Sino-Indian agenda: Border peace
A protocol suggested by China in response to Modi's call for border peace could be in the offing. Its substance would likely be formulated by China and the timing of its disclosure would be left to India
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘informal summit’ with Chinese President Xi Jinping from April 27 to April 28 in Wuhan city is perhaps meant to reduce the tangible Chinese military pressure, since the Doklam face-off, on the 3,488 km disputed border (Line of Actual Control). Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said, “We underlined that maintaining peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas is an essential pre-requisite for the smooth development of bilateral ties.”
Under the rubric of strategic communications, the two leaders are expected to concentrate on each other’s core concerns. Modi will seek to diffuse the risen temperature at the border, which has enormous potential for negative military consequences for India. Another 2013 Depsang incursion or worse, with a year left for India’s General Elections, would impact negatively on the Modi Government.
Both Modi and Xi know that the LAC is India’s Achilles heel. Xi, on the other hand, would desire that India completely desist from the official patronage of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-exile including His Holiness’ visits to Arunachal Pradesh. Since India has sought the meeting, China, which is in a stronger negotiating position, would likely ask for cooperation and clarification on two other vital issues which have the potential to derail strategic communications. The first is about the perceived ganging up of India with the United States to stymie China’s Maritime Silk Road in the Indian Ocean Region.
Xi would be interested to know Modi’s assessment of the Indo-Pacific region, whether the Quadrilateral grouping (India, US, Japan and Australia) is being done as an alternative to China’s One Belt One Road. The other issue would be to start talks, possibly at a political level, on connectivity cooperation between the two nations. China wants India to make peace with Pakistan and join the One Belt One Road.
Being undertaken a month before, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit also to be held in China, Modi-Xi meeting cannot be business as usual; especially when the National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, without prior knowledge of the external affairs ministry, had gone and sought the meeting.
The business, as usual, was left to India’s foreign and defence ministers, who were recently in China for pre-SCO summit meetings. They would have discussed bilateral geopolitical and defence issues and shared mutual concerns. Moreover, Niti Aayog vice chairman Rajiv Kumar too was in China for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue where threats to globalisation and protectionism, and enhanced bilateral trade were reportedly discussed.
Before we proceed with the military implication of Doklam which compelled Modi to seek an audience with Xi, two assertions by experts regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC) should be put into perspective. The first is by Army Chief General Bipin Rawat who has repeatedly said that he is prepared for a two-front war. Unlike the Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, who has consistently evaded this question by the media, General Rawat has, many a time, proffered this assessment without even asking. This is when the Air Force and not the Army would have to do the heavy lifting in a conflict with China.
Now, when India is seeking peace on the LAC, it appears that General Rawat either does not fully comprehend the adversary and the dynamics of conflict escalation that might ensue, or he has been making political statements. The former seems more likely. He appears to have misled the political bosses into believing that tactical muscle-flexing in Doklam and increased Army deployments post-Doklam would scare the Chinese off. Perhaps, he has done this unwittingly.
Having spent most of his career in counter-insurgency operations, he probably is not fully conversant with the Chinese military capabilities, strategy, modern war dynamics and most importantly, that China is not known to buckle under outside pressure. What China did in Doklam was a tactical retreat to win the war without fighting. That they have succeeded in it is obvious from the informal summit sought by India.
The other assertion is by the former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, who has maintained that the border with China has been peaceful since no shots have been fired there. Giving credit for this to the 1993 bilateral agreement which renamed the border as the LAC, he writes in his book, Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, “The reference to the LAC would be unqualified, making it clear that it was the LAC at the time the agreement was signed that would be respected, and not some notional idea of where it was in 1959 or 1962.”
China, with admirable border management and relatively excellent war-fighting capabilities, has, instead of respecting the 1993 agreement, made use of the agreement to apply military pressure on India. Given that the LAC, unlike a border, is a military line which can be altered by force, the Chinese have since 1993, transgressed it, at will. If the LAC had not been formed, China would have hesitated to violate the disputed border (denoted by natural geographical features like mountains) so often. Realising the blunder wrought by the LAC construct, Modi had, in September 2014, during Xi’s India visit, publicly sought clarification on the LAC. China refused to do it.
The creation of the LAC has reduced the Indian Army to a policing force. It has been left to stop intrusions by the adversary (without resorting to violence) which, unlike them, does not stay perched on heights of 15,000 feet and above, but comes in vehicles looking for border gaps. To reduce a fighting force to policing duties undermines the soldiers’ morale no ends. Giving the choice of being posted at the military line with Pakistan, and that with China, soldiers would prefer the former.
Since Doklam, the ground situation on the LAC has worsened. The People’s Liberation Army while replacing border guards (akin to India’s paramilitary forces) has built additional military infrastructure and increased its presence on the LAC. This has compelled the Indian Army to substantially increase its soldiers on the LAC and to shift resources from other sectors to the China front. This has denuded other vital sectors of necessary capabilities.
Worse, the Indian Army, as admitted by the Army senior brass to the media, has, at best, counter-attack capabilities against China. These are tactical or battle fighting, rather than war or campaign fighting capabilities. Instead of worrying about this, they are happily informing the nation that 1962 (when the focus was on land battles) would not be repeated, as if a conflict in 2018 would be the same as what it was then.
Modi, however, has taken upon himself to ensure peace at the border. A possible code of conduct, which was suggested by China in response to Modi’s call to define the LAC, or some other mechanism for border peace, could be in the offing. Its substance would likely be dictated by China, while the timing of its disclosure would probably be left to India.
(The writer is editor FORCE newsmagazine)
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