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BDCA with China and its Implications for India

Ambassador P. Stobdan is Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 29, 2013

    The Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing and dialogues with Chinese leadership indicated a sense of optimism for the future of bilateral relations. Some of that optimism may be due to the more amiable persona of the new Chinese leadership. A scrupulous display of assertion and adjustment on key issues plus ably managing media-induced negativity by our mandarins were among hallmarks of the visit.

    Significant among the nine agreements were CBMs in the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) including cooperation on Trans-border Rivers. The BDCA is a positive move but should be assessed for its implications for India. The proposal was first put forward by China, with some sense of hurry, in March 2013 ahead of Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India. Li seemed sure when he said “we hope that the seeds we have sowed today in spring will be harvested in autumn”.

    New Delhi may have responded after great scrutiny. Confusing as it may have been for the Indian mandarins to decide whether to view BDCA as a sign of sincerity and intent by the new Chinese leadership or as yet another deception and denial tactic to stretch India along the LAC, the draft, followed by Depsang incursion in April, did not create a favourable first impression.

    The new architecture admittedly is a rehash of previously signed (1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012) de-escalatory measures to thwart military face-offs along the LAC. Most of the Clauses outline mechanisms for exchanging information, consultations about military activities and enhancing communications between border personnel and headquarters. Of the nine, only Article VI (not to tail each others' patrols along the disputed borders) may actually become relevant in tackling real-time incidents. Equally significant is Article II addressing impending issues like the movement of nomadic herders (relevant to the Changpas on both sides.) Components enshrined in the previous pacts failed to avert PLA’s bellicose misadventure along the LAC.

    While the nuances of the BDCA are yet to be fully understood, the intent may be to serve as new template to boost military interface and resolve incidents locally. It is unlikely that the pact will prevent new incidents. The past CBMs only served China consolidating in disputed areas. PLA intrusions, on an average, have been 250-300 times annually. The Government admitted 500 Chinese transgressions in previous two years - 90 percent occur in Ladakh. The present spin is that they are not intrusions but cases of transgression due to differing interpretation of ‘border’. In reality, incursions occur due to China’s never ending clamour for fresh claims i.e. in Chumur, Pangong and DBO-Depsang tracks in addition to two traditionally known disputed and in eight areas having differing perceptions. In a chilling revelation Shyam Saran report in August noted ‘area denial’ set by PLA patrolling – now de facto LAC 2- resulting in considerable shrink of Indian territory (640 sq km) in Eastern Ladakh. This negates claim of troops’ patrolling along our perceptions of the LAC.

    In Chumur, China probably wants a straight border from PT 4925 to PT 5318 to bring Tible Mane area under its control. PLA has built 4.5 km long road in Pangong’s Sirijap area covering 83 sq km. Incursions in Trig Height area (972 sq km) occur with impunity. Burtse could also become a serious flashpoint. Similarly, in Arunachal Pradesh too the frequency of incursion has been on the rise. Serious face-off situations were reported across Hadigra pass near Chaglagam in Anjaw district.

    The Chinese intrusions have a seasonal pattern, mostly crossing the LAC during July-August. Barring few cases, PLA regulars spend a few hours before crossing back. The pattern is not new, but their discovery and attention by the Indian media is a recent change. China reacts differently, accusing India of committing more transgressions, but prefers not to make noises in the interest of good relations.

    Expectations from the defence pact differ: Premier Li wants BDCA to ‘ensure peace and tranquillity’ along borders without affecting bilateral relations; Prime Minister Singh calls for more ‘predictability’ on the borders, as a precondition for growth in the India-China relationship.

    The risk of BDCA’s failure may stem mainly from India’s (belated) zest to boost border infrastructure to match China’s – the official denied the deal covering this aspect. Given the topographical challenges, corruption and scams that mire these border road building projects, robust infrastructure remains a distant dream. However, pretensions of enhanced access even during winter may have provoked a response from the PLA at Depsang. Remember, China demanded removal of India’s fortified positions for its retreat.

    Similarly, the agreement is silent on deployment of troops on the LAC. In practice, even the previously committed de-militarization process may be on a reverse trend. China’s military build-up is well known; India too may be expanding logistic capabilities and troop mobilization, including artillery units close to LAC. After reactivating old airfields and ALGs, Indian Air force has demonstrated its reach by landing C 130J-30 Super Hercules aircraft to the frontier zone. Indian Army may be moving battle tanks to remote border points, while creating a Mountain Strike Corps along the border may incite an equivalent Chinese response.

    Clarity is also required on the Chinese new twist over it having only 2,000 km long disputed border with India and not 4,056 km as India claims. At some stage China might deny CBMs applying in remaining 2,000 sq km.

    Military intrusion is only one aspect of Chinese assertions along the border, which gets noticed by India’s media. China has long embarked on several non-military intrusions (cultural, economic etc.) which, if not countered, may become more threatening. Given the asymmetry of these challenges, managing borderland only through military force may no longer be a panacea. For an enduring peace, people-to-people interactions should also be encouraged. In July 2014, the Dalai Lama may gather around 2 lakh people in Ladakh for his Kalachakra initiation. China could create disruption or confusion, or even try to manoeuvre the event to its benefit.

    At the heart of China's engagement with India is economic interest. Even burgeoning trade relations in favour of China could not be leveraged by India, but Beijing showed no sign of compromising on the core boundary issue. The Chinese are only interested in resolving the border issue on their terms: these extend to cover all of Arunachal Pradesh, which appears linked to Beijing's Tibet policy. Should India seek to resolve the boundary issue first, or wait for China to solve its Tibet problem? In any case, the Chinese have nothing to lose in Ladakh.

    However, in the absence of a more nuanced borderland strategy, we will have to continue to rely on the military mechanisms. One hope that with BDCA in place incidents like Depsang never occur again and the government will spend less time on fire-fighting. Equally important is to fast-track early conclusion of a framework agreement at the special representative level talks for a lasting solution to the boundary issue.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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