Another gimmick

The Border Defence Cooperation agreement and its future

The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) signed during the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to China is expected to revive the bonhomie between Indian and Chinese armed forces to the level of previous decade but it does not guarantee the incidents of incursion at the Line of Actual Control will not be repeated.  However, it provides for an institutional mechanism to deal with the incursion issues.

In fact the BDCA is another updated version of the earlier confidence building measures reached between the two countries in 1993, 1996 and 2005. However, these mechanisms largely helped to maintain peace and tranquility on the 4000 kms long LAC from Arunachal Pradesh in the East to Ladakh in the West.

Due to these understandings the India-China defence relations and exchanges reached its pinnacle in the latter part of last decade but came to a sudden halt in 2010 when Chinese government changed its policy on the status of Jammu and Kashmir and slighted a top Indian General posted in the Indian state when a staple visa was issued to him.  

Lt General B S Jaswal, Northern Army commander, actually was to head an Indian delegation to China on the Chinese government invitation in return for the earlier visit of similar Chinese Army delegation to India. Though the Chinese have stopped issuing Stapled Visa to the Kashmiris, their policy of granting stapled visas to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh will continue.

The Chinese leaders gave no assurance to Indian Prime Minister in this regard during his various interactions in Beijing, which was marked with extreme warmth as the Chinese leaders went out of the way breaking protocol to make Manmohan Singh feel very special in the Chinese capital.

Managing differences

However, the BDCA if followed in letter and spirit will help in creating thus foster better economic and diplomatic relations. Since the LAC is undemarcated, the two armies will continue to patrol the LAC according to their perception and since the perceptions do not match the two armies will naturally confront each other and may result in face to face confrontation.

The BDCA only tries to prevent any fracas through various redress mechanisms. In fact the earlier CBM had also been able to achieve the same goal till last decade. However, since the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army changed its attitude and uneasy calm returned to the LAC, a need for another CBM arose.

In fact the BDCA was originally proposed by the Chinese in the wake of repeated Indian allegations of intrusions from the Chinese side. But the original draft was not accepted by India, which proposed many amendments and rejected the Chinese proposal of no further increase in military deployments on the LAC. The Chinese accepted Indian objection and agreed to the principle of Mutual and Equal Security. Since the Chinese maintain sufficient force far behind the LAC and has developed transportation infrastructure to move their forces within shortest possible time, Indian Army needed to be deployed right on the LAC in view of the mountainous terrain on the Indian side of the LAC.

The bonhomie displayed by the Chinese leaders for the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was undoubtedly rare for a visiting Head of State, especially considering the state of bilateral relations, long standing border issues and repeated incidents of incursions which widen the trust deficit.

Through the BDCA the two governments have tried to manage and limit the differences and reduce the level of media hype in India over the Chinese PLA acts of repeated incursions and face to face situations on the 4000 kms long Line of Actual Control.

The Indian Prime Minister repeatedly asserted in his various interactions with the Chinese media, scholars and top leaders that the border must remain calm, tension free and peaceful if the bilateral relations were to grow.

The earlier confidence building steps worked very well till a few years ago and has recently escalated creating doubts in Indian strategic planners over the changed and real intent of the Chinese military leaders who mouthed sweet words even in 1954 when Nehru and Zhou En Lai exchanged visits in the same year.

The repeat of exchange visits of Manmohan and Li in 2013 and the extraordinary warmth displayed by the Chinese leadership has given an impression that the Chinese are very serious in developing a cooperative strategic partnership. This may be true, but Indian officials say that this has to be displayed by action and not simply through words and gestures.

Defence exchanges

The defence exchanges assumed new heights in 2007 and 2008 when the two armies exchanged their soldiers for the annual exercises and till that year the two armed forces had also exchanged the Service Chief level visits. The navies of the two countries had exchanged good will visits and even the IAF aerobatics team was invited to display their prowess during the 2008 Zhu Hai air show. The Indian Air Chief was also invited on that occasion.

Till the later part of last decade, the relation seemed to be moving very rapidly and there were lots of expectations in the strategic circles. But these exchanges remained suspended and even the Indian Air Force Chief who was supposed to visit China in November, postponed it as the Indian government did not want an overdose of one sided high level visits from India.

The army to army exercise called the Hand in Hand has been resumed and the third edition has been scheduled in the second week of November. An Indian Army battalion has been invited to Chinese city of Chengdu for the exercise which is expected to warm up relations between the two armies. In fact under the BDCA the two armies have been asked to undertake various activities at the LAC which will increase mutual trust, understanding and reduce animosity between them.

When one looks at the tense military situation and regular exchange of fire at the line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, the India-China BDCA definitely displays maturity on the part of the Indian and Chinese leaders to take relevant measures for maintenance of peace on the LAC.

The measures include the resolve to desist from the use of force or threat to use of force along with the promise not to use its military capability against the other and not to use the respective military strength to threaten the other side.

BDCA agreement

The two sides also decided to exchange information about military exercises, aircrafts, demolition operations and unmarked mines-and take consequent measures conducive to the maintenance of peace, stability and tranquility along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.

Both sides will call regular flag meetings or border personnel meetings at designated places along the line of actual control. Both armies will also call periodic meetings between officers of the relevant Military Regions of China and Army Commands of India and between departments responsible for military operations. Periodic meetings will also be held between senior officials of the Defence ministries of both countries. Both sides will also call meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs.

According to the Article- IV of the agreement, in implementing border defence cooperation and to facilitate contacts and meetings between relevant organizations, the two sides may establish Border Personnel Meeting sites in all sectors, as well as telephone contacts and telecommunication links at mutually agreed locations along the line of actual control. The two sides may also consider establishing a Hotline between the military headquarters of the two countries. Specific arrangements shall be decided upon through mutual consultations between the two sides.

To avoid confrontation the two sides directed the armies not to follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control in the India-China border areas.

To ensure that matter is resolved peacefully in such a situation the two sides agreed that incase a doubtful situation arises with reference to any activity by either side in border areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control, either side has the right to seek a clarification from the other side. In such cases, the clarification shall be sought and replies to them shall be conveyed through any of the mechanisms established under Article III of the BDCA.

The agreement directs the armies that in such a situation both sides shall exercise maximum self-restraint, refrain from any provocative actions, not use force or threaten to use force against the other side, treat each other with courtesy and prevent exchange of fire or armed conflict.

The BDCA thus promises to be one of the best confidence building measures ever taken on any disputed boundaries between two nations across the globe. However all depends on the good will and intent of the two sides to maintain peace and tranquility on the LAC.