It took a border crisis that dragged on for years to finally bring India and China to the table.
Thirty years ago, officials from both sides, meeting in the aftermath of the Sumdorong Chu stand-off that strained relations, thrashed out what would be a historic first ever border agreement between the neighbours who had, in 1962, fought a war. Signed in September 1993 during Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to China, what’s now known as the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) — or to give it its full name, the “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the India-China Border Areas” — for the first time saw both sides legally commit to respecting the status quo and reduce the risk of an unplanned confrontation.
That the 30th anniversary of what was in many ways a historic development, passed without mention underlines its contested legacy today. For at least two decades, the BPTA, and subsequent agreements that it paved the way for, helped keep the peace on the longest undemarcated border in the world. Yet, the limited nature of the agreement would also ironically push both countries into an infrastructure race, ultimately leading to increasingly frequent incidents, starting in 2013, culminating in the deadly clash at Galwan in June 2020.
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Indeed, the very first article of the BPTA saw a commitment that “neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other by any means” and that “pending an ultimate solution to the boundary question between the two countries, the two sides shall strictly respect and observe the line of actual control (LAC) between the two sides”. Both also committed that neither side shall overstep the LAC and that “each side will keep its military forces in the areas along the LAC to a minimum level compatible with the friendly and good neighbourly relations between the two countries” and would “agree to reduce their military forces along the LAC in conformity with the requirements of the principle of mutual and equal security to ceilings to be mutually agreed.” None of those commitments now appear valid, with the ongoing crisis entering its fourth winter and more than 100,000 troops from both sides deployed in forward areas close to the LAC.
Ambiguity around LAC
At the heart of the reasons for the breakdown in border agreements and mechanisms is the inherent ambiguity that surrounds the LAC and was built into the BPTA. The LAC problem was one that negotiators wrestled with as they thrashed out the BPTA, given India’s long-standing discomfort with the term, first proposed by then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on November 7, 1959. China still claims this 1959 LAC as the valid one. As former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale explains in his 2022 book After Tiananmen, China wanted to insert the term “LAC of 7 November 1959” into the BPTA, which India refused.
“This problem was sidestepped by inserting the provision that both sides would clarify the LAC wherever required, which, by implication, meant that India did not share a common perception with China about the so-called LAC of 7 November 1959,” he reflected. “There is no gainsaying that such a formulation did not conclusively reject the Chinese version of the LAC. But in the circumstances, the alternative might have been a continued state of close confrontation all along the LAC at a time when India was battling Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in both Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Choices had to be made and that is what India did.”
One undeniable positive of the BPTA was its paving the way for further agreements that helped keep the peace soon after Sumdorong Chu, starting with an agreement in 1996 on “Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field along the LAC”, which acknowledged the unsettled definition of the LAC in 1993 and said both sides need to ultimately arrive at a common understanding of the LAC. Both sides also appointed Special Representatives in 2003 and agreed on a three-step process for a final settlement of the boundary. The first step, on political parameters and guiding principles, was completed in 2005. Negotiations for a framework then began but have never been completed.
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As negotiations on the boundary stalled, the mechanisms designed to keep the peace pending a solution began to come under increasing stress. The exchange of maps of respective LAC claims to clarify differing perceptions was never completed.
Instead, what did happen amid the continuing ambiguity over the LAC was a push by both sides to bolster their claims through facts on the ground, such as more infrastructure in forward areas and increasing frequency of patrols. Patrols of both sides that would in some pockets meet once a month were soon encountering each other every week — a recipe for tensions. As Gokhale reflects, “a partial explanation for the lack of success in reaching a mutually acceptable boundary settlement during the twenty years from 1992 to 2012 might lie in the 1993 and 1996 agreements themselves”. “By making both sides more conscious of the importance of strengthening their physical presence in these areas, the two agreements might have inadvertently created conditions for the subsequent slowing down of the boundary negotiations until the parties felt they were in a more comfortable position along the LAC.”
The result, 30 years on, is a markedly different context along the India-China border. Indeed, the commitments enshrined in the very first article of the very first India-China border agreement were blatantly cast aside in the current crisis, which began in April 2020 with China, for reasons still unexplained, mobilising a large number of troops in multiple areas along the LAC and unilaterally appearing to enforce its LAC of 1959.
While military commanders of both sides continue to meet to work out a new set of CBMs in this new context, the parallel process of settling the boundary dispute has all but completely stalled. The last meeting was the 22nd round that was held between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Special Representative Wang Yi in December 2019. They haven’t met since. Thirty years on, the India-China border remains as unsettled as ever, as does the broader relationship. It took a crisis three decades ago to bring both sides to the BPTA. Whether the current crisis will bring another transformative moment in relations remains to be seen.