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The China–India border crisis: lessons for the Asia Pacific

6 September 2017

Author: Sourabh Gupta, ICAS

On 28 August, a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Xiamen for the ninth BRICS summit, New Delhi and Beijing resolved their two and a half month-long standoff in the Doklam area in the Sikkim Himalayas.

As per their disengagement understanding, India withdrew its troops and equipment from the Chinese side of the border. The offending Chinese road construction activity that had triggered India’s trespass in the first place is to be discontinued for the foreseeable future.

Questions abound for all parties regarding both the timing of the denouement and the motivation behind chosen courses of action. But the most noteworthy feature of the entire exchange is the assemblage of Sino-Indian boundary management protocols. They were designed to confer peace and tranquillity to the border areas as well as serve as a crisis management mechanism, and they held up impeccably throughout the standoff.

Two provisions in particular played an outsized role. First, there was the requirement that border personnel on both sides be lightly armed and exercise maximum self-restraint in case of untoward face-to-face encounters at the boundary. Second, there were the limits on armed force deployments as well as ceilings on tanks, large-calibre infantry guns and surface-to-surface missiles to their immediate rear.

These provisions ensured that the face-offs between Chinese and Indian border personnel were limited to fisticuffs at worst, and helped extend the noteworthy streak — now approaching 42 years — of not having lost a single life along their long Himalayan border. The faithful, long-standing observance of these provisions has in fact perversely emboldened both sides to occasionally disregard prevailing treaties and transgress the border at will secure in the knowledge that the resultant face-off will be managed well-beneath the kinetic threshold.

The successful application of China–India boundary management protocols bears wider relevance to the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Western Pacific, where such mechanisms operate rudimentarily at best.

First, boundary or crisis management protocols with China are a form of confidence-building measures. Each of the five agreements that China and India have signed were concluded during warming phases of their post-1988 relationship. Each instilled confidence in the other’s intentions and provided a fillip to their larger boundary dispute discussions. For a code of conduct in the South China Sea or a maritime communication mechanism in the East China Sea to take shape, a period of political quiet and trust must first be engendered in ASEAN and Japan’s respective relationships with China.

Second, devising such mechanisms with China requires patience and perseverance. There is no single authoritative Sino–Indian document (although the 1996 agreement comes close). Rather, there is a compendium of documents interspersed over a two decade-long period that lay out the range of protocols. Expecting an initial agreement to deliver foolproof returns during its first test-by-crisis, as the United States anticipated during the April 2001 EP-3 spy plane incident, is to vest too much authority in any one document.

Third, China–India boundary management mechanisms are a continuous work in progress. Each of the five such agreements — signed respectively in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 — has built upon the previous ones, with the latter three aimed at incrementally plugging implementation-related gaps that have arisen ‘on the ground’. In the 2013 agreement, a ‘no tailing’ clause was added to prevent face-offs that were tending to occur due to aggressive tailing by one patrol of a rival patrol in areas where the two sides disagreed on the delineation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

In a similar vein, China and India should draw up additional protocols that forbid construction-related activity (including light fortifications) in close proximity to the two sides’ understanding of the LAC. With Beijing increasingly mirroring New Delhi’s habit of building close-in light infrastructure (which has led to recurring instances of standoffs in recent years) the time to devise this patch is now. Beijing and New Delhi should also aim to establish greater separation between their border forces, while paying due consideration to the principle of mutual and equal security.

Finally, Sino-Indian boundary and crisis management arrangements are voluntary and depend entirely on good faith execution by each party. Although the provisions are prescriptive, they do not contain binding verification mechanisms. While either party is at liberty to disregard provisions within the suite of protocols that do not suit its interests, the tendency has in fact been for both parties to treat the arrangements in totality as a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that is deserving of utmost respect.

ASEAN and the claimant states in the South China Sea would gain by endowing flexibility within the provisions of their code of conduct and bilateral consultation mechanism respectively with Beijing rather than stack all their chips in a single, highly legalistic, results-oriented document. It will lend sturdiness and stability to their maritime crisis management interactions.

China and India face a host of difficult challenges at the boundary and beyond. The observance and success of the boundary management protocols is a testament to the under-appreciated depth and resilience of their ties. Beijing’s other rival claimants would be well-advised to pay attention to these crisis management lessons.

Sourabh Gupta is a senior fellow at the Institute for China–America Studies in Washington DC.

A version of this article was first published here in The South China Morning Post


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