China deems the current situation along the LAC to be ‘normal’, with no plan of or intention towards conflict resolution. A de-escalation or de-induction is not on the cards

by Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma

On 8 April 2023, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin objected to Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, using a fictional name to describe the state—Zangnan. He stated that the visit violated Beijing’s territorial sovereignty and was not “conducive” to peace and tranquillity along the border. Home Minister’s visit was to progress Government of India’s (GOI’s) Vibrant Villages programme at Kibithoo village in the Walong Sector. Previously too, China protested Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in February 2018 and President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to the state in November 2017.

Again, it was the third time that China unilaterally renamed places in Arunachal Pradesh. It had previously done so for six places in April 2017 and 15 places in December 2021. In April 2023, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs released the “standardized” names published in Chinese Hanzi, Tibetan script and Pinyin, of 11 places for Arunachal Pradesh, “in accordance with regulations on geographical names issued by the State Council”. The names included two land areas, two residential areas, five mountain peaks and two rivers. There was also an attempt to “salami slice” Yangste in Tawang Sector in December 2022, which was firmly denied by vigilant Indian Army units.

Contextually, India and China had entered into an “Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question, 2005”. The Agreement had stated that in attainment of the solution the two sides would consider “historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas”; the boundary should be along “well-defined geographical features”. Interestingly, in the Agreement it was stated that interests of “settled populations in the border areas” to be considered. This was an obvious and clear reference to Arunachal Pradesh.

The May 2020 PLA aggression in Eastern Ladakh and the continued stand-off have clearly indicated that the Agreements have little value left, and the Chinese cannot be relied upon to pursue them with any norms of bilateral relationship or international legality of treaties/agreements.

In the current situation, the contradictions of the positions are stark, where India has often stated that relations with China cannot be normal, because India will not agree to any attempt to change the Line of Actual Control (LAC) unilaterally. On the contrary, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, in his recent visit to New Delhi (and the previous Foreign Minister in 2022), had stated that India and China should put the boundary issue in the “proper place” in bilateral relations and work together to bring the situation at their borders under normalised management and control. It is obvious that China deems the current situation to be “normal”, with no plan of or intention towards conflict resolution, and obviously there is clear indication that a de-escalation or de-induction is not on the cards. Even in the 26th in-person WMCC (Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs) meeting held in Beijing recently, China had claimed that the situation on the border was normal.

China has meanwhile announced a medium to long term railway plan for Tibet—expanding the network to 4,000 km by 2025 from the current 1,400 km. This includes the Xinjiang-Tibet network, which follows the route of the G219 highway passing through the disputed Aksai-Chin region. The under construction G695 highway follows the course in proximity to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and McMahon Line. Cumulated with more than 50 airports and helipads, on completion, these will facilitate faster mobilisation, and lateral movement of military formations and wherewithal.

It has also been reported that PLA has issued a purchase order of 2,600 maces of a length of 180 cm. It will be recollected that mace is the favoured weapon for PLA for fisticuffs and brawls, and are certainly to be used on the India-China border. Another summer of discontent seems to be on the offing. Obviously, China has no plans or intention towards conflict resolution, and there is clear indication that a de-escalation or de-induction is not on the cards.

In the light of the situation prevailing, five distinct considerations stand out.

First, China, in May 2020, took advantage of an atmosphere of agreements, protocols and confidence building measures (CBMs) to attempt to create aggressively and simultaneously the tactical advantage of denying patrolling to Indian LAC, and creating a fait accompli for India. As events followed from May 2020, the Indian response was strong, firm and across the entire LAC, as events at Yangtse and Tawang in December 2022 proved. Continuing the similar format, India’s border guarding forces must deny any opportunity for further salami slicing along the entire border. In matters of sovereignty and territorial integrity, fear of escalation must not be the sole criterion.

Second, the buffer territories in Eastern Ladakh created over the last two years, through mutual acceptance, separate forces physically and prevent unintended clashes on the border. These buffers are being termed “normal” by China in future border management. The buffer zones must not become etched in stone, and should be nullified, soonest. In an era of distrust, these have limited value as likelihood of infringement will remain, the probability of tactical engagement will increase proportionally, creating security dilemmas. This likelihood must be guarded against.

Third, modern borders must be precise, well demarcated and delineated, separating geographical, political and economic jurisdiction on either side of the line, as correct symbols of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Frontier clarity is the entente cordiale between neighbours. Borders also need not follow linear or clearly identifiable features any more, they can be delineated and mapped to exactitude by modern technology. Formal border negotiations are bound to take time. However, without forsaking our claim, an interim “border line”, technologically geo-mapped, based on existing military positions, will be progress. Indeed, the methodology of verification will have to be created.

Fourth, de-escalation by the PLA is not on the cards. Evidently, tensions along the borders will persist, and in fact with increased military infrastructure and military build-up, the “threat” will remain. Peace will be guaranteed only by retaining strong reserves by the Indian Army along the borders, denying further incursions, and planning for quid pro quo if the situation so warrants. There is need, however, to place descalation or force reduction in the agenda too. Large deployments in proximity have always the possibility of escalation!

Fifth, it is apparent that military to military talks have proven to be advantageous, in addition to the diplomatic interactions. These continually work at conflict mitigation. There needs to be progress from limited conflict prevention and mitigation to conflict resolution. India has to put China on the backfoot, by creating a narrative for the global audience. India should put forward steps towards systemic conflict resolution, in the form of Joint Commission to work continually at conflict mitigation. There must be imaginative proaction and initiative. China has grandiose global plans under the rubric of Global Security Initiative (GSI). After brokering the Saudi Arabia-Iran deal, China continued its push on GSI, announcing a 12-point Peace Plan aimed at the Ukraine war. The Academy of Military Sciences has predicted of a cessation of hostilities before autumn of 2023. It must be brought to global awareness that in its own backyard on the border with India, China retains expansionism as primacy, and speaks with a forked tongue to thwart attention.

In sum, suffice it to say that China’s sinister manoeuvring, continual double-speak and changing goal posts, can be sharply contrasted to being diplomatically and politically goody-goody. This is but no time to be lulled and complacent, or ascribe the current motivation to any “grey zone” tactics. It is pure and simple coercion and belligerence to retain geopolitical and geostrategic pressures on India, in a year when India holds the chair of G20 and SCO, and when the BRICS and RIC summits are also scheduled. While proceeding diplomatically and firmly, there ought not to be any opportunity to take advantage territorially.

Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma is a retired officer of the Indian Army