Indian interests, especially in Jammu & Kashmir, with such disdain, New Delhi could hardly continue to treat Chinese core interests like Tibet with the care that India has shown over the last 6 decades. New Delhi must walk this line with sensitivity, creating mindfulness in Beijing without openly threatening the face-conscious Chinese. While Tibet is a card that must be played, pushing too hard would be as counterproductive for New Delhi as not playing the card at all.