New Delhi: The existing rules of engagement between India and China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — where both sides have to refrain from firing at each other under any circumstance — have been designed to avoid escalation between the countries, said P.S. Raghavan, chairman of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), an independent advisory body on security issues.
In an exclusive interview to ThePrint, Raghavan, who is also a former diplomat, said, “Our forces on the LAC are always armed, but there is a strict code of conduct observed by the armies of both sides that we shall not shoot. Because if you shoot to kill, that is a sure way of launching an escalation which can go to a war.”
According to him, this is what distinguished the LAC from the Line of Control with Pakistan since neither India or China has fired a bullet so far.
Raghavan’s comments come in the wake of the Galwan Valley clash in Eastern Ladakh on 15 June, where 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives in the line of action. India and China have been involved in a military and diplomatic standoff for the past two months.
Following the clashes, several questions were raised on why the soldiers did not use the firearms they were carrying. In response, the government then reportedly gave a “free hand” to the Army to severely deal with such transgressions.
However, the government or the military establishment has not clarified what entails a “free hand”.
According to Raghavan, despite the clashes, it is unlikely the Army would have been given permission to engage in crossfire at the border.
The practice of not drawing firearms along the LAC is from the 1996 border agreement, which states that “neither side shall open fire or conduct blast operations within 2 km of the Line of Actual Control”.
“If you do not shoot, you do not escalate. If India and China have avoided a war from 1993 onwards, the principle reason for that is there has been no firing,” he said.
‘One hothead should not cause war’
The former secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs agreed that what used to be jostling and pushing each other in the past has now escalated to attacks with nail-studded rods and sticks wrapped with barbed wire.
However, he maintained that this may not have led to any drastic change in the rules of engagement.
“One hothead on either side should not cause a war. There has to be a control of how to react at the border and there has to be discipline in it,” he said.
Raghavan said the troops would have been given a detailed set of instructions, with some tweaking in the protocol.
“But there is unlikely to have been an instruction to shoot if there is a local provocation,” he said, adding that the orders not to shoot have actually maintained peace, in whatever form between India and China.
Raghavan said that a “no war-no peace” situation best describes the present standoff at the LAC, and India should prepare for a “reasonably long haul” this time.
“We are not at war certainly and neither side wants to go to war, but at the same time I think we are going to have a reasonably long haul to ensure peace,” he said.
The former diplomat added that while India wants the situation at LAC to go back to status quo, it will take continued negotiations at the military, diplomatic and even political level. However, he is convinced that a limited war would be out of question.
“You need a very extreme provocation to go to war. Occupation of some land (by either side) is not extreme provocation. We are convinced it is ours, they are convinced it is theirs,” said Raghavan.
‘Claims on Ladakh standoff exaggerated’
The NSAB chairman, however, noted that a lot of the claims about the Galwan Valley, the Hot Springs area, the Pangong Tso in Ladakh and even the satellite images being circulated have been “exaggerated”.
“Satellite images do not tell you exactly when that image was taken and secondly tell you whether it’s Indian or Chinese,” he said.
“For example, you can look at the tents in the satellite images, which are in a row.” He noted that if troops were in an aggressive stance, that was not how the tents would have been set up.
He also admitted that these exaggerations would not have sustained if the relevant government agencies had been quicker with their responses.
“Instead of trying to correct the narrative, they may have been able to shape it in the right direction. This needs to be looked at carefully,” he said.
When asked if there was bound to be any accountability over the lapses of intelligence after the standoff eases, Raghavan said that close observation of the LAC is ingrained in government procedure and is perhaps even more stringently done compared to Pakistan.
“What changes with governments may be some tweaking of patrolling posture. But it was not like the government did not know what was happening at the border” he said.
“At most what they may study carefully is the lessons that can be drawn from what happened on that Monday night, to see what could have been better.”
On Ladakh and its proximity to the Siachen glacier and the Karakoram highway, he said, “Areas which are of strategic advantage to your adversary are of strategic importance to you”.
‘India is rejecting coercion’
Raghavan claimed that China’s aggression could be a combination of multiple factors.
One possibility, he said, was that while China had built infrastructure on its side of the LAC and has consistently been strengthening it for a long period of time, it did not want India to do the same.
Raghavan noted, “Our building of infrastructure was accelerated tremendously in the last few years. It may be the Chinese desire to see that we do not get a tactical advantage in building our infrastructure.”
He added that under the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic, China has expanded its field of operation in several areas including the South China Sea, and Ladakh could be a part of this aggressive project. “It is the Chinese ambition to move and secure its side whenever it gets the opportunity to accelerate.”
However, Raghavan also said that India is not giving in to this aggression.
“We are rejecting coercion and repulsing any attempt to change facts on the ground at LAC,” he observed.
“What we are looking at in the long term is to resist Chinese efforts to expand its influence to the level of hegemony in our neighbourhood.”
‘Reducing asymmetries with China is the way forward’
India has been facing issues with China even prior to the tensions along the LAC or even the pandemic, Raghavan said.
According to him, “Over a period of time, we have had a number of issues with China and there are political issues, too, regarding reluctance to designate a particular individual in the terror list in the UN, our membership of Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, CPEC, the Belt and Road initiative and they particularly do not display a friendly attitude towards India on a number of other issues.”
He noted that there was a need to deal with China holistically, and in a manner that does not impinge on India’s interests.
“We have to look at the entire range of asymmetries that exist and we need to narrow the asymmetry with China, one of which is also the balance of trade. China and the US have roughly the same bilateral trade with Indians, which is $90 billion,” he said.
Of this, Raghavan said, $30 to 40 billion is trade imbalance or deficit with China.
“On the other side, our trade faces large non tariff barriers in China.. which is an asymmetry that had to be dealt with even before Covid-19. This is an ongoing thing and the Galwan incident only reinforces our desire to restore symmetry,” he said.
On the increasing clamour about boycotting Chinese goods as a form of protest, Raghavan said, given that 70 per cent of smartphone users carry cell phones and laptops manufactured in China, the boycott call was unsustainable.
Instead, he talked about how certain rules in ‘Make in India’ can help in dealing with trade in China.
“One of elements in the Make in India Rules of 2017, further amended in 2020, states that countries which do not let our companies in certain sectors bid in government tenders, India will not let companies of those countries to participate in our government tenders. But this has not been implemented,” Raghavan said.
He added that the Chinese have identified sectors that they consider as strategic, where it does not allow foreign companies to participate in any government tender, such as the telecom industry — “So, no Indian telecom company can operate in China.”
“If China has erected a non-tariff barrier against India, we should also erect the same barriers. These are not overtly hostile measures, but reactive measures and reciprocal,” he said.
While these are things India should have looked at long back, after Covid-19 and Galwan, it should look at their actual implementation now, he said.