NEW DELHI: The heightened military tensions all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since the Doklam faceoff last year are expected to somewhat de-escalate now, even though some troop confrontations will continue to take place, with India and China set to actively work towards establishing a hotline between top commanders as well as resuming military exchanges and exercises.
Senior defence officials on Sunday said the decision at the informal summit between PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan to issue “strategic guidance” to their militaries basically boiled down to ordering their respective troops to defuse confrontations during patrolling in accordance with existing protocols and mechanisms.
“There will be some cooling down of operational tensions, which spiked during the Doklam crisis near the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction last year and have carried on till now. There are enough mechanisms in place, from banner drills, flag meetings and border personnel meetings (BPMs) to the WMCC (working mechanism for consultation and coordination) and diplomatic channels, to manage and defuse faceoffs,” said a senior officer.
But their implementation on the ground has not been very effective. The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), inked between the two countries in October 2013, for instance, is yet to become fully operational.
The BDCA specifically prohibited either side from “tailing” each other’s patrols in areas where there was “no common understanding” over where the unresolved LAC actually lay. There are 23 “areas of dispute” identified along the 4,057-km long LAC, stretching from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, where patrols often aggressively tail rival patrols, which in turn often triggers faceoffs.
In 2017, for instance, India recorded 426 “transgressions” by the PLA across the LAC (the number was 273 in 2016), with as many as 218 faceoffs. “Hopefully, the two sides will now show restraint to avoid major confrontations, return to their posts, and raise and resolve the incidents in flag meetings or BPMs at the local level itself. We will, of course, not let down our guard,” the officer said.
Similarly, India and China are now looking to set up the long-pending hotline between the operations directorates of their central military headquarters, akin to the DGMO-level one between New Delhi and Islamabad, which was first proposed in the BDCA and then agreed to during Modi’s visit to China in 2015.
“China initially said it did not have a counterpart to the Indian DGMO, while also seeking a 48-hour notice to activate the hotline. But the PLA Army now has its own service headquarters and can identify an equivalent to our DGMO,” said the officer.
China, as part of its ongoing defence reforms, has also reorganised its 2.2-million PLA into five theatre commands to crank up its offensive capabilities as well as establish better command-and-control structures. Its Western Theatre Command now handles the entire LAC with India, instead of the earlier Chengdu Military Region in the east and the Lanzhou Military Region towards the north, as was reported by TOI.
India and China will also revive their annual ‘Hand-in-Hand’ exercise between the two armies, the 7th edition of which got derailed last year due to the 73-day Doklam standoff. “There will also be an increase in small tactical exercises on the LAC, two of which were held in Ladakh in February and October 2016, apart from establishing additional BPM points,” said another officer.
Despite troop disengagement from the actual faceoff site at Doklam on August 28 last year, the two countries have continued to maintain high operational alertness on their borders, with additional units deployed in forward areas. The PLA has also now permanently occupied the Bhutanese territory of north Doklam by constructing bunkers, hutments, roads and helipads to sustain their troops in the area, as was earlier reported by TOI.