Has status quo been altered by the Chinese side?
Are we heading back to a round of ‘forward’ policy on the India-China border? Is the Depsang incursion an attempt by China to create new ground realities by matching ground positions with its map positions?
That the India-China border is unresolved is known well enough. That in itself is unlikely to be the cause for the Chinese incursion - and potential settlement - in the Depsang area of the Western Sector in Ladakh since April 15. It is the differing claim lines of the two sides and the lack of clarity regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that leaves open the possibility of either side altering the status quo by establishing a ground presence which accords with its own claim. The other side is then left with the option of accepting the new ground reality or taking steps to challenge it, if necessary by military means. Hitherto, infringements of the LAC were more of a flag-showing exercise than an attempt to establish lasting ground presence. The patrols, when challenged, withdrew. One exception was Sumdorong Chu in the eastern sector a quarter-of-a-century ago. The lack of self-restraint in this regard creates unpredictability; uncertainty encourages pre-emption.
Any such action is destabilising for peace and tranquility along the border. It was to avoid eventualities arising from unilateral alteration of the status quo that the task of clarification and confirmation of the LAC was envisaged. It was to be an interim step for purposes of border management pending an agreement on the border. As is known, this exercise got nowhere as the Chinese side was unwilling to share maps setting out its perception of the LAC.
Has the status quo been altered by the Chinese side? The Chinese leadership has made it clear, as Xi Jinping, Secretary General of the Chinese Communist party put it to the Communist Party Politburo on January 28, 2013, that China will not give up its “legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests." In the instant case, it has firmly denied transgressing the LAC and asserted that it is on its own side of the LAC. In contrast, public statements from the Indian side speak of differences in perception regarding the LAC. There is lack of official confirmation about reports that China has demanded that India should dismantle certain positions elsewhere along the border that it considers as amounting to a change in status quo. All this leaves the Indian public guessing about the extent to which India considers its own stand well-founded.
China’s economic and military power is growing. China’s military budget is three times larger than India’s; it exceeds that of India and Japan combined. The Chinese may well be comparing themselves with the developed world, in particular the US. But China’s differences are all with neighbouring countries and there is no assurance that these will be resolved solely through peaceful means.
The latest incursion is taking place even as a visit of the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang to India is being planned. Making India his first official stop is intended to signal the importance and priority that China attaches to this relationship. Separately, a visit to China by the External Affairs Minister is imminent. The leadership on both sides has said that bridging the ‘trust deficit’ is essential to consolidate and strengthen bilateral relationship. If diplomacy is to have a chance – as it should – then both sides should be willing to take positions that suggest readiness to compromise and find a mutually agreed solution. One can but hope that diplomacy will succeed in obtaining restoration of status quo ante. The soft-speak should not be, nor taken to mean, that India is willing to settle for less.
On the Indian side, there is little to be gained by renewed conflict with China at a time when there are more pressing economic and social problems to deal with. On the Chinese side, the hopes for a qualitatively higher level of ties with India stem also from the desire to wean India away from a closer embrace of the US and Japan. China remains suspicious of US’s efforts to co-opt India into its “return” to Asia or Asian “pivot” policy. This objective is not served if China’s intentions are seen by the Indian public as hostile and inimical.
China and India need a climate of peace and stability for continued economic growth. Both are faced with a slower growth rate that causes difficulties in attaining the goal of augmenting incomes and employment and creating a more prosperous society. Both have similar problems to address and resolve. There is much to learn from each other’s experience. The hopes for cooperation and mutual understanding should not become hostage to a ‘forward’ policy in pursuance of territorial and other claims.
(The writer is a former diplomat and now Director of the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.)
Incursion,a tactical game