Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid will visit Beijing on May 09
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30 Apr 13
Dear Mr Khurshid,
I wish you a fruitful journey next week, when you visit China to apply ointment on the "beautiful face" of Sino-Indian relations, which you observe has been marred by the "acne" of China's military intrusion into the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector in Ladakh. You and the prime minister have wisely downplayed the intrusion so far; inflammatory public statements would only make a happy ending more elusive. But please do not display the same forbearance in your official conversations in Beijing.
Be certain that the Chinese will blame these occasional confrontations on the Indian army's insistence on building up forces and infrastructure on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). You will hear that the best way to de-escalate is an immediate mutual cap on troop numbers and military infrastructure. Such an understanding, your counterpart will sagely observe, can maintain the peace until a wiser generation can resolve the border dispute (or, as India calls it, the border question).
Hon'ble Minister, do not allow yourself to be sidetracked from the central issue of the moment: a flagrant violation of the status quo through the occupation of territory that both sides claim. This is no routine patrol incursion, which is common since both sides routinely patrol up to their perceived boundaries in order to keep alive their claims. Instead, this is an escalation that establishes "facts on the ground" that would materially affect an eventual territorial settlement. Remember the Wangdung intrusion, near Tawang, in 1986? That pocket, where the Chinese had pitched up a few tents, much like they did at DBO last fortnight, continues to remain with them.
In contrast to the furious Indian response at Wangdung, where the army built up forces aggressively to dominate the Chinese camp, the Indian army has fallen in line with orders from the top, refraining from a troop build-up or even tough talk that could shut the door to a face-saving de-escalation. But remember, the Chinese style is to keep testing an opponent's resolve. In DBO, China is "taking the temperature" again. You must make it clear that --- even in the absence of a Wangdung-type troop build-up --- all options remain on India's table. The "proportionality" that you have advocated could involve a similar occupation of disputed territory by Indian troops at a selected time and place.
Naturally Your Excellency would never use crude threats, but a man of your sophistication would find the diplomatic language to indicate to Beijing a red line --- consolidation of the intrusion. If the Chinese patrol replaces tents with permanent shelters, the Indian army will conclude that they intend to remain there through winter. In that case, it will be difficult for the government to explain to voters why it is not reacting militarily to a Kargil-style occupation of Indian territory.
Your counterpart will undoubtedly repeat the statement that Chinese soldiers are on their own side of the LAC. Your response should be: "Well, what do you believe is the alignment of the LAC? You cannot claim simultaneously that your troops are on your side of the LAC; while also refusing to share with us your perception of that line."
The starkest lesson of DBO is that, without mutual agreement over where the LAC runs, or even "agreed disagreement" over both sides' view of their frontier, the uncertainty becomes unmanageable. There is the ever-present danger of routine patrols being seen as "intrusions", and a new encampment like the Chinese one at DBO being seen as territorial aggression, triggering an armed face-off.
Your Excellency, make clear to Beijing that it must exchange maps with India on which both sides have marked what they perceive as the LAC. For over 30 years now China has refused to spell out what it believes is the LAC despite repeated requests from New Delhi since December 1981, when the first round of boundary talks took place.
Article 10 of the solemn bilateral agreement of 1996 says: "the two sides agree to speed up the process of clarification and confirmation of the Line of Actual Control." China ignores this, as also repeated Indian requests in meetings of the Joint Working Group (JWG).
China has benefited from this lack of clarity by continually shifting its claim line westwards. Last Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said he had "asked the Chinese side to maintain status quo in this sector, and by status quo I mean status quo prior to this incident". The problem is that there are multiple status quos in this area. China keeps changing its patrolling pattern and India is left guessing. Today China can occupy practically any hilltop in southeastern Ladakh and claim that it is on its own side of the LAC.
For all these reasons, Mr Khurshid, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) cannot continue with its misplaced satisfaction at having activated the joint consultative mechanism. While this talk shop convenes and both sides reiterate boilerplate positions, the Chinese patrol remains in Raki Nala.
Finally, Your Excellency, the timing of this incursion --- a month before Premier Li Keqiang's visit - is hardly coincidental. China's new regime is clearly testing New Delhi's resolve, checking to see whether the MEA's wish to make the visit a success will induce it to meekly accept the incursion at DBO. Your discussions in Beijing will set the tone for the next 10 years. We are confident you will flash the steel that your predecessor, SM Krishna, did in reminding the Chinese that our sensitivities in J&K matched Chinese sensitivities in Tibet; coming closer than any Indian official before or after to reopening the Tibet question.