Talking peace, tearing up peace pacts
Despite Beijing and Delhi’s negotiations, since 2020, to resolve their border dispute, recent activities show that a truce is still a long way off, writes Amit Agnihotri
China has been talking peace with India for over two years now to resolve the bitter border row along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, but relations between the two major Asian powers are far from normal.
The reason? Continued Chinese belligerence and violation of the various bilateral peace pacts, which has resulted in a dangerous security situation in the Himalayas.
Stressing that strained India-China relations are a roadblock towards the long-cherished goal of the Asian Century, India’s external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar minced no words as he described the reality.
‘If you ask me, is our relationship normal today? My answer to you is no, it is not. And it cannot be normal, if the situation in the border areas is abnormal. And surely the presence of a large number of troops there, in contravention of agreements, is abnormal,’ Jaishankar said in response to a media query recently.
‘So long as there are very large deployments in the border areas, which are violative of the 1993 and 1996 agreements, clearly the border area situation is not normal.’
The minister was referring to the various peace pacts that were signed between 1993 and 2013 to allow the two countries to negotiate border disputes amicably and to restrain both nations from escalating tensions.
Pacts have included an Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas in 1993; the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in 1996; the Protocol on Modalities for the implementation of the Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC in 2005; an Agreement on the Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs in 2012; and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2013.
The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China Border Affairs has been used by the two countries several times since April 2020 – when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops deliberately violated the LAC, followed by the bloody Galwan Valley clashes in June that year, which led to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and at least five PLA troops – to work out peace but without much success.
So far, 24 meetings of the WMCC and 16 meetings of senior military commanders from India and China have been held but lasting peace and tranquility on the borders is nowhere in sight.
All this while the Chinese strategy had been to keep talking peace while throwing the peace pacts out of the window in a brazen display of dubious diplomacy.
Jets at LAC
The latest provocation came in the form of a Chinese J-11 fighter jet flying very close to the LAC in eastern Ladakh on June 25 this year, forcing New Delhi to match the aggression. The Indian Air Force had to scramble its fighter aircraft, including the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29, from its forward bases near Ladakh region to ward off the Chinese threat.
China’s activities, which violated one of the peace pacts stipulating that both sides should avoid flying fixed-wing aircraft within 10km of the LAC to avoid any misunderstandings, continued for a month, raising suspicion in New Delhi.
The matter was finally broached in August when senior military commanders from the two countries discussed ways to avoid any breach of the almost 3,500km-long LAC, the de-facto border between India and China, which is not properly defined. However, the Indian forces have not let their guard down.
This provocation came at a time when the LAC had been converted into a dangerous military zone as China deployed large contingents of PLA, forcing India to match troop strength over the past three years.
Not only has China amassed troops along the LAC, it has been creating infrastructure in the disputed areas which may be used to launch bigger military operations.
Since April 2020, Indian and Chinese troops have remained engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in several areas along the LAC in eastern Ladakh, signalling that the standoff has become the biggest military face-off after the Doklam crisis in 2017.
Several areas along the LAC in Ladakh and in North Sikkim witnessed major military build-up by both the Indian and Chinese armies after the June 2020 Galwan clashes, which took India-China relations to a new low.
Over the past months, China has been holding major military exercises in the Tibet region, which includes a significant air force component. They have also been building up infrastructure in Tibet airbases.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, who visited India in March, tried to reset the ties between the countries but was told bluntly by his Indian counterpart, Dr S Jaishankar, that peace at the border was a prerequisite for normal bilateral relations.
The two leaders had previously met in Moscow in September 2020 and then again in Dushanbe in July and September 2021, as well as having telephone conversations since then, in efforts to reach an understanding on disengagement and de-escalation along the LAC.
In July this year, Yi and Jaishankar met in Bali, Indonesia on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting, at which India reaffirmed the importance of fully abiding by bilateral agreements and protocols, and the understanding reached between the two foreign ministers during their previous conversations.
The problem, however, has been the implementation of that understanding, which may be described as work in progress but is obviously moving ahead at a slower pace than desirable. Slowly and surely, it is also contributing to an anti-China sentiment in India, something which points to the failure of Beijing’s public diplomacy in the region.
Meanwhile, there has been no let-up in China’s attempts to counter India’s influence in the South Asia region by reaching out to New Delhi’s neighbours.
If a Chinese spy ship (seeking to map the Indian Ocean bed for tactical reasons) docking at a Sri Lankan port, despite New Delhi’s resistance, was not enough, there have been reports that Beijing wants to set up military outposts in the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir region to secure its BRI investments.
Every time Jaishankar met Yi, he reminded the Chinese foreign minister that the India-China relationship was best served through observance of three principles: mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interests.
But such noble words have had barely any impact on the Asian Dragon, if Beijing’s actions on the tense borders are any indicator.
That should make the world sit up and take note of a potential security threat lurking in the serene Himalayas.
Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues