The clamorous exchanges between India and China of recent days did much to sour the atmosphere and exaggerate bilateral differences but did not do much to provide necessary information about what is at issue, let alone indicate how best to find a way through the problem.
In the superheated atmosphere, a sense of near crisis was created in what is a sensitive part of the border, with reports of deliberate violation of the status quo trickling out, leading to strong official statements from either side. China has been uncommonly forceful in blaming India and pushing its demand for withdrawal by India as a prelude to any move towards amicable settlement, while India has stuck to its guns and refused to bow before Chinese demands.
With both parties in non-compromising mood, it looked very much as if they were in an impasse from which extraction would be tough, with the added complication of having to deal with a stirred public opinion ready to castigate anything that looked like a climb down. In these circumstances, it was a bold step by the External Affairs Minister to call for diplomatic action to resolve the present difficulties, rather than adding to the tough talk that over the last few weeks has reverberated loudly in the Himalayas.
Only a few of the torrent of comments on the subject took a calmer view and pointed out that diplomatic exchanges were needed if incidents were to be avoided, but the general tenor of the media commentary has been strong and uncompromising.
It is inly now, after the high level intervention of the External Affairs Minister herself, and her calling for diplomatic action to resolve the present difficulty, that it has begun to look as if the differences may be brought under control. It is already noticeable, after the Minister’s intervention, that the harsh exchanges between the two sides have given way to more reasonable statements that can open the way to better results.
This is far from being the first time there has been a faceoff along the border; there have been plenty of comparable incidents in the past, but the two countries have succeeded in keeping matters under control and preventing dangerous escalation of their differences. They have instituted a process of regular consultations on border matters that has permitted them to deal with problematic issues before they become dangerous; nevertheless, it is an armed frontier and caution is enjoined on the two countries lest relatively small differences escalate into bigger confrontations that nobody wants.
Moreover, in Doklam there is a third party to be taken into account, Bhutan, which in fact had first sounded the alarm when it found China pushing into unresolved border areas that it had been discussing with China for years without final settlement.
And as the sensitivity of the mountain border has been made plain through discussions over more than half-a-century there is every reason to exercise great care when it comes to any action on the ground that can alter the status quo ~ like the Chinese road near the trijunction that started the recent sequence of events. To hark back to some of the previous tricky situations along the border, a few decades ago there was an India-China confrontation in the Sumdorung Chu area, where there was an unexpected buildup of military forces and sharp rhetorical exchanges that threatened at one stage to be leading to military events.
It took high-level exchanges, and much discussion between civil and military personnel from the two countries, to be able to find a satisfactory way out of what had become a threatening situation. A successful visit to China by India’s PM, Rajiv Gandhi, had a salutary effect in improving the overall tenor of the relationship and paved the way for resolution of specific problems like that of Sumdorung Chu.
In essence, what the two sides were ultimately able to agree was mutual withdrawal of their military posts from the most advanced positions in a manner that in effect reaffirmed the previous status quo. And in order to remove the risk of inadvertent violation with its attendant danger of escalation, it was agreed that military posts in the area would be located away from ‘eyeball-toeyeball’ range of each other, that is to say, beyond the range of the small arms weapons with which the soldiers were equipped.
That arrangement has worked satisfactorily in restoring calm to what had once been a tense and threatening section of the border, and could perhaps provide a useful precedent when it comes to the current issues in the trijunction area. Another notable initiative, in an entirely different section of the border, and again at the instance of MEA, is to reopen crossLOC trade at Uri where it had been re-started some years ago to considerable satisfaction in J-K, where it brought benefit to many traders and signified a useful thaw in Indo-Pak relations.
In the event, revived cross-LOC trade flourished greatly, to the extent that in some respects it was able to edge out the regular trade across the international border, but more recently this trade has been in the doldrums owing to misuse of the facilities by unscrupulous elements. A particularly unacceptable effort by some persons from the other side of the LOC is to use that route for smuggling drugs like heroin into India, and this has compelled the Indian authorities to intervene; media reports suggest that India’s NIA has disfavoured the cross-LOC trade for the security risks it can pose. In these circumstances, it is a bold move by MEA to indicate support for cross-LOC trade restoration, which will gratify traders in J-K as something that will bring them considerable benefit.
These recent developments show a more outspoken MEA, which is to be welcomed, for that Ministry needs to be in command if foreign policy is to have consistency and continuity. In this context, it should be noted that the official head of MEA has said that relations with China remain the Ministry’s chief priority.
At the same time, it was pointed out that in many respects relations between the two countries are doing well, especially in economic matters. These exchanges are valued by India, and as it prepares for more than one regional and interregional Summit meeting in the next few months where the leaders will meet, it is salutary that MEA has been able to begin to set the scene for constructive dialogue.
Border problems cannot be wished away and need to be addressed with necessary seriousness. But we should not lose sight of broader bilateral issues and opportunities.
(The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary)