A grazier carries two lambs on his way down from the high altitude pastures along the McMahon Line to lower altitudes for winter
by Ajai Shukla
[This article was originally published in RUSI Newsbrief (Vol. 34, No. 1, January 2014), at http://www.rusi.org/
The regular fulmination on Indian television news over intrusions by Chinese patrols into territory claimed by India belies the reality that the Sino–Indian border is one of India’s most stable. The last serious clash on the 4,057-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto border between Asia’s two largest militaries – occurred in 1967. The last time Indian soldiers died at the hands of the Chinese was in 1975, when four Indian troopers were shot dead at the Tulung La pass in Arunachal Pradesh. Yet perceptions in India are shaped less by the last thirty-nine years of peace than by its humiliating defeat in the 1962 Sino–Indian War – a short, but decisive, Chinese punitive campaign provoked by a failure to reach political accommodation on disputed territory along the Himalayan border. So scarred is India’s national psyche by what is often portrayed as a betrayal by China that even today many Indians regard even legitimate Chinese activity on the LAC as devious.
This is partly because the Indian – like the Chinese – public remains ill-informed about the arcane and multilayered quarrel. There is, firstly, a territorial dispute over some 130,000 km2 of land, split across three separate areas – the western, central and eastern sectors. Of this land, 70 per cent is in India’s possession, while the rest is with China. Negotiations are making only fitful progress, but are cordial and regular, and the dispute holds little potential for an escalation into armed conflict.
Greater scope for confrontation lies in a subsidiary dispute over where exactly the LAC lies. This de facto border, essentially the line to which Chinese troops withdrew at the end of the 1962 war, is disputed in fourteen places. Neither country physically deploys troops all along this rugged border; instead, military posts are located in more habitable areas, usually many kilometres short of the LAC, from which both sides send out patrols to demonstrate ownership.
It is in relation to these disputed areas of the LAC that accusations of incursions mainly arise, with both Indian and Chinese patrols physically visiting the border they respectively claim, even though this means crossing the line claimed by the other side. When the activist Indian media gains access to reports of ‘intrusions’ – dutifully documented by both militaries – it whips up a fine indignation over ‘Chinese aggression’. The tamer Chinese media never reports these incidents.
Beijing and New Delhi have long recognised the danger of hot-headed tactical commanders triggering crises through patrol confrontations on an unregulated border. Since 1993, they have negotiated a series of agreements detailing procedures to ensure a peaceful border. The first of these, the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC, signed in September 1993, is often referred to as the ‘mother agreement’. It has been elaborated on since with agreements concerning confidence-building measures and their implementation, in November 1996 and April 2005 respectively; processes for consultation and co-operation in January 2012; and, most recently, the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of December 2013.
These agreements reinforce one another, even specifying standard operating procedures that both sides must follow when patrols come face-to-face in disputed sections – including, for example, the unfurling of a large banner to inform the other patrol (in two languages) that it has intruded. If the other patrol does not withdraw after the banner is displayed twice, both patrols are required to withdraw to their permanent locations.
Such choreographed encounters take place routinely between Asia’s two most potent armies, but only twice in the last decade – in 2008 and 2013 – has the situation escalated beyond this. Most recently, in April 2013, a Chinese patrol failed to withdraw from a disputed section of the LAC in Ladakh, pitching up camp instead. It is believed that this was done with a very specific purpose – to signal to New Delhi the urgency of concluding the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, which China had proposed in January and which was close to being finalised. As in 2008, this incident was resolved through dialogue.
Beijing and New Delhi realise that a mutually delineated LAC would end the patrol ‘incursions’ that have the potential to roil relations – as explicitly acknowledged by the 1993 and 1996 border agreements, with the latter noting the need for a ‘common understanding of the alignment of the line of actual control in the India–China border areas’. It then states that the two sides ‘agree to exchange maps indicating their respective perceptions of the entire alignment of the line of actual control as soon as possible’.
Yet Indian commentators frequently accuse China of stalling by refusing to take even the first step: providing maps marked with the Chinese version of the LAC. In fact, both sides have reason to be wary of exchanging such maps, given the opportunity this provides for them to present inflated claims in order to establish a favourable bargaining position. This could in turn create more disputed sectors beyond the current fourteen, thereby increasing the risk of confrontation, since both militaries would be obliged to patrol the claimed areas.
