Management of Indian Border Disputes - A Complex Task - Seeker's Thoughts

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Management of Indian Border Disputes - A Complex Task

 The United States plays an instrumental role in the resolution of India-China border tensions. This ORF brief outlines essential policy imperatives that could help address this dispute.


The Himalayan border extending east from India and covering Arunachal Pradesh as well as Bhutan and Tibet in China, is one of the world's most contentious frontiers.


Delineation of Boundaries


Deliberations over boundaries is one of the primary sources of friction in Indian border disputes, not only due to their location in an often volatile region but also because the dispute itself stems from colonial failure to establish clear lines along two sectors, the Western Sector (which now forms part of J&K and Aksai Chin in India) and Eastern Sector (parts of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in India; see Vasudeva 2020).


As noted above, although the 1948 Panchsheel Agreement established an agreed-upon line for much of the border, much remains contested and thus triggers military encounters and threatens regional stability (Ranjan 2021).


Since the Galwan Valley clashes of 2019 have come to light, it has become clearer than ever that China and India continue to engage in high-level political and diplomatic exchanges, yet their trust deficit widens (Peri 2021). This lack of trust between both sides has contributed to entrenchment of their positions on disputed territory; with each becoming dependent upon developments at their border for their future growth prospects.


As such, both sides are engaged in an intensive race to develop their contested territories, including building roads and railways, upgrading military infrastructure, and increasing troop deployments for quick mobilisation purposes. As a result, risks of another clash are mounting despite ongoing dialogue and meetings among officials from both sides.


With their strong leadership and corporate-style politics, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi created hope of progress on border issues; however, domestic considerations and perceived strategic threats have severely limited their abilities to take sweeping decisions.


As the disputed border is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, both countries must establish an institutional mechanism to manage it with the aim of maintaining peace and tranquility on the ground. Such an arrangement could foster trust between militaries and prevent incidents from spiralling into full-scale crises - pledges of nonaggression may help build confidence between them, notification of large troop movements must come prior to crisis occurring, use of maps as dispute resolvers.


Defining the Line of Actual Control (LAC)


India and China's latest clash along their 2,100-mile long disputed boundary has brought to light the need for both sides to reconcile their understandings of it, yet this will prove challenging due to both militaries' increasing infrastructure development as well as deployment of advanced dual-use platforms near this contested frontier. As tensions between them mount, thus increasing risks of prolonged crises.


Deliberating over how to define the LAC has proven challenging for both nations as it reflects different interpretations of reality. While deployments determine where troops actually deploy at any one time, perceptions define where each nation controls territory at any one moment in time - adding further ambiguity that has resulted in multiple border skirmishes in recent years.


These episodes, from the Depsang clash in northern Ladakh to Chumar and Doklam standoffs in eastern and western Ladakh respectively, have highlighted the need for clearer definitions of the LAC. Both nations acknowledged this goal explicitly in 1993's Border Peace Treaty Agreement (BPTA) and 1996 agreement on confidence-building measures - yet this process has stalled ever since China pulled out from exchanging maps in 2002's western sector exchange of maps.


As India has struggled to overcome internal political opposition and maintain the principled conviction that India should not capitulate to what Nehru described as Chinese cartographic aggression in Tibet, both nations' military managers have chosen to define their LAC according to what they see as their respective zones of control.


However, this has led to a dangerous dynamic which is evident by recurring confrontations around Pangong Lake in eastern Ladakh. Here, due to both natural seepage and deliberate provocation by Chinese military personnel over 50 years has caused LAC to shift southward, giving rise to frequent confrontations - thus earning this area its name of Fingers Area because its shape resembles fingers.


Managing the Line of Control (LoC)


The 740 km Line of Control (LoC), or military command line that divides Jammu and Kashmir is India and Pakistan's de facto border. Though not legally recognized internationally, both sides recognize it in accordance with the 1972 Simla Agreement that ended the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War. Although neither side controls territory beyond this de facto border, both have constructed infrastructure and increased forces along it to prevent incidents that could spark full-scale conflict.


As such, the LoC remains an unstable frontier. Recent clashes near Tawang serve as a reminder that, while much attention has focused on Ladakh's volatile situation, there are multiple potential flash points along this disputed boundary that could ignite violence at any moment. With both sides employing advanced weapon systems for forward deployment as well as having an overall lack of trust between themselves, the possibility for prolonged standoffs that escalate into local or even full-scale conflict remains high.


India has reinforced their military buildup along the border by developing strategic roads and tunnels to speed transport times to remote border regions. Alongside this expansion comes an increase in Indian troops deployed close to the LoC.


India has constructed a 550 km fence along Jammu and Kashmir's 740-km-long disputed Line of Control to stop Pakistan-backed separatist militants infiltrating. Following the Pulwama terrorist attack which claimed 40 CRPF soldiers lives, these efforts have been intensified further.


Even after taking these measures, tension along the border persists due to China's disregard for India's efforts to preserve status quo and New Delhi's attempts at avoid balancing against Beijing; instead, Beijing asserts its dominance through brazen actions on Indian-controlled territory in Himalayan borderlands.


Chinese patrolling since the late 1990s indicates that Beijing intends to control all of the Aksai Chin plateau, which contains parts of Ladakh. Such an approach will likely fail to bring lasting peace as India lacks any map showing which territories fall under its jurisdiction and which belong to PLA.


Managing the Line of Respect (LoR)


Indian borders are some of the longest in the world. Although not demarcated, both sides regularly conduct transitory patrols and exchange maps describing their respective positions in disputed territory. Such interactions typically do not escalate tensions and serious border standoffs are relatively rare (although four instances occurred over five years).


However, a new dynamic has arisen on both sides of the frontier. Beyond platoon and company-level jostling, both India and China have expanded their military presences in contested areas - in India's case this means building military infrastructure near borders while expanding troop deployments; for China this means incursions into territories where Beijing had not maintained ongoing physical presence up until January 2020.


While these incidents haven't triggered major conflict yet, they represent an intensification in Sino-Indian hostilities that undermine years of diplomatic and political improvement in bilateral relationships and pose an immediate challenge to any attempts at major reset.


Roots of Conflict in South East Asia have deep historical and structural roots. Following their 1962 war, both countries agreed on an Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility which called for nonviolence, mutual respect and non-aggression as principles to uphold. Later that same year they also signed an additional confidence-building measure agreement which demanded non-aggression commitment and prior notification for large troop movements.


Although both countries agreed upon specific obligations, both have taken very different approaches in fulfilling them. India has expressed displeasure at China's refusal to recognize any map showing an existing Indian presence in disputed territory, which has effectively blocked efforts at reaching an amicable boundary settlement agreement. Meanwhile, Beijing sees India unwillingness to delegate clarification processes to Beijing as providing it an opportunity to expand their claims through future negotiations.


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