Of the multiple agreements signed between India and China during Manmohan Singh’s visit, one of the most important is on maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border between the countries. Given the tensions between the two countries few months ago in Ladakh sector, and continuing differences on the other sectors, this undoubtedly should be the highlight. Having signed a series of agreements almost on the similar lines in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012 (all relating to the border and Line of Actual Control), what is new in this agreement signed in October 2013?
The ten articles of the October 2013 agreement on the border, which came into effect the same day it was signed (23 October 2013), provides a template as it explains in conclusion that this agreement “may be revised, amended or terminated with the consent of the two sides” and any such revision or amendment, “mutually agreed by the two sides, shall form an integral part of this Agreement.” Clearly, this is a work in progress and not a complete one. Keeping it open ended also provides elasticity to the agreement, in terms of addressing any future issues.
Will this agreement, despite being elastic, maintain peace and tranquillity along the India-China border? Or, will there be more such developments, as it happened in Ladakh few months before, leading to further revision and additions?
Motherhood and Apple-Pie Clauses
Few articles of the October 2013 agreement on the border are general; even the worst critique would not find faults with it. Consider the following: the decision to “jointly combat smuggling of arms, wildlife, wildlife articles and other contrabands” to “assist the other side in locating personnel, livestock, means of transport and aerial vehicles that may have crossed or are possibly in the process of crossing the line of actual control in the India-China border areas” and to “work with the other side in combating natural disasters or infectious diseases that may affect or spread to the other side” – these are general in nature.
Perhaps, the above clauses were easy to agree, hence increase the nature of “cooperation” in paper.
The Military Clauses: Preventive, Prescriptive and Remedial/Reparative
The agreement sets certain objectives in terms of maintaining peace and tranquillity along the border, and highlights how they could be pursued in order to prevent any untoward incidents, and more importantly what needs to be done, if something does happen.
Article 2 talks about exchange of “information-including information about military exercises, aircrafts, demolition operations and unmarked mines-and take consequent measures conducive to the maintenance of peace, stability and tranquillity along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.”
Article 3 talks about how to achieve the above. It talks about flag meetings and meetings between the officials at the border “at designated places along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas”. The agreement also foresees periodic meetings between relevant officers and between relevant departments responsible for military operations and also establishing a Hotline between the military headquarters of the two countries. (Article 4).
Article 6 also looks into what should be avoided. According to the agreement, both sides “shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.”
The agreement also provides for about regular meetings “of the representatives of the Ministry of Defence of the Government of India and the Ministry of National Defence of the People’s Republic of China.” This is an important issue; while the forces along the border are likely to respond to immediate issues and threat perceptions – real and imagined, regular meetings between the officials at the ministries levels in New Delhi and Beijing are likely to be more measured.
What measures to be pursued, if there are hostilities? According to the agreement, “in case a doubtful situation arises with reference to any activity by either side in border areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control, either side has the right to seek a clarification from the other side. In such cases, the clarification shall be sought and replies to them shall be conveyed through any of the mechanisms.” The agreement also states that “the two sides agree that if the border defence forces of the two sides come to a face-to-face situation in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control, both sides shall exercise maximum self-restraint, refrain from any provocative actions, not use force or threaten to use force against the other side, treat each other with courtesy and prevent exchange of fire or armed conflict.”
Clearly, both sides are aware that despite regular measures at the border level and larger mechanisms to prevent, there may be a situation at the border level. And that should be the reason for the agreement to have a clause - “if the border defence forces of the two sides come to a face-to-face situation.” And this is the larger question.
Tensions along the Border and India-China Tensions: Cause or Symptom?
Why is there a tension along the border? Are the issues directly related to border, hence an adventure or mis-adventure by one side against the other? Or, are the military issues along the border related to larger political relationship and international environment? In short, are the border developments a symptom of a larger political malaise, or a territorial problem in itself?
Is Beijing comfortable with India’s rising role in Asia? The previous military incursion in the DBO sector in Ladakh, took place immediately before the Prime Minister’s visit to Japan. It is well known, ever since the recent electoral victory, Abe is pursuing a militant policy vis-a-vis China, and is openly looking for a larger partnership in Asia and across the Atlantic. The US on its part, has made the Asia-Pacific as its new pivot, inviting India to be a partner in that strategy. The fact that an idea of “Indo-Pacific” has an American origin underlines the US interest in roping India into its larger trans-Atlantic partnership, with a specific objective to meet the China challenge, if not combat or control its growth within Asia.
India is also equally keen to improve its relationship with the US, Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN countries. In particular, Beijing is apprehensive of India’s strategic partnership with the US. While the Indo-US nuclear deal made China to wake up and perceive India in a serious manner, this is likely to expand, once the nuclear submarine and aircraft carrier floats in the Indian Ocean and start patrolling. China is likely to perceive India as a competitor in Southeast Asia; the recent visit of the Chinese President to Southeast and the announcement of a “Maritime Silk Road” as Beijing’s strategy in the region, underlines the larger push. On its part, China is increasing its footprint in South Asia. While the South Asian push in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives may have a larger economic thrust for China, the strategic cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad, especially on nuclear weapons has a clear New Delhi focus.
As India continues to emerge as a major factor in Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Indian Ocean, there will be more pressure on New Delhi; developments along the India-China border may become the result of a larger political equation at Asia level and beyond. It would be interesting to see how the border agreement would address the issues along the border and LAC, if the real causes lie elsewhere in the political equation between the two countries at Asia-Pacific level.
(An earlier version of this commentary was published in Rising Kashmir, 24 October 2013)
This series is published by IPCS in collaboration with the Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS)