China–India ties: lessons from a Himalayan standoff

China–India ties: lessons from a Himalayan standoff
May 19th, 2013
Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

It is remarkable the sort of anxiety that a handful of lightly armed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers and their dog can educe on a disputed frontier.
On 15 April three dozen or so such soldiers, many miles removed from reinforcement or logistical support, pitched their tents in a demonstrative assertion of presence at a barren — albeit sensitive — frontier point a dozen miles inside what New Delhi considers to be the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on their disputed border. Alarmist commentary immediately latched on to familiar tropes of Chinese assertiveness, territorial revisionism and the need for President Xi to establish his hard-line credentials, among others.

Just as opinion was being softened to contemplate a prolonged occupation along supposedly the most dangerous border in the world, a telephone call from National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to his counterpart in Beijing, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, wound down the three-week-long impasse to the satisfaction of both sides. Crisis communications channels institutionalised during a recent warming trend in relations — a foreign ministry director general-level border mechanism, special representatives-level links — functioned as intended. Activation of the prime ministers-level hotline was not required.

By comparison, China’s months-long control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea and its law enforcement assertions in Senkaku territorial waters continue unabated with institutional mechanisms to manage such crises practically non-existent. Frosty bilateral relations make this state of affairs unlikely to be reversed. A code of conduct in the South China Sea and a maritime communication mechanism in the East China Sea will first require that Manila and Tokyo engender an element of political quiet and trust in their respective relationships with Beijing.

The origins of the stand-off in the Ladakh Himalayas are in the recent construction of permanent structures by the Indian side at a (separate but) similarly sensitive forward observation point in the disputed western sector — a violation, for the Chinese side, of long-standing border protocols. That the Indian post abuts an arterial road link (Aksai Chin highway) that connects Xinjiang to Tibet prompted Beijing to establish its own skeletal presence barely two-dozen miles removed from the strategic China-India-Pakistan border tri-junction area. With both sides having telegraphed their respective strengths and sensitivities, the PLA presence and the Indian construction activity were thereafter withdrawn.

Provocative probes and presence-marking operations that were implicitly directed at undermining China’s control of the strategic Aksai Chin highway, a core strategic interest, at a time when Tibet was in ferment, had been a key precipitating cause of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Rather than submit to the errors of the past, as some quarters short-sightedly counselled, the Manmohan Singh government displayed exemplary patience and sensitivity in acknowledging the shared nature of the strategic vulnerabilities along the Sino-Indian frontier. That India’s boundary policy is framed within a long-standing context of strict bilateralism with no scope for third-party interference or instigation — despite the asymmetry in power — was surely a helpful factor too.

Both China and India have sought to minimise the incident as an isolated case. Beijing’s known irritation for some time though over the Indian forward observation post in eastern Ladakh suggests that the timing of the stand-off — coming in the advent of Premier Li Keqiang’s inaugural visit to India — was anything but accidental.

Rather it was intended to politically test and establish the Singh government’s commitment at its highest reaches to Sino-Indian relationship management as well as anticipate the degree of reciprocity that Beijing can expect as it embarks on what is likely to be an active —and favourable — phase in Sino-Indian boundary negotiations. In Shivshankar Menon, New Delhi’s Special Representative (SR) on the boundary talks, Beijing will find a willing counterpart consummately versed in resolving the dispute from a principles-based, strategic perspective and wholly committed to fashioning a productive equation with rising Chinese power.

As Beijing’s earlier misgivings of a pro-American tilt in India’s strategic orientation have eased, a horizon of opportunity to reach workable transitional solutions to the boundary dispute has also opened up. New Delhi’s reluctance to be appended to a revised Quadrilateral Initiative in any way, shape or form suggests that it too shares a similar view of the opportunity at hand. New Delhi’s casual flirtation with the Quad and its China-encirclement connotations in May 2007, it bears remembering, was a key trigger for the cyclical downturn in ties.

In January 2012, a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs was finalised following an in-principle understanding reached at the 2011 Sanya BRICS Summit. When Prime Minister Singh pays a return visit to China later this year — a rare instance of back-to-back premier-level visits that has not occurred since 1954 — a Beijing-prompted Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), which does away with the most persistent day-to-day irritants along the LAC, is expected to be signed. A joint agreed record of the SR-level boundary deliberations, serving as a guidepost for future negotiations and a basis for working out an understanding on the alignment of the LAC, is also expected to be finalised.

Both India and China remain conspicuously committed to an alternative model of international relations that is open, pluralistic and non-interventionist in its conception and eschews the imposition of bloc-based approaches or closed-ended arrangements. A year that has witnessed a stand-off bearing shades of 1962 is likely to end up a lot closer to resembling the Panchsheel spirit of 1954.

Sourabh Gupta is Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc., Washington, DC.



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