India-China ties: Functional hotline key to peace along LAC, not merely a tool to establish 'equivalence'

India-China relations have been waxing and waning for the last few years but the recent bilateral engagements at the political and strategic level, and measures recommended thereof, are indicative of the importance being accorded for maintaining peace and stability along the un-demarcated and disputed borders. This is a must for both the countries to give shape to their respective national dreams.

This road to improvement of bilateral relations has been a rollercoaster one given the complexities of 4,057-km-long ‘Line of Actual Control’ (LAC) between the two countries. It led to the 1962 conflict, the Nathu La crisis in 1967 and the Sumdrong Chu standoff for nearly 18 months in 1986-87. It is only since 2011, that we have seen a renewed spate of high profile border standoffs, be it the 'Depsang Bulge' in the north or 'Hanuman tekri' in the east or the 73-day standoff between the two armies at Doka la. It commenced soon after India initiated measures to increase its defensibility astride the LAC, with raising of army units and formations.

The reason for restraints and peaceful resolutions of ugly border situations has been the 'Conflict Avoidance' and subsequently the 'Confidence Building Measures' (CBMs) that have been put in place, over a period of time. Let us, therefore, recapitulate the events that have led to the present state of Indo–China engagements and thereafter examine the additional measures that have been recommended. Some of these are presently vexing the two sides.

Post-1962 conflict, the diplomatic relations were re-established only in 1976. Thereafter, the visit of the Indian prime minister to China in 1988, led to the establishment of a Joint Working Group (JWG) for examining the boundary dispute and to recommend meaningful actions/engagements between the two militaries, for maintaining peace and stability at the borders. This set the ground for signing the first formal document -- the ‘Agreement on Maintaining Peace and Stability in the Vicinity of the Line of Actual Control, in September 1993. It formalised border meetings at two places between the deployed troops, the establishment of tactical communication linkages and other CBMs. This was followed by agreements in 1996, 2005 and 2013, that enlarged the canvas of bilateral mechanisms to multiple tiers, for looking at the border issues and for dynamically making the CBMs extremely comprehensive. It is called the ‘Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA)’. Simultaneously, there were other parallel mechanisms established for promoting trade, commerce and economic engagements.

A file image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping. PTI

A file image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping. PTI

Presently, at the political level, we have the summits between the leaders of the two countries and high profile exchange visits by senior cabinet ministers and government officials. Towards this, we have had the recent summits between the two leaders at Xiamen and recently at Wuhan, followed up in quick succession by the visits to China by the Indian foreign and defence ministers. These have injected the requisite urgency and energy to the ongoing talks at various levels, post the Doka La crisis.

At the politico-strategic level are the talks between the Special Representative (SR) of the two countries. The20th round of SR talks was held at Delhi, in December 2017, between the Indian NSA and Chinese president appointee Yang Jiechi, state councillor and member of the politburo.

The institutional mechanism for consultation and coordination started in 2012 is the ‘Working Mechanism on Consultation and Coordination (WMCC)’. This is at the level of Joint Secretary (East Asia) from India and the Director General, Department of Boundary and Oceanic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The 11th round of WMCC was held a few months ago.

At the military level are the border personnel meetings (BPMs), held periodically, ‘flag meetings’ on request and communication linkages between tactical commanders at various places along the LAC. The BPMs are presently formalised at five places along the LAC, namely Daulat Beg Oldie and Chusul in Ladakh, Bum La and Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh and Nathu-La in Sikkim. Joint military exercises between the two armies also commenced in 2008.

The present issue of the debate has been with respect to the establishment of the hotline between the DGMOs. It was a key recommendation in the 2013 BDCA but did not materialise. It got the requisite fillip after the recent summit meeting between the two leaders at Wuhan, China, in April 2018. The official press release after the summit reported that the two leaders in a joint statement agreed to issue says "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.... The two leaders further directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence-building measures (CBMs) 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."

The requirement of ‘hotline’ has to be contextualised and put in perspective. It is undoubtedly a major CBM, because of the ‘one on one’ communication link that it provides to the two military headquarters. It facilitates a hands-on approach to address unprecedented situations that can escalate, if not arrested in time. It was however bogged down over procedures. The key question to answer with respect to the establishment of the ‘hotline’ is whether its establishment is for ‘functional’ efficiency or is it the question of retaining ‘equivalence’?

To understand the intricacies, there is a need to examine a similar setup that exists between the militaries of India and Pakistan. Fortunately, the military structures of both the countries are a legacy of the British, as they share a common military heritage. So the military structures and responsibilities of key appointment holders in the two armies are near similar. Thus, by establishing the ‘hotline’ between the DGMOs of the two countries, both the issue of functional efficiency and the issue of equivalence, are addressed. It is indisputable that the ongoing ‘proxy war’ in Kashmir, creates dynamic situations that need to be addressed at the senior level with speed. As in this environment, tactical excesses can overshadow the strategic landscape and therefore there is a functional need to arrest this escalation. The 'hotline' in the India-Pakistan space has achieved this repeatedly since 1972. Apropos, to avert Doka La like standoff between India and China, the hotline needs to facilitate functional efficiency and this aspect deserves precedence and priority.

The Chinese military has recently undergone major reorganisation and reforms. In which the operational command functions/structures have been revamped. PLA Ground force headquarter and the Joint Operational Center(JOC) have been set up under the CMC with similar subordinate structures at the five newly formed ‘military regions’. In the new paradigm, the JOC exercises operational control over the deployed ‘border troops’ and the PLA units in its geographical area. Whereas the PLA Ground Force Headquarter, including in the ‘western military district’, is responsible for training, manpower and logistic support to the PLA units in its jurisdiction. Therefore, the ‘hotline’ needs to be established between the operational staff officers of the two countries.

It is learnt that China is recommending that the hotline connection should be established between the Indian DGMO and the concerned official nominated by the Chinese military at the ‘Western Military District’. This is because, this headquarter has been vested with the operational control of the Chinese troops, deployed astride the India-China border. From the functional aspect, this recommendation makes good military sense. But as the Chinese are masters of intrigue and precedences, this down gradation, later on, may create problems of a different kind, including an expression of ignorance by the political leadership, in case of a sticky situation. Therefore to achieve the twin objectives of this linkage, we should recommend operational ‘hotlines’ between the Western Military Headquarter in China, with the Indian Northen and Eastern Command Headquarters. The DGMO of India should, in addition, have a hotline with the ‘Joint Operation Center’ of the Chinese military, functioning directly under the CMC, at Beijing.

In conclusion, lasting peace is the way to avert major incidents at the border. Therefore, measures that are instituted should holistically address the tangible and intangible requirements of bilateral aspirations. Border standoffs though tactical in nature can have a strategic impact and they are also regressive. Their avoidance will ensure continued engagement in other spheres, setting the stage and maturity in time, for resolution of the border problem.

The author is a retired lieutenant general and former army commander of the Indian Army.

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Updated Date: Jun 05, 2018 07:12:32 IST

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