For the first time since May, the Sino-Indian border tension seems to be showing very definitive signs of a thaw, with both Beijing and New Delhi issuing statements on their resolve to reduce the spectre of a military conflict along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
With China ramping up military hardware and personnel on its side of the LAC and with reports of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) making intrusions into Indian territory at several places along the LAC in Galwan Valley, Depsang plane and near the Pangong Tso the eyeball-to-eyeball scenario that the armies of the two nuclear-armed Asian neighbours had to endure for around 58 days — which even resulted in a fatal skirmish near Patrolling Point 14 (PP14) on June 15 — finally seems to have given way to a less conflicting status quo along the LAC.
However, this recent standoff has given rise to a few crucial questions that need to be looked into should there be a long-standing commitment to peace along the 3,448km-long LAC.
Both countries had agreed to a no-use-of-firearms at each other at the LAC in 1993. But in effect, the agreement was set at naught when push came to shove on the night of June 15
Conceptual construct of the LAC
The first question that arises here is apparently one of nomenclature, but in a more deeper sense, it is one of transparency as well. The Foreign Ministries of the two countries issued statements that constituted a commitment towards maintaining status quo, but not necessarily status quo ante.
The entire conflict in Ladakh since May 2020 is primarily because of the PLA’s reported intrusions into Indian territory, whereby Beijing’s attempt has been to push the conceptual construct of the LAC — since there is no clear, land-demarcated, hard border between the two sides — as much as possible to further west of its mutually-agreed location.
As part of confidence-building measures, both Beijing and New Delhi are bound by certain agreements to respect each other’s territorial integrity along the LAC. Until April 2020, that mutually acknowledged position of the LAC constituted a status quo ante.
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Respecting status quo ante
Now, in a post-April 2020 scenario, with Beijing’s claims of large swathes of new territory further west of the LAC as its own, there has been a complete disruption of the status quo ante and hence the bloody brawl between the Indian Army and PLA.
The question that needs to be raised here is that when the two Foreign Ministries say that they have agreed to reduce tension along the LAC, with reports of China agreeing to pull back its military on its side of the LAC, is that agreement based on any kind of affirmation from the PLA to respect status quo ante, or is it merely a pushback by a few kilometres from its current position?
This is vitally important because according to initial reports in large sections of the Indian and global media as well, the PLA had made incursions beyond the LAC by almost 18km.
So, as a commitment to peace, has Beijing agreed to return to where the PLA was originally positioned in April 2020, or is it once again a case of moving ten steps ahead and then retreating by just a couple to grandstand an artful haggling and render the LAC as blurry and fuzzy as ever?
As of now, neither Beijing nor New Delhi has come out with a clear explanation of the terms of this disengagement. And that in itself is quite irksome.
To put it in layman’s terms, status quo will be a mockery of the truth if status quo ante is compromised.
Modi investing personal capital
The second point is that of trust-building at a personal level. How effective are outreaches between heads of states at a more personal level, sometimes even pushing diplomatic parleys to the back-burner?
Ever since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping were seen to be striking a chord that sought to work its way around the slippery slope of Sino-Indian relations.
Particularly, Xi’s unofficial summit meeting with Modi in Mamallapuram, India, last year, was marked by a show of unprecedented camaraderie between the leaders of two countries with a combined population of 2.7 billion. Modi, too, visited China five times since 2014 – the most by any Indian PM in the last seven decades — wherein he seemed to have invested a fair bit of personal capital with Xi.
On his part, the Indian PM did indeed try to create his own template in trying to draw a new layout for Sino-Indian ties and not merely depend on the Foreign Ministry or diplomatic corps playbook.
And yet, just when one thought that this one-on-one outreach would help exorcise for good the demons of mutual distrust and suspicion that had hitherto plagued bilateral ties between the two nations, the PLA’s Galwan Valley intrusions started being reported widely, ultimately leading to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of casualties on the Chinese side.
This is bound to take its toll in terms of a major trust deficit between the two leaders.
The Galwan Valley conflict has once again shown that perhaps no amount of bonhomie at a personal level can ever replace the need for diplomatic power play when dealing with a nation as entrenched and regimented as China.
Questioning the efficacy of nuclear deterrence
Finally, the Galwan Valley rift has also put to question the efficacy of a nuclear deterrence. Conventional knowledge will always say that given that both China and India are nuclear-armed nations, neither side will ever force a direct, bloody conflict at the border, lest it snowballs into a full-scale war and consequently to a nuke catastrophe.
In fact, both countries had agreed to a no-use-of-firearms at each other at the LAC in 1993. But in effect, the agreement was set at naught when push came to shove on the night of June 15.
Not just that, it was a massive ramping up of military hardware and personnel at the LAC — first by China and then by India as a retaliatory measure -- which exposed a major chink in the deterrence armour: That the two countries can actually get embroiled in a bloody conflict at the border, their nuclear arsenal and its concomitant dangers notwithstanding.