The Line of Control (LOC), the Line of Actual Control (LAC) hereinafter the LINES, and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, are denoted by huge dissimilarities, as chalk and cheese. The 772 km LOC with Pakistan is delineated, and has Anti Infiltration Obstacle System, except in the Kargil Sector. The LOC had over decades extensive eyeball to eyeball defensive positions manned by the Army, with some units of Border Security Forces under command. It was based (despite the delineation) on the philosophy of holder-keepers, implying that the force occupying any position would de facto own it. Indeed, it has remained a hot border, denoted by near continual firing across the LOC, the operations of Border Action Teams and the incessant attempts by Pakistan to infiltrate terrorists. The 121.5 km AGPL, an extension of LOC from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Range, has similar defences on dizzy heights of the Saltoro Range facing Gilgit-Baltistan.
The 826 km LAC in Eastern Ladakh with China draws its history from Mr Chou en Lai’s 1959 letter to PM Nehru that referred to line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west. The 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement between China and India recognised the LAC, with the unstated but underlying hope that a formalised LAC would eventually be delineated and demarcated. A series of Protocols and Confidence Building Measures enunciated in subsequent Agreements failed to serve the cause of peace and tranquillity on the border, without formalising the LAC, rather on the very contrary. To be fair, the LAC was dominated only by patrols, up to what Indian and Chinese Armies had deemed to be their LAC. Till about a decade or so ago, the LAC in Eastern Ladakh was manned largely by Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), with a limited presence of Army units, and with limited altercations. With increasing Chinese Army transgressions, the Indian Army reviewed its posture and deployment about a decade ago, to challenge PLA’s creepingly increasing push forward by its patrols, which led to repeated fracas and some longish face-offs, contravening the Agreements.
With that a backgrounder overview, it is necessary to flash forward to the present and the future of the LINES. The holder-keepers notion of LOC was put to rest finally during the 1999 Kargil War, when the areas surreptitiously occupied by Pakistan Army in Western Ladakh, were recaptured by the Indian Army. Despite the ceasefire of 2003, the LOC has largely remained hot and tense in form and substance, with Pakistan retaining its entrenched policy of pushing in terrorists. Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir is undergoing calamitous makeover with new roads, power plants, hydropower dams and SEZs, as part of CPEC. Gilgit-Baltistan’s large mineral deposits – metallic, non-metallic, energy minerals, precious and dimension stones, and rocks of differing industrial value are being extensively mined by corporations mainly from China. This is apparent in areas in upper Hunza, like Chapursan Valley, where the Chinese have done both tunnel building and mineral exploration. Of the 2000 mining lease licenses for exploitation of minerals in the region, 300 were awarded to Chinese mining companies in Ghanche District flanking Saltoro Range for uranium, gold, copper, marble and precious stones. The pressure on the LOC will hence continue as hither to fore, and may even heighten tensions.
On the LAC, Indian Army had endeavoured to ensure peace and sanity over the last three decades. India had hopes that insulation of lack of progress on demarcation/ delineation of Line of Actual Control (LAC), from burgeoning trade and economic interdependence, will promote peace. In one stroke of 2020, these three decades of negotiations, Agreements, CBMs and protocols stand discarded and thrown away to waste in deliberate, well-planned, premeditated aggression by the PLA. Protracted meetings over four months, seeking to resolve the imbroglio, and a status quo ante of April 2020 situation, remained a nought. This followed a bold and expansive operation by Indian Army in the Chushul Sector, astride the Spangur Gap, that close to turned the tables on China. Indian forces are in a strong defensive posture on the entire Front, with some sub-sectoral advantages, and with prowess to offensively defend. The situation hence remains tense, and abnormal, literally on razor’s edge.
India has to accept this latest eventology with the all the graveness that it demands. After the obdurateness that lasted four months, there is seemingly a change in the Chinese stand. State Councillor Wang Yi referring to post 15 June 2020 had stated, “This risky act of the Indian army seriously violated the agreement reached between the two countries on the border issue and seriously violated the basic norms of international relations.” However, in tone and tenor his Paris recently was different, “…there will always be problems with India of the kind witnessed in Ladakh because the boundary wasn’t demarcated… China wouldn’t be the first to escalate the situation and was committed to managing all issues through dialogue.” At the insistence of the Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, meeting took place with Indian Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh at Moscow to discuss the current imbroglio. And as officially stated, the External Affairs Minister Jaishankar will be meeting State Councillor Wang Yi at Moscow on 10 Sep 2020. That is a flurry of tête-à-têtes, happening post the Indian Army’s operations of 29/30 August 2020.
