While the situation is calmer than it was last year, relations between Beijing and New Delhi continue to fray, and inadvertent border clashes are still a risk. Both sides can move along talks by ceasing publicly aired diplomacy; thinning their forces; and ensuring Tibet, or Arunachal Pradesh, does not become a flashpoint

by Kanti Bajpai

A year ago, after the brutal clash in the Galwan River valley between Chinese and Indian troops, anyone suggesting a calmer border situation between the two would have been accused of wishful thinking. Fortunately, this has to some extent proven to be correct – the situation at the border is nowhere as tense as it was.

Both Beijing and New Delhi should be commended for quietly working behind the scenes to defuse the situation, including through the reduction of human patrolling at sensitive points of the border region. These actions also reflect the points I made in an essay last year for the Asia Peace Programme: that the two countries needed a “new diplomacy” to minimise future possibilities of inadvertent, lower-level border skirmishes.

The old India-China diplomacy consisted of four main elements: regular summitry; military confidence-building measures (CBMs); border negotiations; and trade. My suggestion last year was to abandon high-profile summitry for now, turn to backchannel diplomacy between politically trusted envoys instead, and to replace border patrolling with virtual patrolling that relies on remotely controlled airborne vehicles such as drones, as well as sensors, cameras, and satellites.

However, old and “new” diplomatic measures have not prevented the growing downturn in bilateral relations between India and China, nor have they fully obviated the risk of inadvertent border clashes. While existing CBMs continue to have value – they prevented the escalation of the Galwan fight into a wider and more violent conflict – they are clearly not enough to defuse the continuing eyeball-to-eyeball stand-off between border troops in eastern Ladakh. China-India trade, which remained at a very robust US$87 billion last year – notwithstanding New Delhi’s moves towards limited economic decoupling from Beijing – has not helped stabilise bilateral relations

A year later, this new diplomacy can therefore be supplemented by further diplomatic initiatives that are based on modest confidence building. At least three things would help to add momentum to the ongoing talks and negotiations.

First, both sides need to end megaphone, publicly aired diplomacy. They have already taken steps to do so since the crisis events of July last year. Accusatory and denunciatory language in public has receded, but this needs to be sustained. In addition, it would be helpful to put a lid on the public announcements of every round of talks – when they are expected to be convened, who sat at the table, and what was or was not achieved. New Delhi and Beijing also need to stop leaks that reveal the purported statements and stances adopted by the two sides during diplomatic and military talks.

Second, sensible force reductions in Ladakh would help stabilise the military relationship in this brittle sector. The two sides apparently now have up to 200,000 troops on the Ladakh front. These are backed by light tanks, artillery, and drones (the latter of which are particularly in evidence on the Chinese side). Both sides may also have moved up their aircraft as well.

In my recent book, India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends, I argued that the Himalayan neighbours are prone to misreading each other’s military moves in the border areas. This suggests that with the enormous amount of force deployed in the remote heights of the mountains, the conditions for a firefight are higher than ever, with the danger of escalation.

Thinning their forces in the entire theatre would help reassure the two militaries. Force reductions may not have to be rigidly and mechanically symmetric. Chinese infrastructure and the flat terrain of Tibet allow the People’s Liberation Army to move forces quickly. India’s weaker infrastructure and highly mountainous approaches to the border slow down deployments. Arms reductions will therefore need to be done with sophistication and a sense of the achievable. These benefits will be material as well psychological, signalling a desire for a return to more normal border management.

Third, beyond Ladakh, the two sides have large force deployments in the so-called eastern sector of the border, in what India calls Arunachal Pradesh and China calls South Tibet – therefore, this could be the next flashpoint. India controls the state, China lays claim to most of it. The claims and counterclaims here are much larger than in Ladakh. It is important to remember that this was the most active theatre of conflict during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Satellite imagery shared in the Indian media over the past several months seems to indicate that China is creating villages in territory that India claims.

The area also gets high-level attention on the Chinese side. President Xi Jinping visited Tibet at the end of July, the first trip by a Chinese president in more than 30 years. He inspected new infrastructure connecting Lhasa to Nyingchi, and travelled to the latter city, which adjoins the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. There are PLA Theatre Command units in both Lhasa and Nyingchi – and the latter is only 335km from Tawang, which is home to one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Also, the Yarlung Tsangpo – known as the Brahmaputra river in India – flows through Nyingchi, and upper riparian China is constructing major dams on the river.

If conflict were to occur in this sector, it would almost certainly be more violent given the stakes. India and China need to ensure that they avoid a heightening of tensions here. At the very minimum, they need to keep force deployments at present levels and not increase them. Regular local commander meetings here – as provided for in Beijing and New Delhi’s original CBM going back to 1993 and 1996 – as a preventive initiative would help as well.

These are modest proposals. They do not ask too much of either side. They are without prejudice to their respective positions on the final delineation of the border. Nor do they involve any humiliating, one-sided concessions. India and China cannot stand still on their border quarrel. As two rising powers, their sense of pride and position will not allow it. Before they return to border negotiations towards a final settlement, they must undo the “knot” they tied last summer in Ladakh and stabilise the military situation.