Wed, 13 Aug 2003

India: Border disputes risk stable Indian-Sino ties

Salman Haidar, The Statesman, Asia News Network, Calcutta

Just when Indo-China ties were on an upswing, following Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Beijing visit, an unexpected incident in Arunachal Pradesh has come as a dampener. An Indian patrol on a routine mission in the vicinity of the border found itself facing a much larger group of Chinese who seemed to be on a similar course. Both sides believed they were in their own territory and the other party was trespassing.

It has occasioned some fairly stern diplomatic exchanges and has given rise to puzzling questions about why it happened and what it could signify. It has also cast a shadow on the more benign image of China that came out of Vajpayee's visit. There is no cause to exaggerate the significance of this incident and there is nothing to suggest a policy shift on either side, but it has revived unwelcome memories and released unfriendly emotions.

The hazard of inadvertent confrontation along the border is well recognized and the parties do what they must to avoid it. The recent incident took place within a disputed area, one of the many frontier locations where geographical features such as the watershed are not clear and there are rival territorial claims.

Self-imposed restraint on forward patrolling in such areas has in the main kept the sides apart, and if this time something went wrong, it reinforces the need for improved border management. Restraint alone cannot remove all risk of future confrontation: Strengthened procedures drawn from agreed arrangements along the border are needed.

Problems on the frontier are compounded by media brouhaha. The authorities may prefer discretion but it has to be assumed that such incidents will soon enough find their way into the public domain, and quite likely in rather blown up fashion. Moreover, in the absence of authentic information, a variety of conspiracy theories flourish about what really happened and why. In the circumstances, it is probably best to be as open as possible about what occurred. One cannot expect all details to be revealed, but more light on the happening reduces the scope for misunderstanding, bilaterally and domestically.

It has now been a long effort over a couple of decades and more to make the border quiet and calm. Officials have been meeting in round after round of talks, and on the whole their efforts have had considerable success.

A number of effective confidence building measures have been instituted, and there are regular meetings and exchanges of visits between military officials. Moreover, differences on the border have not been permitted to halt the growth of relations in other spheres, especially trade, where the trend is very positive.

But every now and then -- and the set of incidents that spread from a dispute in Sumdorong Chu in 1986 is a prime example -- a storm breaks out of the clear blue sky. This possibility cannot be put out of mind. Risk of a sudden deterioration remains so long as the border remains undemarcated and disputed, and there are substantial military forces deployed on either side.

What are the prospects of a better managed Indo-China border where no sudden storms can occur. The two sides are currently engaged not in negotiating a border alignment as such but in jointly determining the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along the border.

This is an attempt to identify where the respective military forces are deployed, and one would suppose that it should be a relatively simple process: After all, each side knows where it is, and where the other side is too. Yet there are complications.

Both sides send patrols into forward areas to maintain territorial claims and to fill any vacuum that might conceivably be exploited by the other side. There are several ambiguities along the border which seem to claim prior attention in the talks, with the result that the exercise to identify the LAC has by degrees become something not very different from a border negotiation.

It is indeed likely that, in some sections at least, the LAC will eventually be transmuted into an agreed border, but that need not divert attention from the immediate task, which is to establish an agreed line relative to which force reduction measures envisaged in India-China agreements of 1993 and 1996 can be undertaken.

There is every incentive to speed up this effort. Apart from sharply reducing the risk of incidents like the recent one, it will ease the problem of forward deployment in remote places at vast expense to the treasury. It is worth recalling that even if agreement on the border may not be immediately attainable, the two sides can mutually agree to treat unresolved areas as demilitarized zones, as they did in the case of Bara Hoti in the 1950s. This could permit a speeding up of negotiated force reduction, which both desire, and keep it separate from the larger and more difficult question of an agreed border.

A most useful decision that came out of Vajpayee's China visit was to appoint special representatives to give impetus to the slow moving bilateral border talks. The incident in Arunachal Pradesh that took place shortly thereafter emphasizes the need for the special representatives to take up their new task as a matter of urgency, for improved understanding on the border is inescapable if there is to be long term stability in Indo-China ties.

The author is a former foreign secretary of the Indian government.