De-escalate, Delineate and Set Norms
Come summer, local stand offs between Indian and Chinese troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have been common in the past. There was some hope of a change given ongoing rapprochement between the Indian and Chinese leadership. While Indian Prime Minister Dr Man Mohan Singh had his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Le Keqiang is expected to be in New Delhi in May.
In a seminal visit to India in end of August 2012, former Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie sought to review joint exercises for which a military team from India is now in Beijing. A joint mechanism to resolve stand offs on the LAC is also in place headed by joint secretary level officers in the foreign ministries of both the countries.
Yet as reports filtered in of a Chinese patrol having, “transgressed,” into Indian side of the LAC up to 10 to 18 kms depending on various media sources and pitched tents on 15 April, there has been an uproar in New Delhi with some analysts even recalling Sumdorung Chu incident in 2006 in Arunachal Pradesh, while others see this as a larger game plan by China to undermine India’s sovereignty vis a vis Jammu and Kashmir and also Indian sway in the region.
That there is a contest for influence between India and China is an obvious inference as two rising powers test their resolve in a part of Asia that is in a political, security and economic flux. A look at the map from Afghanistan to Myanmar and Himalayas to the Indian Ocean would denote countries that are either struggling for peace and stability (Af Pak), in political flux (Nepal, Maldives), without elected governments (Nepal) or going through a major transformation (Myanmar). Bhutan is the only beacon and a true Shangri la. Such an environment is ripe for outside intervention particularly when India is seen as weak and diffident.
This contest is not restricted to India and China but the United States is also expanding its military footprint through strategic dialogues and joint exercises. A report in Minivan News a Maldives web site indicated that US has floated a proposal for establishing a base in the country with a draft Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) circulated to the government there. Thus the larger China US global contest also comes into play here.
At this stage a review of the Raki Nala incident in Depsang area of Northern Ladakh based on media reports may be in order. Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs Mr Syed Akbaruddin, briefing the media on 23 April indicated that the incident occurred on 15 April in Western Sector of the India-China boundary. This was categorized as a, “face-to-face,” situation referred to in the, “2005 Protocol for the Implementation of CBMs in the Military Field along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas” (2005 CBMs). Akbaruddin quoted Article 4 as follows, "If the border personnel of the two sides come to a face-to-face situation due to differences on the Line of Actual Control, they shall exercise self-restraint and take all necessary steps to avoid an escalation of the situation”.
The head of the Joint Mechanism on the Indian side, Mr. Gautam Bambawale, Joint Secretary (East Asia) spoke to his counterpart who is the Director-General Border Affairs of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 16th morning. Two flag meetings, one on 18th and another on 23rd have been held so far with no resolution. A third meeting is scheduled on 26th April (Friday). Mr Akbaruddin clarified that overall, India-China border areas continue to remain peaceful.
Reports now indicate that China’s refusal to pull back despite long deliberations in the Flag Meeting on 23rd April is to register a strong protest over new constructions on the Indian side in Eastern Ladakh. This may be a quid pro quo to avoid loss of face or a deliberate move to force India to relent on construction of defences and infrastructure near the LAC.
China has been taking such a nuanced approach on these incidents in the past, thus to portray Chinese transgression in Dipsang as something beyond the ongoing tussle of one up manship on the LAC between the two countries may not be a fair assessment of India China relationship.
It is true that China has been expanding claims over the years from rights over the whole of Arunachal Pradesh in 1986 to depicting claimed areas as own on maps in e-passports. China is also expanding profile in the region particularly with all weather friends Pakistan and a new one Sri Lanka. It is hoping to open an embassy in Thimpu Bhutan and may offer to resolve the boundary issue with that country. China feted the leader of the Unified CPN M in Beijing recently with President Xi Jinping receiving him in the Great Hall of the People where generally only heads of state are received.