Need for firmness

India and China have done well to step back from the brink. Their troops were locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector in eastern Ladakh for around three weeks. Just 300 metres separated soldiers of the two sides at the height of the face-off. The crisis was sparked by China in mid-April, when a battalion of its soldiers accompanied by dogs and vehicles advanced 19 km into Indian Territory. There was a real possibility of the tension escalating into an exchange of fire, perhaps even a larger military conflagration. This would have jeopardised the many gains that both sides have made from the decades of normalisation of relations. By de-escalating tensions, the two sides have allowed sanity to prevail. They have averted a showdown.

While negotiations at various levels played a major role in de-escalating the conflict, what was agreed upon to break the deadlock is unclear. Media reports say that both sides pulled back their troops. Does this mean that India agreed to withdraw from some territory it held prior to the crisis? Or did India agree to dismantle the forward observation post at Chumar in return for the Chinese pulling back to the pre-April 15 position? There is need for more transparency in these matters. By reducing its military preparedness and vigil along a disputed border, Delhi has signalled that it is vulnerable to intimidation. This could encourage Beijing to use military force again, only next time it could do so to get Delhi to cede territory.

While give and take is essential for resolution of any border dispute, compromise that is not based on principle or is one-sided is unlikely to hold. In the Sino-Indian border dispute, it is India that has buckled down under pressure repeatedly. Memories of the humiliating defeat it suffered in 1962 continue to burden India’s approach to China, compelling it to give in time and again. In its rhetorical bluster, Delhi says it will not give up an inch of Indian territory to China in any settlement of the border dispute but in its diplomacy and military preparedness its approach is tentative, even weak-kneed. In the coming fortnight, India and China will get several opportunities to discuss the border. India must be firm and forthright in its approach.

The Indian government will find its hand strengthened at the negotiating table if it is able to build a consensus at home on a possible border settlement.

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