The next ‘informal summit’ between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be held in Varanasi on 12 October. The announcement of the date has been accompanied in recent days by a series of reports on the state of affairs on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries.
In recent years, some transgressions on the LAC have developed into serious confrontations between the two armies as in the case of Depsang in 2013, Chumur the following year and in Pangong Tso in 2017 in the midst of the Doklam standoff in Bhutan.
While reports of LAC transgressions by the Chinese have reduced in number since the Modi government came to power, this might simply be because leaks to the press were plugged. Certainly, it would not be in character for the Chinese to stop their activities along the LAC just because they have made promises to this effect.
In May this year while general elections in India were still on, a video surfaced from the Western Sector of the boundary dispute in Ladakh that purported to show large-scale Chinese construction activity with up to a 100 vehicles and a couple of hundred personnel involved. The video was shot on mobile phones by locals in the Fukche-Koyul area of Demchok.
A few days ago, it was reported again from the same area that Chinese civilians “came 6-7 kilometres inside our territory and planted their flags.” The occasion seemed to be the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 84th birthday when the Indian national flag as well as Tibetan and Buddhist flags were raised. The Indian Army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, however, declared the following day that “there has been no intrusion” and went on to add “We have very good working relations with China”.
Indeed, the same day (13 July) another news report in The Indian Express quoted “[t]op government officials” as saying, “50 per cent of the friction areas between the two militaries on the contentious border have been reduced” in the wake of the Wuhan Summit.
It might be recalled that at the first ‘informal summit’ both leaders had “issued strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding.”
It was inferred then that there was mutual agreement to do away with “aggressive patrolling” by the two armies on the LAC. Several measures such as staggered timings for patrols, maintaining a certain physical distance from each other, and more frequent meetings between local commanders, among others appear to have helped in some areas. However, in the most sensitive areas of Ladakh and of Sikkim, the aforementioned officials admitted these measures “have not worked”.
In essence, we come back to the same problem that when the area is really important or sensitive for one side, there appears little likelihood of compromise and therefore, that much more incentive for the other side to push the envelope.
The nature of the boundary dispute is such that maintaining presence in or access to claimed areas is essentially the main objective of army patrols on both sides because these are useful either from a military vantage point or as bargaining chips at negotiations.
Given this reality it is unlikely that “aggressive patrolling” or tailing of each other’s patrols will stop on the ground or that “escorted patrols” will be successful for any length of time. This will especially be so as the two sides build up infrastructure and temptation increases to strengthen claim over disputed areas and/or extend claim lines.
While the importance of political guidance from the top on both sides in lowering tensions and ensuring better behaviour cannot be understated, this also implies that if understanding breaks down at the top, we might well return to the period of frequent transgressions on the LAC as well as possibly, escalation.
The million-dollar question, therefore, is of how long the spirit of the ‘informal summit’ and personal understanding between Modi and Xi will last and if conditions exist to sustain this understanding. It might be recalled that the push for the Wuhan summit and the so-called ‘reset’ in bilateral ties came not just from the difficulties in the relationship created by Doklam but likely also as a result of China’s increasing preoccupation with the trade war the US had just launched and of the Modi government’s desire to have the China front calm in the run-up to a series of local elections as well as the upcoming general elections.
With the Donald Trump administration now appearing willing to cut deals on the trade war with the Chinese and Modi basking in the glow of a thumping electoral victory, might the leaderships in India and China now feel less need to keep up appearances? For India, a significant flow of Chinese capital in the service of Indian economic growth could help improve views of China but for Beijing, capital flows are a political bargaining tool and for this reason might end up alienating New Delhi with excessive demands – a case in point, Beijing’s warning to India to stay out of the business of choosing the Dalai Lama’s successor.
India-China relations might be entering a new, more sensitive phase. The two leaderships have much to discuss at Varanasi.
A version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘India-China ties: LAC transgressions will continue’, Moneycontrol, 16 July 2019.