Calcutta, India – After months of sabre-rattling by their armies and tough negotiations by their diplomats, India and China are finally ready to sign a new agreement to control tensions along their 4,000-kilometre-long Himalayan border, a senior official has said.
The draft of the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) will be discussed in the India-China Strategic dialogue that begins on August 20.
” The pact will be signed when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits China this year,” a top official at the prime minister’s office said on the condition of anonymity. The visit is being finalised and will possibly happen in October after Singh returns from the US. India and China fought a border war in October 1962 – something that this agreement will help to avoid in the future.
The BDCA aims to prevent face-offs between Indian and Chinese troops that could spark confrontation. “The BDCA will be timely because it will prove the determination of the two leaderships to maintain peace and tranquility on their borders and improve their bilateral relationship,” the PMO official said, who was not willing to be named as he is not yet authorised to formally brief the media.
The agreement was actually proposed by the Chinese in January, but negotiations ran into difficulties when Beijing insisted on a “freeze on developing military infrastructure”.
We are friends and neighbours and we don't need to contain each other.
New Delhi rejected it, saying China had already beefed up its military muscle in the Himalayas and India needed to catch up. ” India is far, far behind China in military strength and the gap has widened in the Himalayas over the past two decades, so India cannot accept a freeze now,” said C Rajamohan, one of India ‘s leading strategic analysts.
India’s reluctance to accept the freeze and the proposed agreement was followed by considerable intimidation this summer with alleged Chinese “military incursions” up to 19km past the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control.
“They pitched tents in our territory and stayed put, they took away our surveillance cameras, they did everything possible to show they were annoyed with the Indian build-up,” said Major General Gaganjit Singh, a former deputy chief of India’s Defence Intelligence Agency.
The belligerence appeared calculated to coax India to scale down its build-up until New Delhi threatened to cancel Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s Beijing visit in May, which would have jeopardised Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India later that month.
The Chinese finally pulled back and though pinpricks remained, the situation dramatically improved with Premier Li’s India visit and his “handshake across the Himalayas”.
“We are friends and neighbours and we don’t need to contain each other,” Li said in an unusual display of bonhomie. “A next door neighbour is more important than a distant relative,” he continued, perhaps hinting at warming Indian-US relations.
The Chinese dropped the demand for a freeze in building military infrastructure and reacted with surprising restraint as India announced raising a mountain strike corps , consisting of more than 40,000 troops for “an offensive role” on the Himalayan border. This would be in addition to two other mountain divisions of about 32,000 troops that India has already deployed in the eastern Himalayas during the past two to three years.
Continued negotiations have now led to a broad agreement on the BDCA draft, and a team of Indian officials from defence and other ministries, and from the army, will visit China early in September to finalise the proposal, the senior official said.
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The situation on the border has also cooled. On August 15, a large Chinese military delegation turned up at the Indian Independence Day celebrations at the Maitri Sthal (literally “Goodwill Spot”) on the Bum La Pass. This is the pass through which the Chinese started their assault on October 20, 1962.
Senior officials in the Indian ministry of external affairs said the proposed agreement would be “comprehensive”.
“It will lay down a series of standard operating procedures that will cut down possibilities of tension or escalation,” said an external affairs ministry official involved with the negotiations who wished to remain anonymous because he was not officially authorised to brief the media. “For instance, both sides will agree that their troops will not tail the other side’s patrols on the ground to avoid a face-off, and they will not fire at each other under any condition.”
Binoda Mishra, a China expert at the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development, said the new pact is “more a display of effort by both sides to keep border tensions under control”. He insisted that it was entirely up to the Chinese to avoid belligerence and keep the border peaceful. “So long as the Chinese do not try to change the status quo, the agreement will work.”
Many, however, blame India, especially its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, for the persisting border dispute, saying Nehru failed to seize the 1960 Zhou Enlai offer for a “swap” to resolve the border dispute.
Zhou, Communist China’s first premier, had offered to accept the Indian position of going by the British-era MacMahon Line in the eastern Himalayas if India accepted the Chinese position in the Aksai Chin, near Kashmir, because a key Chinese road linking its restive Xinjiang and Tibet provinces passed through that area.
India’s refusal to accept the swap led to the 1962 war, in which the Indian army was routed and the Chinese were on the outskirts of Tezpur town, where India’s 4th army corps is headquartered, before they unilaterally retreated.
“The BDCA agreement only shows the Indian government is still writhing upon the Nehru impalement, the insistence that all territory claimed by India is Indian and so there is no disputed territory which could be subjected to negotiation,” says Neville Maxwell, author of India’s China War .
India really had no choice but to work out this BDCA agreement, because it was important to reduce border tensions and prevent a 'whipping up' of popular emotions in the country.
Maxwell says that since 1993, India has been signatory to a treaty binding it to “reduce force levels to a minimum level compatible with friendly neighbourly relations”, but it has steadily augmented its forces and is now accelerating that process.
“Reluctance to negotiate an agreed Line of Actual Control has enabled the Indian army to cry ‘Intrusion!’ on subjective grounds. Until India agrees to negotiate the dispute in a spirit of give-and-take, the border dispute will continue as an open sore, prone to infections of belligerence and the danger of renewed conflict,” says Maxwell.
But can the two Asian giants with huge land armies afford the border dispute to escalate into a 1962-type war? No, says India’s former Foreign Secretary Krishnan Srinivasan. “India really had no choice but to work out this BDCA agreement, because it was important to reduce border tensions and prevent a ‘whipping up’ of popular emotions in the country,” he said.
“This will really be a side-show agreement, one of the many needed for a state visit,” he said, insisting there were more important matters to be taken up during Singh’s Beijing visit.
The list is long: India’s adverse trade balance that is growing as bilateral trade grows; rising Chinese influence in the neighbourhood; the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) growth corridor proposed by Li; better surface connectivity between frontier regions; India’s relations with the US, Japan and Vietnam, which has raised hackles in Beijing; and the continued asylum India provides to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.
“India will stay non-aligned and not draw too close to US, because it does not want to risk open confrontation with China,” wrote Fu Xiaogiang of the influential Beijing think-tank China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, in a recent opinion article in the Global Times .
The border defence cooperation agreement, many feel, is meant to ensure precisely that.