Who will blink first?

28 Feb 2008


Prem Shankar JhaThe Army Chief, General Kapoor, has done the nation a service by admitting candidly that Indian patrols along the line of Actual Control have intruded into what the Chinese consider their territory as often as Chinese patrols have intruded into what we consider ours.

This has pricked the balloon of righteous alarm that some unnamed persons in the security establishment had been inflating, via the media, in the last year or more.  The truth, Gen Kapoor's remarks serve to remind us that the possibility of unintended intrusion has existed ever since the two countries decided, under the 1994 Agreement on Peace and Tranquillity in the Border Regions, to withdraw their forces at least 15 kilometres behind what each considered to be the LAC.

As the years passed and the demarcation remained incomplete it was inevitable that the each army would send out patrols, both to remind the other of its claims and to make itself familiar with the area, in case it ever became necessary to defend it.  Since most of these patrols have been sent to the parts of the LAC that remain to be demarcated, the confrontations that have arisen from time to time are nothing more than a physical outcome of the lack of accord on where the LAC should run. By themselves therefore these reflect no ulterior motive and signify no policy shift by either government.

One does not know whether or not to take at face value Gen. Kapoor's other assertion that the number of intrusions in 2007 was about the same as in previous years. If that is so then there must have been a qualitative change in the strength and depth of the intrusions for the security establishment to raise the alarm, and for India to have reinforced the Arunachal border.

A qualitative change would not be surprising because Beijing has been showing a growing impatience with the stalemate in the Sino-Indian border demarcation talks for almost two years. It sent an unequivocal signal only a week before President Hu Jintao visited India in November 2006, when the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi reminded viewers of a television programme of his country's claims to Aunachal Pradesh. It sent a second signal in May last year when it refused a visa to an official from Arunachal Pradesh.  An increase in the intensity of patrolling along the LAC is almost certainly the third.

India responded to the first two reminders by asserting, through a  parliamentary resolution, that Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India. It has responded to the third by sending 6,000 additional troops up to the Arunachal border. And just four weeks ago Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a visit to Arunachal and reiterated, at the state capital, that the state was an integral part of India. All of these countermoves have been based on a profound misunderstanding of Beijing's motives.

New Delhi has interpreted its recent actions an attempt to reopen a largely settled issue. This is based upon its understanding of the 1994 accord as a de facto settlement of the border dispute, with only the demarcation of the precise border left to be completed. In line with prevailing international practice it had assumed that notwithstanding explicit disclaimers in the 1994 accord, China understood that in time the de facto border would become a de jure one.

It has therefore viewed Beijing's recent actions as an attempt to reopen a nearly settled issue. Its several unilateral assertions and its reinforcement of the border are intended to send the message that India is not prepared to reopen the issue.

The Chinese have lodged protests against these moves because they have a completely different interpretation of the 1994 agreement and its aftermath. An unsigned but obviously official explanation of Beijing's position made clear on 25 October 1962, that the Chinese adamantly rejected India's right to claim the legitimacy of borders drawn by the British when it was denying the legitimacy of Britain's very presence in, and rule over, India.

They welcomed the 1994 agreement because it reflected India's willingness to abandon that claim and to work out a solution based on history, mutual interest and compromise.  To them therefore the 1994 agreement marked not the end but the beginning of real negotiations with India for demarcating a mutually accepted border. The demarcation of the LAC was to be the first, but not last step in this process.

Talks got bogged down when the Chinese began to suspect that the demarcation of the LAC was all that India had in mind. This deadlock was broken when the Vajpayee and Jiang Zemin governments agreed to appoint special representatives who would establish the overall 'political principles' within which the LAC would be demarcated. Beijing saw  this as  New Delhi's acceptance of its position.

The pace of progress then picked up: India changed its formulation on Tibet; China agreed to regard Sikkim as a part of India. And on that other bone of contention, the Tawang tract, it agreed to a political formula that would leave the status of inhabited areas undisturbed. That put Tawang town and monastery out of the reckoning. 

It is only when India did not reciprocate by making concessions in the rest of the largely uninhabited Tawang tract that Beijing began to grow impatient and administer pinpricks.  More recently it has also suggested that it no longer considers itself bound by the agreement it reached over inhabited areas, with the previous regime.

Delhi may see its recent actions as the reassertion of a legal stand, but the Chinese  see them as unilateral moves to foreclose  the space for  negotiation. In the Confucian mindset, which really rules Chinese statecraft despite its 40-year brush with communism, this is 'unreasonable'.

It therefore lifts the shackles on the resort to force. That does not mean that China will necessarily do so. But New Delhi would do well to avoid taking any more legalistic positions in deference to domestic politics. The parallels with 1962 are getting uncomfortably close.

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