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China springs a surprise at border talks with India

February 17, 2014 17:23 IST

China wants a code of conduct for troops on the India-China border areas. While the Indian side has reacted cautiously, it is not clear what effective additional protocols that the current proposed code will bring forth to usher stability in the border areas, says Srikanth Kondapalli.

China surprised India once again with a formal suggestion for implementing a ‘code of conduct’ between the armed forces of both countries at the recently held 17th Special Representative meeting in New Delhi on February 10-11. While the Special Representative meetings were instituted to resolve the territorial dispute, initially to clarify the Line of Actual Control between the two countries, these interactions have expanded to include issues not just on the dispute per se but also on others aspects affecting the bilateral relations.

China’s new proposal for modulating the behaviour of the troops on the borders comes as a surprise despite a series of arrangements between the two armies since the 1970s when confidence building measures were put in place across the undefined borders. These include the first CBMs at Chushul in Ladakh sector in the 1970s. Subsequently, the 1993 “Peace & Tranquility” agreement, 1996 CBMs in the military field, April 2005 proposals and the 2012 Border Defence Cooperation agreement.

While China had suggested such a code of conduct for the maritime areas in the disputed South China Sea islands in November 2002, this is perhaps the first time that Beijing suggested such proposals on the land domain with India. With Russia and central Asia, China did conclude CBMs in the military field, including demilitarisation, prior to the resolution of the territorial disputes with these states since the 1990s, yet the current code of conduct proposal is different with India.

Firstly, unlike with Russia, central Asia or Vietnam with which China had resolved the land territorial disputes in a time-bound manner with deadlines fixed by the civilian leadership in Beijing, no such time-frame for resolved the territorial dispute exists with India. Indeed, for various reasons -- including rising nationalism and pressures on the new leadership in China, coalition era in India, etc -- both sides have not provided for a time frame for the final resolution of the dispute even though both were engaged in such discussions thrice in 1960, eight times in 1980s and 15 times under the Joint Working Group meetings in 1990s and now in the 17 Special Representative mechanisms since 2003.

Two phases of the Special Representative meetings were identified with the early five discussions from 2003 to 2005 as knowing each other’s positions on the border dispute, while the meetings from sixth through ninth as more intensive in nature. After five meetings between the SRs both countries, in a joint statement in April 2005 between the two premiers, decided to solve the border dispute based on “political parameters and guiding principles”. 

The second phase from the sixth meeting in September 2005 explored possibilities for initiating an “agreed framework” on the boundary dispute settlement. At the 15th Special Representative meeting in New Delhi in January 2012, the framework was exchanged. Interestingly, during the August 2009 13th Special Representative Meeting between M K Narayanan and Dai Bingguo, the Hong Kong based newspaper Ming Pao reported that China is prepared to settle for 28 percent of the disputed territory between the two countries, though denied by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. The Indian side, however, is tight-lipped on the details of this deal.

Secondly, the code of conduct with southeast Asian countries, specifically with Vietnam and the Philippines, has not been successful and the regional countries have demanded that the code be made enforceable. No such provisions -- that no country should seize more islands or build military infrastructure -- were accepted by Beijing, resulting in tensions in the last one decade.

It is not clear what provisions are including in the code suggested by Beijing to India last week but the experience on such a code is not so encouraging -- at least in the southeast Asian context. Although the 17th SR talks were termed as being held in “candid, friendly and constructive atmosphere” the official statement did not mention about the status of the code. It indicates that the Indian side is cautious, but looking at the provisions of the code.

Thirdly, it was suggested that the proposed code of conduct aims at reducing/eliminating chances of conflict between the patrolling troops in the border areas. However, these were part of the earlier CBMs agreed to between the two sides including the recent Border Defence Cooperation Agreement. It is not clear what effective additional protocols that the current proposed code will bring forth to usher stability in the border areas.

The fact that China had not explained why its troops intruded 19 kilometers in the Indian claimed areas in the Depsang plains incident in Ladakh from April 15 to May 6 last year, despite a “strategic partnership and cooperation” between the two since 2005 indicates that even if the proposed code of conduct between the troops is accepted and implemented by India, there is no guarantee that Depsang plains incident will never recur.

Indeed as the code of conduct proposals were being made by the Chinese side, transgressions in the border areas were reported. This indicates to the limitations of the proposed code.

Fourthly, more significantly, the proposed code of conduct appears to be more a ploy to distract the Indian attention, although every measure needs to be taken to maintain stability in the border areas by both the troops. While the Depsang plains incident was aimed at lowering the image of the Indian Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police forces -- as a process of “perturbing the enemy lines” -- the proposed code appears to create differences in the civil-military relations in India. India then needs to take a firm call on the proposed code of conduct.

Srikanth Kondapalli is professor in Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Srikanth Kondapalli