Mohan Guruswamy | India-China LAC: Is give & take possible after Galwan?

The Asian Age.  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Columnists

In the Galwan Valley, China’s People’s Liberation Army found an unguarded but very strategic spot on the LAC and occupied it

Representational image/PTI

The ongoing military standoff in Ladakh at the Line of Actual Control, the de facto India-China border, represents an escalation not seen since the 1962 war. We have had many standoffs since then, but it always involved differing perceptions about the Line of Actual Control. In most sectors there is an overlap of these lines with the Indian and Chinese claim lines going beyond each other’s LAC, sometimes by a few metres and sometimes by many kilometres. But we had tested Confidence-Building Mechanisms (CBMs) in place to keep the peace. But the latest standoff at the Galwan Valley and the Depsang Plains represents a PLA ingress into a hitherto undisputed area. By doing so, the PLA has thrown down the gauntlet. How does India now respond?

In the Galwan Valley, China’s People’s Liberation Army found an unguarded but very strategic spot on the LAC and occupied it. It now places it less than 2 km from the newly-rebuilt strategic all-weather Durbuk-Daulat Beg Oldi road that supports the lone Indian outpost of DBO at the mouth of the Karakoram Pass. It happened in a sector that was supposed to be guarded by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP).

Till the recent incidents, the PLA conducted an annual exercise on the Aksai Chin and its immediate forward areas along the LAC. Every year the Indian Army moved its reserves forward to check a possible PLA move. That year the Indian Army, funked by the outbreak of Covid-19 in some formations in Ladakh, had held off. The PLA just stepped in. Just like the Pakistan Army occupied the Kargil heights back in 1999. It was a gross dereliction of duty by the home and defence ministries. China has occupied strategically vital bits of Indian territory. The irony is that they had done a Doklam on us. We had objected to a Chinese road leading to the disputed meadow in Bhutan, which we rightly surmised would threaten the Siliguri corridor, commonly referred to as the Chicken’s Neck. Here China has put another Chicken’s Neck under threat by claiming the all-weather road actually threatens it in Xinjiang.

We have left the border question to fester for much too long. It seems unresolvable now with public opinion on both sides inflamed. There was a time when, with a little bit of give and take, this contentious and now protracted problem had seemed solvable.

In 1960 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, while visiting New Delhi, suggested something akin to a status quo as a permanent solution. This was repeated in 1982 by Chairman Deng Xiaoping to India’s ambassador in Beijing G. Parthasarathy. Once again it was offered during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister to the then Indian ambassador A.P. Venkateshwaran by then Chinese PM Zhao Ziyang. When Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing in 1988, both countries decided to keep a permanent solution aside and focus on the immediate “doables”. All along India felt that the internal political situation would not allow the government of the day the room to go with it.

What is commonly referred to as the “border dispute” between India and China has now manifested itself into two distinct disputes? The first is the dispute over two large and separated tracts of territories we have agreed to leave for history to sort out. But what causes frequent friction between the two is that they do not agree on the LAC to separate the jurisdictions. But the perceptions of the LAC differ at many places, and in some by a considerable degree. To minimise the inflammability caused by active patrolling by security personnel of both sides, the two countries had a CBM in place.

This was the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) that set out norms of behaviour for both sides. The important things being that nothing of a permanent nature would be built on these disputed areas, and that the patrols will take all precautions not to confront each other. Which simply means that if they come face to face, they will both withdraw. The corollary to this is that the patrols will not tail each other either. The agreement also requires local commanders to frequently meet and exchange views and sort out local differences across the table. This CBM is now pretty much in tatters.
For three long decades since Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping met in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 1988, the two countries have been meeting to discuss the border issue, but so far, we have seen only unwillingness by both sides to forget the past. Since 2003 these talks were elevated to a high-level political dialogue between the special representatives, in India’s case the national security adviser and in China’s case an official at the level of state councillor. The first meeting at this level took place between India’s NSA Brajesh Mishra and Chinese state councillor Dai Bing Guo. We had the 22th round of this dialogue between India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval and China’s state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi in New Delhi in December 2019. Then the PLA upped the ante.

The BDCA was a major outcome of these talks, and that had by and large worked. The next logical step of these talks should have been to agree on an LAC. But unfortunately, even that is now being weighed down by aggressive nationalism driven by the social media that equates “giving up” with a national loss of face. This is something increasingly very important to both countries. We will not be seen giving up anything, even our obduracy and historical short-sightedness. Now the immediate task is to get the PLA to leave the encroachments in the Galwan Valley and the Depsang Plains without any loss of face? On the other hand, this could just be the opportunity for the two sides to settle new LACs in the three sectors.

Both India and China are now relatively prosperous and militarily powerful. This has engendered aggressive new nationalisms, leading to a hardening of hearts and arteries too. To add to the confusion, many strategic thinkers in India now labour under the illusion that when push comes to shove, the recent bonhomie between India and the United States will translate into active military and diplomatic support. They refer to the Quad, which brings together the US, Australia, Japan and India, as an instrument to take on China. But the Quad is just a fig leaf for AUKUS (Australia, UK and US). The fig leaves don’t matter. When push comes to shove, we will stand alone.

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.