Chandigarh: The nearly four month-long military standoff between India and China in eastern Ladakh, has effectually rendered irrelevant the slew of past bilateral agreements between Beijing and New Delhi to implement peace and tranquility along their 3,488-km long disputed line of actual control (LAC).
Consequently, several senior military officers, security officials and China analysts believe that even the LAC, which formally came into being in 1993 with the first of five bilateral pacts between the neighbours, has now become equally infructuous; except, perhaps as a nebulous reference point at some future juncture to eventually delineate the unsettled India-China frontier, over which the neighbours fought a war in 1962, and whose armies are presently deadlocked in a hair-trigger impasse.
“In light of the ongoing face-off between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since early May, the LAC and related agreements have no relevance and should be dumped,” said military analyst Major General A.P. Singh (retired). Under the prevailing circumstances, there is no point in continuing with either any longer, as a ‘new normal’ is emerging to replace the LAC, he warned.
Other senior military officers too concurred, arguing with hindsight that the LAC had emerged as little more than an extended ‘compromise arrangement’ that suited both India and China, but with no tangible indicators for a final settlement of what has become one of the world’s longest running border disputes.
China’s clever stalling
Confounded by respective ‘claim lines’, differing territorial perceptions, divergent patrolling points and ‘grey zones’ which both countries repeatedly challenged, the LAC’s configuration was further aggravated by China’s continued refusal to reveal its version of the frontier. Over 27 years, both sides had exchanged maps of their respective versions of the LAC for only the least contentious Middle Sector, abutting Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
But none were swapped for the contentious eastern sector-spanning Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim ‒ or the critical Western Ladakh sector, both regions where fierce fighting took place in the 1962 war. In effect, the process of meaningfully clarifying the LAC and ending ambiguity was cleverly stalled permanently, leaving it open for China to ‘nibble’ away at Indian territory through military force whenever opportune.
In its endeavour to pursue the path of least resistance, a militarily-weak India agreed to the formal declaration of the LAC via the Agreement to Maintain Peace and Tranquility in 1993. It was firm in the belief that this option augured peace along its northern and eastern borders, which over nearly three decades, has largely been vindicated, till it all evaporated in May.
Acquiescing to the LAC, also foreclosed for India the expensive option ‒ that is being presently executed in Ladakh ‒ of infrastructurally developing and militarily equipping the inhospitable Himalayan border at heights above 13,000 feet. It also freed up India’s military, particularly its Army, to concentrate its resources on the multiple threats Pakistan presented.
“It now emerges that this was a cardinal error, as the largely neglected LAC in Ladakh is now going to require mammoth resources to man and manage from scratch,” said retired Major General Sheru Thapliyal, who has served in the region. It will be a heavy burden on the Indian Army, he warned, even though in recent years, limited infrastructural development ‒ like roads ‒ had taken place in Ladakh, but nowhere near the desired levels.
For China, the LAC has been little more than a devious, but abiding tactical measure, aimed at lulling an amenable India into a false sense of security. Through the LAC it persuaded India, including its military, into concentrating on all aspects of bilateralism like trade, commerce, diplomacy and even defence collaboration, other than on resolving the complex border imbroglio.
It also ensured decades of peace for Beijing on its south-western borders, a hiatus it gainfully employed to further tighten its hold over Tibet and the Xinjiang region, and to fabricate its economic security, technological, commercial and military might and global strategic muscle. In the process, pecuniary-minded China even profited from its years of peace with India, recording a $60 billion bilateral trade balance favouring Beijing.
In the ensuing years, between 1993 and 2013 of the Beijing-led tango, China enmeshed a diffident India into five LAC-related confidence building measures (CBMs) and assorted rules of engagement (RoEs). Amongst others, it included the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) of 2013 and numerous other hyperbolic sounding protocols, like the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA), whose collective distillation was largely to keep the LAC tranquil; but essentially at China’s directions.
The most recent October 2013 agreement, for instance, in which the BDCA was agreed, reiterated the content of earlier pacts that ‘neither side shall use force against the other side’. Referring to the four previous agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012, it went on to reaffirm that neither side shall seek ‘unilateral superiority’ which in today’s content would be laughable, if the situation was not so serious.
Paradoxically, the pacts also laid out drills in minutiae to maintain this tranquillity, but leave much ambiguity in their wordings with regard to neutrally managing operational matters. The 2013 agreement also talked of establishing a ‘hotline’ between the Indian and Chinese military headquarters, a proposal that was reiterated in 2017-18, but one that has still not been installed, stumped by PLA bureaucratic complexities. In brief, all agreements flaunted customary Chinese bellicosity, to which successive Indian governments meekly acquiesced.
The intervening 27 years between these five agreements, resulted in army patrols from either side of the LAC enacting elaborate and farcical pantomimes with flags, fog horns, video cameras and cloth posters, amongst other props. With their weapons sheathed, but on full display, the Indian army and PLA patrols would almost daily exaggerate their respective spectacles, by either shouting, mouthing or even miming warnings to each other against straying onto the wrong side of the un-demarcated border. Much additional buffoonery was unquestioningly enacted, said officers involved in such horseplay along the LAC for years, in the illusionary belief that the border would eventually be peacefully delineated.
Physical contact between rival patrolling parties was prohibited, as was them ‘tailing’ each other. Like children playing hide and seek, both armies would frequently resort to cheekily transgressing areas claimed by the other side, absurdly leaving behind empty cigarette packs, biscuit wrappers, soft drink bottles or other gewgaws to indicate their defiance. The underlying axiom in Delhi was that not a shot had been fired on the LAC for decades.
Progressively, however, such PLA transgressions across the LAC increased in number and intensity from 428 in 2015 to 663 in 2019, with some calculatedly escalating into extended faceoffs with the Indian army. These included standoffs of limited duration at Chumar in south-eastern Ladakh in 2014, Burtse to its north a year later, and the longest 73-day impasse at the Doklam/Dong Lang tri-junction area on the Bhutanese border, in 2017.
Providing the PLA an alibi
India’s recurring response for decades ‒ and even in recent weeks ‒ including that of successive Army chiefs to most such transgressions, was to inexplicably provide the PLA with an alibi for its lapses, by declaring that the infringements were due to the indeterminately defined LAC. And though all three extended impasses mentioned earlier were resolved through diplomatic or local army commander talks or both, military planners in Delhi finally conceded around late 2017 that the steadily proliferating PLA advances across the LAC were ‘dress rehearsals’ for something bigger.
Some analysts in Delhi even believed that these were aimed at China effecting its territorial goal that remained incomplete in 1962 in view of the Beijing-backed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This strategically envisages Chinese occupation of the Gilgit-Baltistan region and eventually the Siachen Glacier to fortify Beijing’s hold over the Karakoram region as part of its wider Belt and Road Initiative and Maritime Silk Road to economically and strategically dominate the world.
The PLA’s final punch in its LAC gambit was delivered in early May, which bizarrely India’s Army, security, intelligence and monitoring agencies watched gradually unfold before them on the ground and in imagery provided by satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles. But bafflingly, the Army did nothing to counter the PLA’s occupation of Indian territory, a move which effectively put paid to the sanctity of the LAC guaranteed by five bilaterally agreed pacts by Beijing and Delhi.
How long will Delhi take to not only to abrogate the five CBM’s but also the actuality of the LAC and revert to it once more as the Customary and Administrative Line as it was earlier or something equally anodyne?