China-India Border Dispute: Stabilizing Military Relations is Key to Peace
Photo Credit: AFP
By Amrita Jash

China-India Border Dispute: Stabilizing Military Relations is Key to Peace

May. 16, 2018  |     |  0 comments


The unresolved boundary question has evolved to become the characteristic feature of India-China relations. Having been peaceful and stable for over six decades since the 1962 War, it was the 2017 Doklam stand-off that brought back the boundary dilemma to the fore. “Maintaining peace and tranquility at the border” has been a constant rhetoric, but this has been tested given the episodes of incursions. What has largely been ignored is the “military aspect” of the fragile relations.

 

In this regard, setting the tone to the first ever “informal Summit” between India and China, China’s Ministry of National Defense stated:

 

“Despite some difficulties and obstacles in the bilateral military relationship, we are willing to deepen understanding, enhance mutual trust, properly handle differences, and incessantly accumulate positive energy for the healthy and stable development of military ties under the guidance of the important consensus reached between leaders of both countries.”

 

The emphasis on the “military relationship” highlights the crux of the problem. Given the widening strategic distrust and perception gap, it remains indisputable that the heart of the problem lies in the misperceptions born at the military level.

 

In the backdrop of Doklam, the risk of the shift in the status-quo has further exacerbated the existing security dilemma between the two states. This has resulted into two significant departures. First, rather than pushing the envelope towards confrontation, Doklam acted as a test case wherein both New Delhi and Beijing tested each other’s resolve — suggesting a change in their patterns of behavior. The past episodes of friction in areas such as Daulat Beg Oldie, Depsang, Chumar, Trig Heights, Pangong Tso Lake and others in the western sector, to that of Asaphila, Samdurongchu, Changtze and others in Arunachal Pradesh did not result in military confrontation between India and China. Second, it was limited to the scope of their disputed boundary which was altered with Doklam. This episode has extended the scope of the boundary dispute as it was the first time that India and China got involved in a military stand-off in a terrain that falls beyond their disputed boundary, and most significantly, involved a third party — Bhutan. These two departures from the past hold significant implications for future scenarios in India-China relations.

 

Although the proactive diplomatic exchanges have put the tensed relations on track, there still remains a large room for improvement given the vacuum that now exists. What contributes to this vacuum is the misperception which is primarily driven by the logic of “assuming the worst.” These assumptions result in insecurity which then leaves no room for compromise. Taking lessons from Doklam, this vacuum demands the diversification of the dialogue mechanism. Given this dominant psyche, to assess that the first-ever “informal summit” between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan on April 27-28, 2018 will bring an immediate “peace” comes with certain apprehensions. A temporary settlement will fail to call for lasting peace, and as long as the boundary question remains unresolved, the likelihood of further tensions is always high, if not low. Here, the watchword is — how to then deal with future contingencies.

 


The key takeaway from the Modi-Xi dialogue lies in the need to act on providing “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs.”



So far, all such contingencies have been dealt through diplomatic channels and established mechanisms such as border personnel meetings, flag meetings, and meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. However, such mechanisms just helped to quell the risks but do not provide a long-term solution as evitable in the case of Doklam. Given these new dynamics, the question of resolving the boundary question has become an imminent challenge, wherein, the biggest obstacle lies in the limited options. What can be done? Although it is the political dialogue that is given more precedence, the need of the hour lies in adopting mechanisms at the military level between the two countries — the very area where the problem lies.

 

Given this territorial burden on the bilateral ties, and most importantly, in the aftermath of the Doklam episode, it has become more imperative for both New Delhi and Beijing to engage in talks than ever before. These talks should not just be relegated to the so-called symbolic “border-talks” but should instead be greater exchanges between the two parties at multiple levels. Both New Delhi and Beijing have shown mutual interest in recalibrating their fractured ties. In this regard, the most important step forward has been that the Wuhan Summit underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in all areas of the India-China border region in the “larger interest” of the overall development of bilateral relations.

 

Reflecting on the military aspect, the key takeaway from the Modi-Xi dialogue lies in the need to act on providing “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs.” What makes this an important step forward is the fact that the vulnerability caused due to the security dilemma is most visible at this level which has resulted in the upped ante for operational readiness. Being the most sensitive arena of the problem, it is therefore more justified for military exchanges to be made more of a norm in India-China relations. Furthermore, imperatives have been directed for both “militaries to earnestly implement various confidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides, including the principle of mutual and equal security, and strengthen existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanisms to prevent incidents in border regions” — significantly adding to the rationale of stabilizing the India-China military equation. Following up on this, the recent call for setting up a hotline between their respective headquarters exemplifies the conviction to make the significant changes at the structural level.

 

These changes mark a new impetus to the resolution process. Filling the existential gaps is the need of the hour, and in this case, these are the perennial misperceptions at the military level. Even if such initiatives do not settle the dispute, such mechanisms will help to quell the unwarranted risks due to misperceptions. Furthermore, they will bring peace by bridging the perception gap in the relations.



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