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Antony's China visit was friendly but was it fruitful?

July 15, 2013 14:49 IST

The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement with China needs closer scrutiny, says Rup Narayan Das.

Hardly before the ink could dry out on the joint statement agreed to between Defence Minister A K Antony and his Chinese counterpart General Chang Wanquan pledging to maintain peace and tranquillity in the India-China border, media broke the news that the Chinese troops again transgressed the Line of Actual Control in Chumar sector of Ladakh on June 17 after the resolution of three-week long Depasang incident of border transgression on May 5.

New Delhi down played the issue. This, however, should not deter one to attempt a dispassionate and perhaps an objective assessment of the visit; because the very raison d'être of the visit was to facilitate and promote communication so as to prevent the reoccurrence of such incidents.

In the bilateral relationship between India and China defence and military exchanges occupy very important position for the simple reason that China is India’s largest neighbour and the two countries between them share a border for about 3,488 kilometres, though of course China claims that it is 2,000 km. Security between two countries is not only dependent on defence preparedness, but also on strategic communication and political trust.

Be that as it may, as far as the visit of Antony to China is concerned from the very beginning there was in fact no unrealistic expectation from the visit. As regards outcome,  in the first place, Antony met the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, his Chinese counterpart  and the State Councillor Yang Jiechi. Premier Li reiterated that the new leadership in China attaches great importance to developing friendly and cooperative relations with India. Antony conveyed that India reciprocates the sentiment and looks forward to building the relationship further on a foundation of mutual trust and confidence and based on mutual respect for each others concerns.

The joint statement issued by both the sides said that the joint counter terrorism exercises would be resumed. Earlier in 2007 the two countries had organised joint military exercises in Kunming, in China, and later in Belgaum in Karnataka in 2008. The exercises were not resumed ever since then.

The joint statement also provided for exchange of visits by senior military commanders, visits of border troop delegations to promote dialogue strengthen trust and cooperation. Border personnel meetings with greater frequency and additional locations.

It may be mentioned in this connection that the protocol signed between the two countries during the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to India in 2005 provided for two additional border meetings each year at Spangur Gap in the western sector, Nathula Pass in the Sikkim and Bum La in the eastern sector respectively in celebration of the national day or army day of either side.

The protocol further provided that both sides agree in principle to expand the mechanism of border points to include Kibhitu-Damai in the eastern sector and Lupulekh Pass/Qiang in the middle sector and that the precise locations of these border meeting points will be decided through mutual consultations.

Turning to the engagement between the navies of the two countries, the joint statement said that the navies will increase the visits of their ships and consider joint maritime search and rescue exercise and cooperation in counter-piracy operations. It was also mentioned that the PLA navy hospital “Peace Ark’ will visit Mumbai in August this year. It also envisaged for high level visits by air forces. They would focus on topics of mutual interest including flight safety, aviation medicine and training. The joint statement further said that military training institutions will also strengthen their exchanges at faculty and students levels and proposed for exchange of young officers of the two countries to promote greater awareness and understanding. The defence minister also extended an invitation his Chinese counterpart Chang to visit India in 2014. The Chinese defence minister accepted the invitation. The joint statement described the talks as cordial and friendly. It doesn’t indicate if it was fruitful or successful.

The most important aspect of the visit was the discussion on the proposed Border Defence Cooperation Agreement. Regarding this the joint statement said that peace and tranquillity in their border areas was an important guarantor for the growth and development of bilateral cooperation. It also emphasised the importance of enhancing mutual trust and understanding between the two militaries.

Both sides reviewed the working agreements and protocols dealing the maintenance of peace and tranquillity and directed that it be further strengthened. Appreciating that border defence cooperation would significantly contribute in that regard, they agreed on early conclusion of negotiations for the proposed agreement on border defence cooperation between the two governments.

The BDCA was basically a Chinese initiative, which is now being jointly-worked by both the countries. The new dispensation in Beijing followed it promptly and handed over the first draft of the Indian side in the first week of March.  Since the draft purportedly contained provisions with security implications, New Delhi thought it prudent to carefully examine them. According to media reports one such provision was with regard to maintaining agreed troop levels along the LAC.

India has reservations on the count of the Chinese having already built effective infrastructure on its side of the border to enable it to deploy troops, while India is in the process of building the border roads in the region.

Drawing lessons from the Depsang incident, India on the contrary suggested additional CBM measures responding to the Chinese draft on BDCA, which have been agreed to in the joint statement. For example the idea to increase the frequency of border personnel meeting and to open additional points was suggested by India.

Yet another lesson learnt from the Depsang incident was how to have quick and fast communication between and among the entire stake holding agencies both in China and India such as the border guards, the army, the diplomatic corps, the labyrinth of the bureaucracy and the political leadership.  Should such incidence occur, both sides must not be clueless as what to do.

Now the efforts should be to improve up on and further beef up the existing architecture on CBMs including the latest mechanism on consultation and cooperation on border affairs, which is currently chaired by Gautam Bambawale from the Indian side. The efficacy of this mechanism was put to test during the Depsang incident and it proved its worth.

However, the deficiency experienced during its operation needs to be worked up on. How the border flag meetings could de-escalate tension arising out of a transgression can be gauged from the latest incident in Chumar, which was defused because of the flag-meeting in Spangur Gap in Chushul on June 19.

Rup Narayan Das is a senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

Rup Narayan Das