For no apparent reason, trouble has flared up between India and China along their most distant border in remotest Ladakh.
Chinese troops have crossed over into territory claimed by India and have put up tents that advertise their presence. Indian complaints and requests for their withdrawal have been unavailing, as have the flag meetings between the two sides. Both insist that they are on their own territory and neither shows any present inclination to move off. As a result, the standoff continues, and from what one can gather, two opposed groups of soldiers continue to be in the area in full view of each other.
In other circumstances, such a situation could well have led to intensified problems on the ground, for each side could have tried to discomfit the other in order to strengthen its own position, as has indeed happened in the past on various occasions and in different border locations; but that is not what has taken place in the present occasion.
New Delhi has been careful not to yield to the clamour for some sort of retaliation and has not permitted the situation to take on a threatening dimension. China, too, has been retrained in its statements, and as a result of the calm handling from both sides, the situation has not developed a dangerous edge. India’s Prime Minister has described it as a localised incident and seems disinclined to let it affect the largely satisfactory tenor of current India-China ties.
Nevertheless, though it has been contained the problem did arise, and may well leave a negative residue of misunderstanding in a sensitive area. The location is near Daulat Beg Oldi, once a way station on the ancient caravan route from Central Asia across the Karakoram Pass, now an isolated Indian border outpost set in the barren uplands at the edge of India. The caravan trade has died away so the strategic significance of the ancient route is diminished, but not far away lies the Aksai Chin basin through which China constructed a road in the 1950s to link Tibet with Xinjiang. That road passes through territory legitimately claimed by India and was a major element in the border dispute that led eventually to war between the two countries in 1962.
Following the war, the road remains under Chinese control but there is some ambiguity about the exact location of the dividing line in this sector.
For some time, there was a practice of patrols asserting rival claims by advancing and leaving “tell tale” signs proclaiming their presence at a particular location. Normally, this was done without direct confrontation between patrols from either side, but as a result of such deliberate actions to mark sometimes overlapping claims the area remained sensitive and prone to unanticipated incidents.
It seems now that attempts have been made to try to provide shelter for soldiers in forward areas who are exposed to the elements in a harsh and unforgiving landscape, and this may account for the tents and other temporary shelters that have been reported in the area. In these circumstances, misunderstandings can arise and even lead to incidents; fortunately it has not come to that, thanks to the sobriety and restraint exercised by the responsible authorities.
Present developments suggest that the friction of the last few weeks may be coming to a halt but the underlying differences between the two sides remain and discord can crop up again.
This is, after all, a heavily armed border where both sides are deployed in strength. Moreover, there is no agreed line of separation between the opposed forces–in this respect, even in J&K, where so many incidents continue to take place, the ground position is better established for there is an agreed LOC to separate the two armies.
In the absence of a similar agreed line on the India-China front, there is lack of clarity about the border, and this can sometimes have serious consequences. It is not so long ago that Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh nearly became a military flashpoint that could have sparked a wider conflagration in the Eastern Sector– it took a bold decision by Rajiv Gandhi to visit Beijing that eventually served to calm matters down and permit the situation to be restored.
Even before that visit the two sides had been engaged in negotiations aimed at settling their border problem, and there too it took a brave initiative by the Indian leader, in that instance Indira Gandhi, to permit the two sides to re-engage after a long period of deliberately keeping apart.
The sequence of talks begun at that time has now been sustained over several decades and while the basic issue of border definition has not advanced significantly, a whole series of border management agreements have been made to build and sustain mutual confidence.
Apart from localised agreements in various sectors, the two sides have been able to agree on some wider reaching and important high-level agreements for better border management, one in 1993 under the guidance of Vajpayee and another three years later in Gujral’s time.
Subsequently there has been a purposeful effort to delineate a Line of Actual Control (LAC) along the border, so as to reduce problems inherent in a vague or undefined border. The latest events in Ladakh underline the importance of an agreed LAC even if a final border settlement may not yet be in sight.
While the border remains the unresolved issue between the two countries, differences on this matter have not been permitted to overshadow the development of bilateral ties in many other fields. The areas of bilateral cooperation are now extensive and serve the interest of both parties.
High-level visits are to be exchanged in the next few weeks, with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid set to visit Beijing and China’s Premier Li Keqiang to come to India on his first official visit abroad.
Clearly, the two sides have much to talk about beyond the recent turbulence on the border. It is necessary, nevertheless, that the risk of further incidents should be reduced, and joint action is needed to ensure this.
After the 1993 agreement, the two armies were able to agree on pulling back some advanced troops in Arunachal Pradesh so that they were no longer “eyeball-to-eyeball” with each other–that is to say, within small arms range.
Ladakh’s topography is very different as are the military dispositions of the two sides, which preclude any comparable action in that sector, but it is desirable nevertheless that more careful border management should be institutionalised so that there is no repeat of the recent events that neither side seemed to have wanted.
– SALMAN HAIDAR
The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary.