As the tug of war in Galwan Valley continues, the adventurism of China in Ladakh and few other places along at Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the resultant standoff between Chinese and Indian Forces has once again highlighted the complexity of the border issue between the two countries. The fact that 22 rounds of talks have taken place and the resolution of the border issue is nowhere in sight, speaks of the magnanimity of the problem. LAC irrespective of differing perceptions continues to be a compromise formula, pending the border resolution, which has its own pitfalls in bringing peace and tranquility, because perceptions can be repeatedly stretched beyond limits, if the intentions change, as has been the case with Chinese so many times. The idea of managing peace and tranquility through agreements and CBMs has not been found effective enough, after 15th June deadly scuffle by premeditated ambush of Indian troops by Chinese, junking existing CBMs, using barbaric methods like nail pinned rods to cause casualties, resulting in hand to hand fights, strong response by Indians, ending up with even more casualties on their side, and embarrassment to avoid declaring them.
Defining the Complexity of China-India Border Issue
Peoples republic of China (PRC) refused to ratify the Simla Agreement of 1914, signed between British India and Tibet, which was initialled by Chinese representative. The Indian stance on Border generally follows Johnson Line (1865) in Ladakh and Mc Mohan Line in East. When Maharaja Hari Singh signed instrument of accession Aksai Chin was part of it; hence rightfully belonged to India. India should have compelled China to accept Shimla Agreement, before recognising Tibet as part of PRC. There is therefore no mutually agreed border treaty between Independent India and PRC, and China refuses to accept any treaty signed with Tibet or earlier than annexation, when it does not suit it and selectively refers to them when it suits it’s interest, like it referred to a Treaty of 1890during Doklam Crisis which seemed advantageous to it, despite the fact that it was superseded by many other treaties later. Rightfully, China can never be trusted; hence India can also have a relook at old treaties/recognitions with China.
It is often mentioned that it has resolved its border dispute with 12 out of 14 countries, however Chinese argue that it was done on give and take principle. In China-India equation giving anything has a heavy political cost, as both sides interpret history as it suits them, having dug their heels to their respective positions, which is unlikely to change easily. Expecting India to give Tawang or China to give back Akshaichin is unlikely to be accepted by domestic constituencies on both sides. It is for this reason that every time when the talks starts on border resolution, it invariably ends with additional measures for management of undefined, undemarcated LAC.
Why is Graceful Disengagement at LAC Difficult?
LAC by definition indicates loosely demarcated areas under actual control of Chinese and Indian Forces. The term was used by Zhou Enlai in his note to Indian PM in 1959 (Not accepted by India, resorting to Forward Policy), followed by respective positions in 1960 and post 1962 conflict, with some unheld areas in between, and later used for negotiations since 1993, with a provision that it does not impact respective positions adopted by both countries on unresolved Border Issue. Both countries have their own perception of LAC and in certain areas these perception overlap (Pangong Tso). As LAC is not demarcated, Chinese, with scant regards to international agreements and obligations, use non demarcation as an opportunity to pursue their ‘Strategy of Incremental Encroachment’ by laying fresh claims (Galwan Valley) and following it up with troops buildup/infrastructure development till resisted and stop just short of conflict. An opposing build up by Indian Forces leads to ‘Standoff” each time.
The problem in resolution of standoff is that a graceful retreat becomes extremely difficult due to rising sentiments/ nationalism in respective countries, and media glare thus increasing the political cost of any compromise by either side. Galwan/ Pangong Tso is neither the first or nor the last standoff, which will continue to happen, unless the LAC is demarcated. The demarcation of LAC is doable, provided both sides “Agree to Agree”. Chinese, however, continue to drag their feet in doing so, as they fear that it will become de facto border, forcing them to forego their claims made in 1959, including Tawang and take away an opportunity to needle India, whenever it has any major divergence in strategic interests. Having developed their infrastructure up to LAC earlier than India, China does not want to let go this comparative strategic advantage by denying similar infrastructure development by India.
When can the Demarcation of LAC could Occur?
In my opinion, the delimitation and demarcation of LAC will happen only, when the political/strategic cost of not doing so will increase for China, in comparison to doing so. The scenario when it could happen is, when China faces insurmountable military pressure on South-eastern seaboard from group of countries, in response to Chinese adventurism in Indo-Pacific, forcing it to reduce one front for engagement. China, having recovered early from COVID-19, has unfairly used it as an opportunity to make quick gains in claimed areas amidst pandemic and unfair profiteering from ‘Health Silk Road’ igniting global anger. Chinese aggressiveness in South and East China Sea, blocking of global sea-lane of communication and freedom of flights, coupled with declaration of independence by Taiwan can create such conditions, along with economic decoupling, resulting internal dissent in mainland, Hong Kong, and heightened rivalry with US with accidental triggers.
China on its part will try to stop its adventurism just short of war, in consonance with Sun Tzu’s principle of ‘winning without fighting’. India will have to walk an extra mile in Indo-Pacific engagements like Quad, and target all vulnerabilities of China with like-minded countries, including economic distancing to the extent possible. Till then China and India will continue with tug of war on LAC with tents vanishing and appearing on points like Patrol Point 14 in Galwan Valley. The troops on ground will have to continue facing the problem of guarding the undemarcated LAC like a tug of war match, with risk of changed rules of engagement with Chinese, amidst total mistrust. Indian Military is on firm ground, with free hand to local commanders, ready for all contingencies to protect its country despite rhetoric, Chinese “Three Warfare” strategy, coercion and information warfare. India also has to counter Chinese ‘Strategy of Frontline States’ adding Nepal to erstwhile Sino-Pakistan nexus, as proxy against India with some smart diplomacy in global platforms, as China continues to use this strategy by pitching North Korea against US.