Foreign Policy

India-China Border Agreement: Much Ado about Nothing

Beijing successfully engineered signing a border defense cooperation agreement (BDCA) with India on October 23, 2013, in what seems to be a Chinese plot to subvert the debate surrounding its recent strategic offensive behavior. While the agreement seems to have set a positive tone to future talks between New Delhi and Beijing, it does not ...

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Beijing successfully engineered signing a border defense cooperation agreement (BDCA) with India on October 23, 2013, in what seems to be a Chinese plot to subvert the debate surrounding its recent strategic offensive behavior. While the agreement seems to have set a positive tone to future talks between New Delhi and Beijing, it does not translate into any substantial shift in the Chinese policy. The latest mechanism is a mere token agreement that has not resulted in tangible progress on the ground.

India and China display a peculiar case of "constrained cooperation," in which the convergence of their economic interests tends to mask their prevailing strategic differences. Yet these divergences, of which the territorial and boundary dispute is foremost, still hold the potential of upstaging ties at any point.

This was demonstrated in April 2013, when a platoon-strength contingent of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded deep inside the Depsang Plateau in eastern Ladakh, a region of Jammu and Kashmir that shares a border with China. The troops pitched tents in Indian-claimed territory, violating earlier confidence-building measures and pushing India into a diplomatic and military tizzy.

What perhaps is most distressing is that China’s Depsang offensive happened despite numerous meetings of the India-China Joint Working Group and four confidence-building agreements, signed in 1993, 1996, 2005, and 2012. In addition to the Depsang occurrence, border guards of the PLA have repeatedly intruded into the eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh, a state in northeast India, and the northern Ladakh sector.

The writing on the wall following the Depsang incident was clear. China holds the political and military will and capability to covertly notch up tensions in the Himalayas with India, at any time and place of its choosing.

Given that China and India have not mutually agreed upon a Line of Actual Control (LAC), sporadic incidents of border transgressions increasingly appear to be becoming a covert Chinese strategy of asserting its claims in India’s western sector, especially in northeastern Ladakh and in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector. The LAC is not physically demarcated on the ground or in military maps, and there is continuing reluctance and official refusals by China to show its version of the LAC to India-thus pointing towards a larger ploy of progressively building up a case for its claims in eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

China and India reiterated in the latest BDCA that neither side would use its military capability against the other. But in the event of China launching another underhanded operation in Arunachal Pradesh or the Ladakh sector, what picture would emerge?

Following the Depsang incident, India announced that both sides would pull back troops to their earlier positions along the LAC. But China haggled with India, agreeing to withdraw its troops from Indian territory provided that New Delhi tear down a line of defensive fortification in an area called Chumar. China also managed to get India to restrict its forward patrols in the area and unflinchingly negotiated for a BDCA. At this stage, India cannot afford to give in to further Chinese demands, such as suspending infrastructure development in its own territory near the LAC. Has China ever offered an explanation for the blizzard in infrastructure construction it is carrying out in the Tibet Autonomous Region adjoining India?

China’s cross-frontier incursions undermine the spirit of every confidence-building measure relating to the border areas New Delhi and Beijing have undertaken. The Depsang incident of 2013 casts an ominous shadow on Chinese intentions with respect to the border issue and sweeps away the spirit of the prior border-peace arrangements. In terms of making tangible progress toward a breakthrough on the larger question of border resolution, India and China have failed abjectly.

A toothless agreement

It appears that China has successfully managed to call the shots in the drafting of the BDCA by skirting the primary issue of resolving the boundary dispute. There are no lucid answers as to how exactly the BDCA stands apart from the other confidence-building measures that India already shares with China vis-à-vis the border question. And in many respects, the BDCA is loaded in China’s favor.

For example, the BDCA’s Article II stipulates that the two countries should share strategic information, but it does not elaborate on what specifically constitutes "information about military exercises, aircraft, demolition operations and unmarked mines." It is doubtful that China will be transparent enough to provide information about its military and cargo flights to forward landing strips near the borders. Article II also appears to be drafted so as to provide a cover for the Chinese Air Force in "locating aerial vehicles that may have crossed or are possibly in the process of crossing the line of actual control" in the border areas – suggesting China may be upping the ante and securing the possibility of launching an air offensive in these areas.

Overall, the BDCA remains a commitment-deficient agreement. It contains no binding assurance that the Indian and Chinese military headquarters will set up a hotline, stating that the two sides "may consider" the move. Article VI states that there would be "no tailing" of each other’s patrols in disputed forward areas. However, Indian border guards placed to check and prevent such incursions have been met with an antagonistic Chinese PLA.

Article III elaborates the process through which the BDCA shall be implemented through meetings between border personnel, military officers, and other departments and groups. There is nothing novel in these announcements; they have been in place for many years.

A problem "left over from history"

The banality of the text of the latest border defense cooperation agreement is proof that India is losing to China in terms of strategic leverage. With recent confidence-building measures only seeking to "consult" and "coordinate" border affairs, the ability of these mechanisms to achieve any sort of breakthrough to the interminable territorial and boundary dispute between China and India appears increasingly doubtful.

Instead, China has chosen to use the BDCA as a platform which provides it official cover to bide its time and strike when the Chinese political and military leadership see a window of vulnerability. Chinese politico-military history contains many references to dealing with obdurate problems "left over from history" by patiently waiting to resolve them "once conditions are ripe," in the words of the China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, famously stated, "Engage people with what they expect … It settles them into predictable patterns of response, while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate."

Demonstrating politico-military belligerence and stealth on various fronts appears to have become a defining feature of Chinese strategy, be it the protracted standoffs with India over the border, with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, or with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal. China’s creation of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone by on November 23 is testament to Chinese attempts at force projection that provides a stage for the long-term Chinese strategy of chipping away at contested claims with India.

Beijing appears intent at keeping the border dispute alive as a tactical pressure point against India. China seems to be awaiting an opportune moment in which the existing military asymmetry with India will widen and Beijing will be positioned to bring the dispute to a close on its own terms.

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, where she heads the China-study program. Follow her on Twitter at @MonikaChansoria