It is apparent that there will be a desire to find a rapprochement, a way out of the tenseness of the situation on the border. China is in a peculiar internal and external situation, where the hierarchy would hate the idea of a botched-up operation or even parity. President Xi and the CCP have assiduously pushed to heighten nationalism. “…the target audience of nationalistic rhetoric has drastically shifted … to primarily the domestic population. China’s nationalism … has also become increasingly bellicose, adopting characteristics of what some term “assertive” or “aggressive” nationalism.1 However, in a survey undertaken in China, “…Seventy percent of respondents believed the avoidance of war should be the most important principle in Chinese foreign policy. This contrasts with the popular assumption that nationalism promotes warmongering attitudes.2 Internationally, though many a developing nation is inexorably tied to its economic and technological coat-tails, China has not exactly created a soft power, a voluntary endearment (less Pakistan and North Korea).
Mindful of the nationalistic fervour and under pressure to ‘save face’ China will coerce us to accept a soft option like another set of protocols and CBMs or disengagement with caveats or concessions. Without deep forethought, these could be lapped up with short term euphoria and rhetoric of victory! It must be unequivocally stated that CBMs have a finite life of their own, and cannot endlessly provide confidence. The ceasefire on LOC is a case in point, which commenced and lasted for a time successfully, but currently, only exists on paper. This brings in the question of the conceived end state of the ongoing talks. Contextually, five broad pointers are projected:
- The omnipotent question is that will seeking just that status quo of April 2020 suffice? It is argued that April 2020 definition and architecture of management of LAC without formal delineation and demarcation will ever remain flawed and anarchic. If long term view is not taken in the ensuing talks, there may be a next clash, which could be even bloodier, and escalatory. Peace will not be guaranteed by policy of appeasement and restraints exercised by Indian troops manning the border. Even before a status quo is endeavoured, a formal agreement on procedural, time bound movement on delineation and demarcation is mandatory, and must not be buried in diplomatese.
- Post the 1962 war, China had proposed that either side should withdraw 20 km from where its forces had reached. After Galwan incident, it was reported in July 2020, that a ‘buffer zone’ has been created. Similar concessions have been presumably sought in North bank of Pangong Tso. It is likely that in talks that might take place henceforth, this notion of ‘buffer zone’ would be on the table. A buffer zone, a kind of ‘no-man’s-land’, must not be accepted as any measure of disengagement on the LAC. The PLA will be greatly advantaged in creating such a zone, and will tantamount to further pushback for Indian Army. Buffer zones will become willy-nilly loss of territory, deny us creation of additional proximate infrastructure and push our deployment way back.
- Before any disengagement at LAC, the issue of mobilising additional forces in proximity of LAC – as undertaken by PLA recently, need to be discussed. Such threatening move is counterproductive to Agreements and Protocols. A methodology of intimation and warning of any mobilisation, even for training, should be built in. In the current problem, even before disengagement on the LAC is accepted, the Chinese move back of the forces in depth must be assured.
- To sustain our units and formations, infrastructure construction is mandatory, exactly as PLA had undertaken. It also must be clarified that civil works undertaken by the Union Territory Administration in Ladakh, for example water supply scheme to villages, are developmental issues, will continue and must be acceptable. Case in point in the stagnant issue of water supply scheme at Demchock.
- There is an optimal necessity of tempering the rhetoric and curbing the euphoria. The Global times in China carries the confrontational banner, the latest being the grave threat that the “scale of war may not be controlled near the LAC”. On Indian side too, there has been belligerent cacophony and incendiary printed matter. There may have been narrational voids in information dissemination, relying as we had been on historical procrastination, allowing events to mend on their own. We need to drive the agenda, remain on top of events in the all-important informational domain, and mellow the cacophony.
As a stop-press, the Western Theatre Command of China has alleged that Indian troops had “outrageously fired warning shots” at PLA troops. Again the omnipresent question is that will the future witness LOC-isation of the LAC, a near continuous warring front from Chenab River to Mt Gya? While this may be a hyperbole, an overstatement, yet it imposes the right direction to the future parleys. In this matter, it is also imperative to establish lines of communication with diverse functionaries in China, like the Central Military Commission and the International Division of the Communist Party of China.
The LAC of April 2020 and Sep 2020 has hence no equations; devoid of trust, with amended rules of engagement and opposing forces are arrayed in close proximity in a belligerent and tense manner. The paradigm that Chinese have presented clearly surmises that an overhaul of Indian policies towards China is inevitable and mandatory. A national decision arrived at apex to resolve the border (as done for the enclaves on Bangladesh border) with any ‘give or take’ is definitely different than creating buffer zone or simple disengagement. And till resolved politically, the LAC as we know sacred territory, even if the amended paradigm is a fait accompli. The notion of territorial sovereignty is a defined territory, which is both a physical and a legal reality. The constancy of threat calls for India to envision the changed policy paradigm, and prepare for the same. Meanwhile, this is an opportune time to contemplate basic parameters for resolutory discussions at diplomatic levels.