Year 2013 has witnessed new developments on the unresolved India-China border. Just as India’s foreign policy elite was assessing the implications of a new leadership in Beijing, the Depsang incident occurred in April.
There is still no official assessment on what prompted China to enliven the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by deploying a handful of PLA border guards for nearly three weeks in a disputed sector of eastern Ladakh.
China: Understanding the Depsang Valley Face-off
Analysts have offered several interpretations. One view argues that China’s civil-military system has become less coordinated and the Depsang incident was a local initiative by the regional PLA command. This view could explain away the incident, but there is little evidence to suggest this is what actually happened. Several Sinologists recognise that the Xi Jinping regime is re-asserting its authority over the PLA, especially after the 2012 Bo Xilai scandal. Bo Xilai, a provincial leader who was subsequently expelled from the Party, is known to have crafted an informal alliance with sections of the security services and the PLA leadership to establish decentralised, parallel power structures bypassing the formal Party command structure in Beijing. Indeed, it is probably this development that prompted former President Hu Jintao to make way for Xi Jinping in a clean transfer of power. The Central Military Commission, the highest decision making body on political-military matters, is now under the control of the new civilian leadership.
Another view holds that China sought to impress its rising power upon India, and the ease with which it could present a fait accompli on the LAC by creating new facts on the ground or laying precedence for future claims. It is argued that such provocations are consistent with China’s assertive posture across maritime East Asia. While China does have a geo-strategic advantage on the LAC, its territorial ambitions appear satiated since it already controls strategically valued territory of Aksai Chin.
A third view holds that the new regime in China is confronting a complex geo-strategic environment, especially in East Asia, with an ongoing dispute with Japan and a larger strategic competition with the US. It is logical then for Beijing to ensure a stable and quiet southern periphery in order to engage with the larger political-military challenge from the east. Indeed, historically, Beijing has sought to forestall a geopolitical scenario of a united anti-China coalition from taking shape.
Finally, a fourth theory argues that the India-China dispute is sui generis with a dynamic on the LAC that creates periodic episodes of action-reaction by the two militaries. That the LAC has becomes a theatre of intense probing and patrolling by both sides since 2007 underscores that such a level of activism was perhaps waiting to come out into the open. As Defense Minister AK Antony told Parliament in 2012, “Indian security forces patrol up to all areas that fall within the Indian perception of the LAC.”
There is, however, no white paper or official statement by Delhi or Beijing on the frequency and intensity of transgressions on the LAC, and most public information is attributed to deliberate intelligence or Army leaks to the Indian media. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to presume that China’s superior infrastructure and lines of communication to the border combined with more favourable topography enables the PLA to pursue an activist peacetime patrolling posture that cannot be emulated by India. Forbidding terrain and decades of neglecting forward lines of communication suggest India cannot reverse this asymmetry anytime soon.
Extending this logic would suggest that Beijing being the stronger actor on the border undertook the Depsang transgression to bring about a new operating environment and negotiate additional norms to stabilise the LAC. After letting the dispute drift in recent years, the Ladakh incident could be the Chinese saying “lets both calm down”.
In fact, before the April incident, China had apparently been urging Delhi to negotiate new protocols to supplement the earlier norms that have been established in the agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005, and the Border Mechanism of 2011, an initiative of the previous Chinese regime. The presumption behind Beijing’s enthusiasm for new norms underscores that both sides were engaged in pro-active tactical border management that was perhaps getting detached from both sides’ overall policy and strategic priority to ensure a stable frontier and a stable bilateral equation.
It is accepted that Beijing’s signalling during the Ladakh incident was non-threatening and was intended to provoke a political rather than a military response from Delhi. On balance, China’s rationale was probably to signal that the disputed zone is becoming a potential tinderbox, to probe India’s civil-military relations and Delhi’s control over India’s border management system, and perhaps, to gauge whether India is politically ready to contemplate a settlement via an east-west swap by drawing Delhi into a renewed conversation on a potential settlement. Currently, both sides are engaged in drafting a set of norms via a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement to ensure LAC patrolling does not escalate into another face-off or worse – an unintended skirmish.
Himalayan Dispute, Back to the Fore
One of the ironies of the Depsang incident is the border dispute has come back into the centre of the bilateral relationship, something India had always sought. India’s traditional position is that other aspects of the bilateral relationship must not subsume the boundary question whereby the dispute goes into cold storage. Indeed, the 1979 agreement during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s China visit accommodated India’s position that an early solution of the dispute would remain a persistent effort. And India accepted China’s position of expanding ties in other spheres that should not be impeded by the Himalayan stalemate.
At present, India and China are engaged in drafting a set of norms through a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement to ensure that LAC patrolling does not escalate into another face-off or an unintended skirmish. But whatever the causes of a flux in China’s India policy, it behoves India to meet China half way and engage in a serious domestic conversation on the contours of a border settlement.
Beijing has displayed a renewed willingness to solve the dispute sooner rather than later. This is in contrast to Beijing’s hardened posture since 2006 where it indicated that a settlement was nowhere in sight. In 2010, China even hinted a reversal of its neutral position on the Kashmir dispute by taking an anti-India position through some of its diplomatic actions.
As alluded to earlier, the deeper motivation and perception of the Chinese side can only be conjectured. It may suffice to say that China for realpolitik reasons could be exploring a settlement to stabilise its southern periphery and forestall a potentially unfriendly India in the emerging multi-polar environment of Asia.
Whatever the causes of a flux in China’s India policy, it behoves India to meet China half way and undertake a serious domestic conversation on the contours of a border settlement. Ever since the first Chinese offer of 1960 to settle the Himalayan question via an east-west swapping of claims, the essence of a deal remains remarkably unchanged. In 1979, Deng