Just as imperceptibly as China and India were locked into a standoff in mid-June on a narrow plateau near the China-Bhutan-India trijunction area in the Sikkim Himalayas, so the standoff was wound down imperceptibly with deft diplomacy by both sides.
On August 28, a week before President Xi Jinping was due to host Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Xiamen for the ninth BRICS summit, New Delhi and Beijing began implementing the terms of their disengagement understanding, commencing with the withdrawal of Indian troops and equipment from the Chinese side of the border. The offending Chinese road construction activity that had constituted a “significant change in the [security] status quo” in India’s view and triggered its trespass across the border in the first place, is likely to be withdrawn in the days ahead.
The plateau in question, the Dolam Plateau in the Doklam area, once again reverts to its former status as the subject of a legal dispute between China and Bhutan, under the effective control of China, and holding an important security interest to India.
A host of questions abound regarding the timing of the denouement. Did Xi blink in order to remove a dark cloud over the impending BRICS summit as well as the forthcoming 19th National Party Congress? Was Modi read the riot act that forced him to move first? Was Bhutan a silent bystander through gritted teeth all along?
Larger questions abound regarding the motivation and chosen course of action by both parties. What prompted Beijing to build a road of marginal military value in a sensitive security zone where it suffers obvious tactical disadvantages? How wise was it for New Delhi to militarily intervene on Thimpu’s behalf to uphold the latter’s feebly-articulated claims of sovereignty over a patch of territory that had all along been under Beijing’s effective control? Shouldn’t New Delhi have made its point and withdrawn much earlier, as it has in previous instances along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – its undefined border with China?
There are no questions on one issue though: the assemblage of Sino-Indian boundary management protocols, which are intended to confer peace and tranquillity to the border areas as well as serve as a crisis management mechanism, held-up impeccably throughout the standoff.
Two provisions in particular played an outsize role: the requirement that border personnel on both sides be lightly armed and exercise maximum self-restraint in case of untoward encounters at the border; and the limits on armed force deployments as well as ceilings on tanks, large calibre infantry guns, and surface-to-surface missiles to their rear within designated zones.
Together, these provisions ensured that the face-off between Chinese and Indian border personnel was limited to fisticuffs at worst, and helped extend the noteworthy streak – now almost 42 years – of not a single life being lost in anger along their Himalayan border.
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 and foremost, boundary or crisis management measures with China are a confidence-building measure. Each of the five agreements that China and India have signed were arrived at during warming phases of their post-1988 relationship. Each instilled confidence in the others’ intentions and provided a fillip to their larger boundary dispute resolution-related 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 (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Japan’s respective relationships with Beijing. China-Japan relations currently are not at this stage yet.
Second, devising boundary or crisis management mechanisms with China requires patience and perseverance. There is no single authoritative Sino-Indian document. 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, boundary or crisis management mechanisms with China are a work in progress. Each of the five such agreements – in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 – that India has initialed with China builds upon the previous one/s, with the latter three aimed at incrementally plugging gaps that have arisen. 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 a similar vein, China and India should draw up an additional protocol that forbids construction-related activity in close proximity to the two sides’ understanding of the LAC. With Beijing increasingly mirroring New Delhi’s habit of building light infrastructure which has led to recurring standoffs in recent years, the time to devise this patch is now.
Beijing and New Delhi should also establish greater geographic separation between their border forces, while paying due consideration to parameters such as the nature of terrain, the existing state of road communication and other infrastructure, and the time taken to induct/de-induct troops and armaments for either side during a military emergency.
Finally, Sino-Indian boundary and crisis management arrangements are voluntary and depend entirely on good faith. Although the provisions are prescriptive, they do not contain binding verification mechanisms. While either party is at liberty to disregard provisions that do not suit its interests, the tendency has in fact been for both parties to treat the arrangements as a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that is deserving of utmost respect. The claimant states in the South China Sea and Asean, too, would gain by endowing suppleness within the provisions of their bilateral consultation mechanism and code of conduct, respectively, rather than stack all their chips in a single, highly legalistic, results oriented document. It would lend stability and sturdiness to their maritime crisis management interactions.
China and India face a host of challenges at the boundary and beyond, which are made no easier by the trust deficit in ties. The success of the boundary management protocols is on the other hand an underappreciated facet of the depth and resilience in ties. Their success during the Doklam crisis is a testament to this resilience. Beijing’s rival claimants in Asia’s seas and strategic competitors in the Western Pacific would be well-advised to pay attention to these crisis management lessons.
This article originally appeared in The South China Morning Post.