Besides patrol confrontations, the Sino–Indian border has also witnessed an ongoing tussle involving the border populace – nomadic graziers who meander with their herds (usually yaks and ponies) over high-altitude pastures in close proximity to the LAC. Each grazier village exercises traditional and well-established territorial rights to several pastures, and both Indian and Chinese militaries put pressure on their graziers to assert their rights by keeping their herds in the pastures as long as possible. While Indian administrators woo the Tibetan graziers, garnering a degree of goodwill, Chinese border guards often threaten Indian graziers and occasionally rough them up. With Indian administrators reluctant to make an issue of this, or provide protection, healthcare, education or essential supplies to their nomadic border population, the latter increasingly favours jobs in towns in the hinterland. This is causing a gradual depopulation of border areas and a consequent dilution of India’s claims. Thus the chief minister of India’s border state of Arunachal Pradesh, Nabam Tuki, recently described this as a strategic problem, warning that border populations must be supported in order ‘to establish our territorial sovereignty’.
Beyond issues regarding the LAC, the broader territorial dispute between India and China, counterintuitively, poses less of an immediate danger of conflict. In official discussions, the dispute has been compartmentalised into three sectors. The ‘western sector’, some 38,000 km2 held by China, consists mainly of a high-altitude wasteland called Aksai Chin, which lies between India’s Ladakh and China’s Xinjiang and Tibet regions. The smaller ‘central sector’ comprises 2,000 km2 of Indian-held territory on the border between India’s Uttarakhand state and Tibet. The contentious ‘eastern sector’, a sparsely populated 90,000 km2, is today the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China, which also claims this area, refers to it as ‘Southern Tibet’.
Until the 1962 war, India refused to even accept that such a territorial dispute existed. Only in 1981 did the two sides begin structured border negotiations, with officials holding eight rounds of talks between 1981 and 1988, the year Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made a breakthrough visit to Beijing. In 1988, India and China set up a joint working group, which held fourteen meetings in the years to 2002. While the group made no headway in resolving the territorial dispute, its big success lay in negotiating the confidence-building measures that have prevented border clashes over the disputed LAC.
With the arrival of the twenty-first century, it became increasingly clear that there was little hope of resolving the territorial dispute through discussions between officials. In 2003, both sides appointed ‘special interlocuters’ with the mandate of searching for a political key to the territorial dispute. Sixteen rounds of talks have been held since, the two sides signing an Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the China–India Boundary Question only in 2005.
The next step will be to arrive at a framework agreement for a final settlement, after which the actual delineation of the new border can take place. Yet there is little sense that this will happen in the near future. India is apparently willing to agree to an ‘east-for-west’ settlement, according to which it would concede Aksai Chin to China, keep Arunachal Pradesh in return, and make minor adjustments in the central sector. However, China insists on some concessions in Arunachal Pradesh – and in particular the sensitive Tawang area. It would be politically unfeasible for India to make such a concession, however, largely because of the emotive value of Tawang – the area in which the 1962 war began.
As such, with little hope of a resolution to the dispute in the near future, India is beefing up its defences on the border. Four new divisions, with some 80,000 soldiers, are reinforcing the seven divisions that already defend the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Two of these will form part of a mountain strike corps that will carry out offensives that stretch into the Tibetan plateau. Two new armoured brigades, with more than 500 T-90 tanks and BMP-2s, are also being raised, one of which will operate in Ladakh and the other in the northeast. Meanwhile, two squadrons of Su-30MKI fighters have been deployed to the Indian Air Force (IAF) bases of Tezpur and Chabua in Assam, and more are on the anvil. The IAF is also upgrading five more air bases and a string of Second World War-era advanced landing grounds that will facilitate the operation of large helicopters, light fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles along the border. Six squadrons of the indigenous Akash anti-aircraft missile system will also soon guard the air space along the Eastern Himalayas.
Yet this military build-up will be of little use without major improvement to India’s network of roads near the border. While China’s quality road and rail infrastructure in Tibet would enable it to quickly assemble an estimated fifteen divisions of the People’s Liberation Army for a lightning offensive, India’s creaky road network (with no railway in the vicinity) could not facilitate an effective counter-deployment. Progress in improving the seventy-three critically and strategically important roads along the LAC – as described by Defence Minister AK Antony in December – is slow, partly because of the difficult Himalayan terrain over which they run, but also because India’s Border Roads Organisation does not have the capacity both to maintain existing roads and to build new ones. Therefore, with India lagging China in both force levels and infrastructure, New Delhi is ill-prepared to respond militarily to any escalation in tensions. As such, a full-blown war might only lead to further scarring of the Indian psyche.
Former colonel in the armoured corps and Strategic Affairs Editor for Business Standard, a leading Indian daily newspaper.