During his visit to China in May, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested resumption of the process of identifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC) of the India–China border, without prejudice to the respective positions of the two countries on the border question. Modi revealed this idea while speaking at the prestigious Tsinghua University on May 15 in the presence of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. There was no immediate response from the Chinese authorities.
More recently, in the first week of June, a senior official of Asia department of the Chinese foreign ministry, Huang Xilian, suggested a Code of Conduct on the border to promote peace and tranquility, to make things easier and not more complicated. Huang was speaking to a group of Indian journalists and members of a visiting think tank. He added that identification of the LAC was tried some years ago but it made things more complicated.
The process of identifying the LAC was stalled in 2005, when there was an exchange of maps of the Western Sector of the border during a brief 20 – minute meeting. Soon after, China withdrew.
During this brief exchange of maps, Indian experts noticed that the Chinese had quietly encroached on Indian areas including in the Pangong So lake. This creeping acquisition of Indian territory continues, especially in the Western Sector. The Chinese follow Mao Zedong’s dictum – “Two steps forward, one step backward,” that is, intrude to an extent, withdraw when discovered, but retain some territory. In the vast unpopulated or sparsely populated areas, this is hardly noticed unless maps are scrutinized minutely.
Huang was responding to a question but he was well prepared. His response cannot be taken as official or unofficial. There is a middle ground, a strategy the Chinese use to keep one door open for deniability and another to claim at a point in the future as a proposal. Before moving forward either way, the Chinese authorities seek out a response from India. Such a response can be from the Indian government or non-government experts. The Indian government should not rush into a response. The implications need to be studied very carefully.
It may be recalled that in the late 1980s paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed a “package deal” for the resolution of the border issue. Later, the Chinese withdrew, saying the package deal was not a proposal. The so called proposal was totally bald with not a clue as to what the deal would include, in terms of principle and territory. The Chinese wanted to see the Indian reaction and plot it on a graph for negotiations. In India, there was confusion among many. One view that emerged was that the Chinese made proposals but India rejected them. Indians began to blame themselves till the process of the proposal was examined. When confronted by Indian diplomats their Chinese counterparts retorted that the “package deal” was only an idea and not a proposal.
The Indian strategists must examine the “Code of Conduct” concept or idea carefully, because in 2002 the Chinese proposed a Declaration of Code of Conduct (DOC) to the other claimants of the Spratly Islands in the South China sea, but no agreement on the DOC has been signed yet. The DOC advised restraint on all the claimants, but China quietly kept increasing its hold on the islands it controlled. Finally China has started creating islands in the South China sea, placing heavy military equipment on some of them and constructing airfields. At the same time China is blockading other claimant countries.
Constructing islands on submerged or semi-submerged reefs and rocks changes the characteristic of Chinese holdings. According to the UN Law of the Seas, islands belonging to a country gives it a right to territorial waters and exclusive economic zone of those islands.
The Sino-Indian border is not a replica of the South China sea and the Spratly islands.But rearranged, the potential could be extremely dangerous.
Just like the Spratly islands,China claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh,which it now calls Southern Tibet,another false statement of history,trying to create a new history.If a new Code of Conduct (COC) is established, China would object to any infrastructural work or augmentation of military structure or military deployment in Arunachal Pradesh. This would lead to another confrontational situation in the Eastern Sector of the border. Once China does that ,and it would so after great internal deliberations, the characteristic of the border negotiations will change to India’s disadvantage.
In the Western Sector it has made Aksai Chin non-negotiable. Basically, China appears to have withdrawn from its old position that if India makes some concessions in the East, it will “consider” some concessions in the West. Currently, China is moving towards a position that its claims in the Western Sector is non- negotiable.
Several Confidence Building Agreements on the border have been signed between the two countries, starting from the 1993 Peace and Tranquility Treaty to the most recent Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) in 2013. It is true that not a single shot has been fired. But there have been robust pushes from the Chinese military on the border,especially in 2015. Even without firing a shot, relations between the two countries was seriously threatened.
COC is not going to help clarify the Line of Actual Control.If at all, it will perpetuate the present unclear state of the line of control perception,and add new problems.
The Chinese are in no mood to resolve the boundary issue any time soon.The plan suggests efforts to strengthen Chinese claim on Indian territory by pushing the issue to the future.The only option for India is to hold firmly to its position on the border, and strengthen its defence posture along the India-China border.