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China's Preference for Border Peace and Control over Early Resolution

M S Prathibha is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 14, 2015

    When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China in May 2015, one of his objectives was to persuade the Chinese leadership to restart discussions on the clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) through the exchange of maps. The rationale for India’s demand was that, pending a final settlement of the border question, LAC clarification would help ease border tensions. But the Chinese leadership was not enthusiastic about India’s proposal. Instead, China called for a comprehensive ‘code of conduct’ for the forces deployed along the border. Here, it is useful to remember that both LAC clarification and Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) are part of the agreed principles in the 2005 agreement. This mismatch in desired outcomes was the main obstacle in the recent border talks, and it showed once again India and China’s contrasting approaches to border negotiations at large.

    India considers recurrent border tensions to be the result of the differing perceptions of the border held by the two countries. Hence, its insistence on clarification of the LAC. Disagreeing with this Indian assessment, China contends that border tensions are caused by India’s efforts to modernise border infrastructure, equipment and personnel, and thereby concretise territorial claims. For instance, India’s announcement of the establishment of 54 new Border Out Posts (BOP) led China to caution India to refrain from actions that might “complicate” the boundary issue.1 China often resorts to military patrols and other measures not only to strengthen its own claims but also to counter Indian efforts in the border region. But at the same time it advocates a ‘code of conduct’ as an appropriate mechanism for maintaining border peace.2

    India’s reluctance to consider a ‘code of conduct’ suggests that it entertains reservations about agreeing to restrictions on its plans for infrastructure development in the border region. Perhaps, this reluctance is because of two inferences. One, that the Chinese proposal is aimed at limiting India’s military and infrastructure modernisation, and thereby enabling China to preserve its military advantage in Tibet. And two, accepting the Chinese proposal could potentially curtail the ability to effectively patrol and intercept PLA movements in territory claimed by India. India also seems to believe that the ‘code of conduct’ approach has been sufficiently addressed in the 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013 agreements with China3 and, therefore, an elaboration of the code of conduct is unlikely to prove sufficient to address flare-ups along the border. Further, if LAC clarification does not figure in border negotiations, then a more expansive code of conduct would only restrict India’s flexibility. All these indicate that while India is seeking an ‘early’ border resolution, China’s preference in the near term is for border peace and control.

    China maintains that LAC clarification is too complicated a matter to be addressed at the present juncture. Therefore, in the meantime, it would be more prudent to agree on a ‘code of conduct’ for border troops, among other things. In fact, following the 18th Special Representative Talks in Beijing between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and State Councillor Yang Jiechi in March 2015, it appeared that China was disinterested in LAC clarification as part of border talks. China’s assessment was that the border talks were positive. But this was at odds with India’s expectations of moving forward on LAC clarification. It was India’s failure to comprehend this Chinese posture and its consequent misjudgement of China’s responses to the border talks that appears to have led to the expectation during Modi’s visit that political and diplomatic tools could be used to convince China to address the deadlock in border negotiations.

    Modi sought to leverage India’s unique strategic position (with many countries seeking closer strategic relationships with India) to convey to the Chinese leadership that it is in China’s best interests to be flexible in the border negotiations. In his press statement, Modi stated that China should take a “strategic and long-term view of (our) relations”, hinting that LAC clarification is important for overall stability.4 India also publicly reaffirmed its support for the Chinese suggestion of a “three-step” process of negotiations and a “mutually acceptable solution”.5 Modi also conveyed a more nuanced position on the border talks in his speech at Tsinghua University, where he reaffirmed the principle of “mutual and equal security”. In essence, he was relaying to the Chinese leadership the message that India finds the existing situation untenable given its concerns about asymmetric infrastructure standards on the Indian and Chinese sides of the border. The message was also that LAC clarification would lessen the security dilemma in the relationship and thus ensure mutual security. At the same time, India also extended assurances to assuage Chinese concerns that it might eventually turn a clarified LAC into a permanent border. In this regard, Modi stated that the clarification is possible “without prejudice to our position on the boundary question”.6

    As mentioned earlier, China’s view is that a surge in Indian infrastructure and equipment in the border regions may allow India to assert that it has de facto control during negotiations. In this context, LAC clarification would only strengthen India’s claims. Therefore, despite India’s assurances to the contrary, the two countries were unable to arrive at an agreement on restarting LAC clarification. This is indeed a cause for concern as the two countries have been negotiating a framework for boundary settlement since 2005.

    Border negotiations were envisaged to unfold in three phases.7 The first phase involved establishing political parameters for a boundary settlement, which was successfully concluded when the ‘Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principle for the Settlement of the Boundary Question’ was signed in April 2005. The second phase is about evolving a framework for boundary settlement. Ongoing negotiations are attempting to do exactly that. If India and China were to finalise such a framework, then in the final phase, they would delineate and demarcate the boundary. According to the 2005 agreement, an agreed framework would “provide a basis for delineation and demarcation” of the boundary. While evolving a framework, factors such as settled population, ethnicity, natural geographical features, and local tradition are to be taken into consideration.

    Negotiations for a framework agreement have, however, stalled. While China is unwilling to agree on LAC clarification along the entire alignment of the border and is instead pressing for a ‘code of conduct’ as a part of CBMs, India is emphasising upon LAC clarification even as CBMs are discussed. As India’s infrastructure modernisation progresses, its capability to intercept Chinese troops and strengthen its claims would increase, which, in turn, could prompt more stand-offs in the future. It is therefore imperative that India and China enunciate the extent to which an immediate LAC clarification or a comprehensive ‘code of conduct’ contributes to the framework agreement.

    China often uses border incursions to assert control, seek gains, and deny India tactical advantage. Even if China has not stated that it cannot settle the border question with India in the immediate future, its actions certainly hint at its preference for border peace and control over an early resolution.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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