Beyond the Ladakh Border Dispute

By Raffaello Pantucci

First published in RUSI Newsbrief June 24, 2013

Beyond the Ladakh Border Dispute

Courtesy of AP Photo/Saurabh Das

On the eve of his visit to India in late May, Premier Li Keqiang published an editorial in The Hinduin which he spoke of China and India as ‘two big Asian countries … destined to be together’. Running under the headline ‘A Handshake Across the Himalayas’, the piece offered an optimistic look at relations between China and India. Only one brief mention was made of the border dispute that had dominated headlines in previous months, brushing the issue under the carpet by stating that, ‘with joint efforts in the past few years, the two sides have gradually found a way to maintain peace and tranquility in the disputed border areas’. This statement would have jarred with Indian assessments of the border incursion as provocative Chinese action aimed at altering the established modus vivendi across the Line of Actual Control, the de-facto border between the two countries accepted in the absence of an internationally recognised border in the region. Nevertheless, the episode passed without too deleterious an impact on Premier Li’s visit, something that senior Indian commentators have interpreted as a sign of China’s victory in this round of tension between the two Asian giants.

The incident that sparked this most recent antagonism started in mid-April, when a contingent of Chinese forces abruptly moved into the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of Ladakh, the disputed Sino-Indian territory in the northern part of Jammu and Kashmir state. Somewhere in the region of thirty Chinese soldiers then set up camp in the area, apparently unfurling banners declaring that the Indians were on the ‘Chinese side’. This provocative act confused India, but quickly led to the deployment of a unit from the 5th Battalion of Ladakh Scouts, which established its own camp nearby.

In the face of substantial public anger, the Indian government sought to play down the confrontation, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh describing it as a ‘localised problem’ to be resolved at the regional level. Defence Minister A K Antony took a more robust line, telling the press that ‘India will take every step to protect its interests’, while local and opposition politicians used it as an opportunity to score political points. Arun Jaitley, a senior member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, stated in Parliament that while the government ‘may have some security options, … [and it] may have some diplomatic options, … being clueless is not an option’.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, reacted slowly but came out with a universal line. In a press conference on 25 April, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying spoke of China and India as ‘neighbours yet to complete border demarcation’, and voiced her view that ‘problems inevitably arise one way or another in the border area’. This reflected the view on the ground, where an Indian officer reported that during a meeting with a Chinese official, the latter had reportedly claimed that it was Chinese territory on which they had set up camp.

Indeed, the border in this region has long been contested, and occasional disagreements are to be expected. What distinguished this act as unusual, however, was the establishment of a camp in what is mutually agreed to be contested territory. For those of an alarmist inclination, this was reminiscent of the run-up to the 1962 war between China and India, during which similar incursions by the Chinese became the pretext for wider conflict.

However, on this occasion, China seemed willing to step back relatively quickly, with an announcement on 6 May that its forces had withdrawn to their previously agreed positions the night before. A statement put out by the Indian side the next day announced that India and China had ‘agreed to restore [the] status quo along the Line of Actual Control in the western sector of the India-China boundary, as it existed prior to April 15, 2013’ and that ‘flag meetings ha[d] … been held to work out the modalities and to confirm the arrangements’. And as forces on both sides withdrew to earlier positions, the path was smoothed for Premier Li’s visit to New Delhi two weeks later.

During the visit itself, the border dispute remained largely in the background, though in a press conference Li admitted that there were ‘problems’ between the two sides, and acknowledged the need to ‘improve border related mechanisms and make them more efficient’. Prime Minister Singh concurred, declaring that special representatives from the two countries would ‘continue discussions seeking an early agreement on a framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable boundary settlement’.

Instead, much greater emphasis was placed on the eight bilateral Memoranda of Understanding signed between the two sides during the visit (covering everything from allowing Indian pilgrims into Tibet and agricultural agreements to plans to translate each other’s literature), and the re-statement that both sides hope bilateral trade will increase to $100 billion by 2015. Having achieved what he had set out to, Premier Li moved on to Pakistan, the next stop on his first international tour as number two in the Chinese administration.

From an outside perspective, the optics of the trip played very much in China’s favour. Premier Li was able to go to India, get the visit he was aiming for and travel on to China’s ally Pakistan without any hold-ups. While some pro-Tibetan protesters took to the streets when Premier Li was in town, Indian authorities kept them under tight control. And the border dispute in Ladakh, an incident instigated by Chinese forces, was carefully sidestepped.

