India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is known for his soft-spoken manner and propensity for understatement. One recent example is his observation, made ahead of his visit to China this week, that “India and China have historical issues and there are areas of concern.”
Among the historical issues Singh was referring to are the three major military incidents between China and India: the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the 1967 Chola Incident, and a 1987 skirmish. In 2013, the two came close to adding a fourth to this list when a PLA platoon was found to have set up camp 30 km south of Daulat Beg Oldi, in Ladakh, near Aksai Chin. Aksai Chin is perceived by India as an inextricable part of Jammu and Kashmir, and by China as a strategically vital bridge between Xinjiang and Tibet.
China and India had signed agreements in the 1990s to establish a modus vivendi on the border in the form of the Line of Actual Control (LoAC). The 1993 agreement included a statement that "No activities of either side shall overstep the line of actual control.” Since then, India has claimed that Chinese troops have conducted several hundred illegal patrols south of the LoAC every year, but because the PLA troops have always eventually withdrawn to the Chinese side of the LoAC, a major bilateral crisis has been averted.
Singh also referenced the incident from April of this year when he mentioned the “areas of concern” between India and China. India’s defeat at the hands of China in 1962 remains a painful memory for many strategic thinkers in India, and the April 2013 incident played out in a way that poured salt into old wounds.
This was particularly true given that the Indian Army has long viewed Daulat Beg Oldi, which is located at the nexus of Indian Ladakh and Uyghuristan, as a strategically important piece of territory. Therefore, when the Indo-Tibetan Border Police discovered the Chinese platoon camp there in mid-April, the Indian government perceived it as a very serious violation of the LoAC.
India attempted to avoid escalation by instructing the army to practice absolute restraint in approaching the Chinese platoon. Consequentially, no weapons were discharged and India attempted to negotiate China’s withdrawal diplomatically. Over the three weeks, however, China reportedly increased its military presence in Aksai Chin in order to intimidate Delhi.
When asked by India Today if Delhi’s response to the Chinese incursion was too timid, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid responded: "The response should not be seen as timid or robust or whether it is proportional. This (incursion) is adverse to our interests. The fact that they happen to be where we don't want them to be is established. We don't wish them to be there.”
Ultimately, despite his best diplomatic efforts, Khurshid was unable to merely “wish” the Chinese away. The Chinese platoon withdrew only when the Indian government acquiesced to Chinese demands to destroy live in bunkers in the Chumar sector. Throughout the entire incident China denied India’s charge that the PLA had camped out in “India proper” as delineated by the LoAC; it maintained that it had never crossed into Indian territory.
This week Singh will visit China for what is almost certain to be his last time as India’s prime minister. While there he will meet with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, dine with Xi Jinping, and is expected to sign a draft border cooperation agreement. The Indian media are heralding Singh’s upcoming visit as a triumphant meeting between the leaders of two equally strong states, noting that Xi Jinping’s dinner invitation is "a rare honor for an Indian leader.”
But the border cooperation agreement is unlikely to be a panacea for India-China border disputes. Brahma Chellaney, an Indian analyst, has argued that the agreement will be a major strategic victory for China as India "in the manner of a vanquished nation, merely offered its comments and suggestions on the Chinese-imposed draft and sent its national security adviser and defense minister in rapid succession to Beijing to commit itself [to the draft].”
Singh’s travels to China are unlikely to repair the damage done to India’s interests in Ladakh this past April. If anything, India’s next government would be wise to study the April 2013 episode as a lesson in coercive diplomacy.