Home India-China Relations: Held Hostage by an Aggressive PLA

India-China Relations: Held Hostage by an Aggressive PLA

When President Xi Jinping of China visits India this week, the big ticket item on the table will be measures to further enhance bilateral trade while addressing India’s concerns about the balance of trade being in China’s favour. Other issues will include Chinese investment in infrastructure projects, setting up of industrial parks and cooperation in international fora like the WTO and BRICS and in fields such as energy security and IT. However, despite serious efforts towards maintaining ‘peace and tranquillity’, transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are continuing unabated – 334 so far in 2014 – and the summit meeting will take place in the shadow of a fragile security relationship.

India-China relations have been relatively stable at the strategic level for over a decade. However, at the tactical level instability is still the order of the day, particularly in respect of the long-standing territorial and boundary dispute. The aggressive patrolling policies of PLA have resulted in a large number of transgressions and patrol face-offs. The PLA’s reluctance to exchange maps showing each other’s perception of the alignment of the LAC and its failure to sincerely implement painstakingly negotiated agreements and confidence building measures (CBMs), are the major causes of friction.

China is in physical occupation of 38,000 sq km of Indian territory on the Aksai Chin plateau in Ladakh. The area under Chinese occupation is larger than Taiwan. China also claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh – 96,000 sq km – which it calls ‘Southern Tibet’, all the way down to the Brahmaputra river. The LAC between India and Tibet, which came into being after the 1962 war, has not yet been physically demarcated on the ground and delineated on military maps and is a major destabilising factor. The two sides have varying perceptions of where the LAC runs and have failed to even exchange maps showing each other’s perception. Destabilising incidents such as the armed clash at Nathu La in 1967 and the Wang Dung stand-off of 1986 have occurred in the past. The deep transgression by the PLA into the Depsang plateau near Daulat Beg Oldie in Ladakh in April-May 2013 may have flared up into an armed clash if the PLA had not blinked first and backed off.

Both sides habitually send patrols up to the point at which, in their perception, the LAC runs. Patrol face-offs are commonplace. A drill has been evolved to tell the other patrol to withdraw peacefully. Both sides carry large banners in each other’s language and English. These are unfurled to tell the other patrol that it has transgressed the LAC and must go back. So far both sides have been going back peacefully after leaving some tell-tale signs like biscuit and cigarette wrappers and creating a ‘burji’ or a pile of stones to mark their presence. Patrol face-offs have an element of tension built into them and despite the best of military training the possibility of an armed clash can never be ruled out. Such a clash with heavy casualties can lead to a larger border incident that may not remain localised.

The government invariably advises caution, but it is extremely difficult for commanders of troops to advocate a soft line to their subordinates. There is an inherent contradiction in sending soldiers to patrol what they believe are Indian areas and simultaneously telling them that they must not under any circumstances fire on the intruding Chinese soldiers. The Depsang plateau stand-off clearly showed how intractable the challenge is and how loaded the situation can become. Of late the PLA has been rather aggressive in its patrolling and transgressions of the LAC have registered a marked increase in number. Hence, the foremost priority of Indian diplomatic engagement with the Chinese should be to clearly demarcate the LAC without prejudice to each other’s territorial claims.

Though the two countries have signed a large number of agreements to maintain peace on the border and the Special Representatives of the two Prime Ministers have met sixteen times to find a solution to the territorial and boundary dispute, not much progress has been made. The first two major agreements on this issue between India and China included the Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, signed on September 7, 1993; and, the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas, signed on November 29, 1996. These were followed by the landmark Agreement on Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question; and, the Protocol on Modalities for the Implementation of Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in India-China Border Areas, both signed on April 11, 2005.

The Agreement on Establishment of a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, followed on January 17, 2012. The measures agreed upon include regular consultations and flag meetings or telephone and video conferences during emergencies along the LAC. The joint mechanism was expected to help prevent misunderstanding between the two countries arising from incursions into each other's territory and to study ways to strengthen exchanges and cooperation between military personnel on the ground. The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) was signed on October 23, 2013. This agreement commits the two sides to periodic meetings of military and civilian officers and to exchange information – including information about military exercises, aircraft movements, demolition operations and unmarked mines. It emphasises the avoidance of border patrols “tailing” each other and recommends that the two sides “may consider” establishing a hot-line between military headquarters in both countries. 

None of these agreements have achieved the intended objectives as the PLA continues to transgress the LAC and tensions persist. In fact, the PLA has been exhibiting an aggressive attitude towards other military adversaries as well. PLA Air Force aircraft have buzzed American aircraft several times and have come dangerously close. One American aircraft was actually hit mid-air and forced to land. Japan has also complained about PLA Air Force fighter aircraft coming too close to Japanese aircraft. In December 2013, a US Navy guided missile cruiser was forced to take evasive action to avoid colliding with a PLA Navy ship in the South China Sea in what US Navy sources called a highly deliberate and irresponsible act by the PLA navy. In early-September 2014, a ship of the Indian Navy, INS Airavat, was harassed by the PLA Navy when it was sailing in open international waters in the South China Sea about 45 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast.

Clearly, there is a wide gap between the stated intentions of China’s top leadership to improve relations with India and the aggressive border management posture adopted by the PLA. President XI Jinping would do well to hold a meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and rein in the PLA so that it stops running its own foreign policy. Aggressive border management that is not consistent with the stated aims and objectives of China’s foreign policy will only further degrade the security relationship between the two countries.

Views expressed are personal.

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Brig Gurmeet Kanwal
Former Director
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