From an Indian perspective, the benefit of permitting the trip to play out so smoothly after such unilateral Chinese action is unclear. One senior commentator explained to the author that it was a way of letting the Chinese save face, but to what end is uncertain. This is particularly so given the relationship between the two powers: one of imbalanced acceptance, in which both recognise the importance of the other, but at the same time have very different needs. It is not like the Sino-American relationship of interdependence, but rather one in which mutual assistance would be beneficial, albeit not essential.

India, for example, needs investment in infrastructure to help it achieve its growth potential – investment it has had difficulty securing but that deep Chinese pockets would be able to provide. China, meanwhile, would benefit from developing India as a market for its companies, as well as from obtaining a potential ally in Afghanistan.

At the same time, both powers have complicated relationships with Pakistan that are in some ways mutually reinforcing. China recently went so far as to tell Pakistan to mend its relationship with India, while in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack Chinese shuttle diplomacy was at the heart of defusing tensions between the two neighbours.

The question over the viability of co-operation in Afghanistan remains complex, with India concerned about Pakistan, and particularly about the latter’s awkward position as a transport buffer for Indian trade with Afghanistan. For China, cognisant that in 2014 the West will potentially leave a situation that could exacerbate violence in Pakistan, getting India involved will – it hopes – ensure that it is not the sole major power with a substantial stake in Afghanistan’s future.

Despite a range of concerns on both sides, the two countries have met a number of times to talk about Afghanistan and the potential for co-operation on the country’s future. Largely an initiative driven by China, its eagerness to talk in the face of Indian ambivalence highlights the degree to which it is China that seeks greater co-operation with India, rather than the other way around.

At a broader strategic level, both see the benefit of aligning themselves as part of the so-called BRICS grouping (comprising the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). China, in particular, has demonstrated great interest in developing the bloc into more than just an economist’s catchphrase: while Premier Li’s first visit abroad was to India, President Xi’s first visit was to Russia and then to South Africa for a BRICS summit. An alliance with India within this merely burnishes China’s credentials as a ‘global South’ power distinct from the colonialist powers of the West.

The longer-term question, however, is the sustainability of China’s approach to India. The border spat that preceded Premier Li’s visit appears to have come as something of a surprise to Beijing. Certainly its timing, just before Premier Li’s inaugural foreign visit, would not have been in tune with Chinese preferences for positive mood music during foreign trips. And most striking was the relative absence of bellicose or nationalist rhetoric in the Chinese state-owned media, with editors usually taking advantage of such incidents to publish aggressive commentary to stir up public anger and indignation. This implies that the Chinese authorities were unaware of the incursion, with some speculative commentary in the Indian press suggesting that it might have been part of an internal Chinese party struggle, carried out by PLA officers aligned with former leader Jiang Zemin. Or, at least, it points to a situation that the Chinese government was eager to contain.

All of this implies that India’s hand may be stronger than it believes. China sees a positive relationship with India as important – viewing it as a trading partner, a fellow Asian BRICS power, and a key player in helping to secure stability in Afghanistan. China may have the financial clout to buy its way into Kabul, but it is to India that Afghan politicians will turn out of preference. As one Chinese interlocutor grumbled during a recent workshop in Beijing, ‘when you Indians trade with the Afghans, they see you as brothers’ – not a sense the Afghans would share regarding Chinese traders, who they see in a far more transactional light. This and the fact that China is increasingly seen as a de-facto ‘responsible parent’ to Pakistan points to China’s attempts to cultivate better relations with India as a means of balancing out its regional position. Indeed, the danger it faces is that alone it will come to be seen as the primary vehicle for regional stability – a responsibility no Chinese administration would want.

Yet the longer-term repercussions of the Ladakh border spat remain uncertain. The willingness of both sides to rapidly de-escalate the situation suggests that this was merely a test, though to what end and by whom is unclear. Equally uncertain is who has emerged as the victor, and the nature of the larger strategic picture between the two Asian superpowers. China currently retains the upper hand, yet clearly sees an important role for India in any regional or global order. Whichever way it develops, the relationship between these two rising BRICS giants is likely to be a fulcrum of the international order well into the future.

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