India shares its land border with several countries, including China and Pakistan. Along these sensitive borders, sometimes, the soldier must act as a diplomat. Soldier-diplomats are crucial for national security and prevent tensions from needlessly escalating.
It is often said that the last hundred yards of foreign policy are covered by soldiers deployed along the borders.
The diplomatic relations between two neighbouring nations are often translated into quantifiable actions by the soldiers deployed along the borders. This is more profound when there are long unresolved border disputes between two nations.
Who is a soldier-diplomat
The soldier-diplomat is part of a larger counter-insurgency campaign in the sub-conventional domain of warfare.
In this, a soldier deployed in combat zone is required to understand the importance of communication skills, soft skills, negotiation skills, cultural intelligence, contact skills and cognitive skills. The aim of this concept is not to distort the fundamental role of either the soldier or the diplomat. It also does not advocate replacing one with another. It merely underlines the fast-changing professional requirements of a modern-day soldier – where being just battle-ready is not enough.
The concept was first highlighted by Indar Jit Rikhye, Michael Harbottle, Bjøfrn Egge in 1974 in their book, The Thin Blue Line: International Peacekeeping and its Future. The authors advocated training troops deployed in conflict zone in skills and qualities other than those related to use of force. In another 1993 article by Rudolph C. Barnes, Military Legitimacy and the Diplomatic Warrior, the strategic importance of the role of a soldier, especially with regard to contact with the local population in conflict zones was highlighted. The political and strategic consequences of actions taken by soldiers at the tactical level was well articulated by US General Charles C. Krulak in his 1999 article, ‘The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War’.
Soldiers on India-China border
Soldiers deployed along the India-China border have the rare opportunity to don the mantle of soldier-diplomats, in a rather unique scenario.
For a country like India, it is a constitutional obligation of the armed forces to follow the directions of the elected civilian government in letter and spirit. However, it may not be the case for the armed forces of many of India’s neighbours.
It is in this background that the remarkable and relatively enduring peace that prevails along the India-China border needs to be seen. Ever since the India-China war of 1962 and the Nathu La and Cho La skirmish of 1967, no major escalation with fatal casualties has occurred along the 3,488-kilometre border. This scenario, when compared to the bloody exchange along the India-Pakistan, border puts the issue in perspective.
It is true that there are many bilateral agreements between India and China for maintaining ‘peace and tranquillity’ along the borders. But these agreements have failed to stop the daily face-offs between the soldiers of both countries, primarily due to differing perceptions regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Some of these face-offs, like the Doklam crisis, could have easily snowballed into a major confrontation between the two nations. It is, however, a testimony to the professionalism of soldiers, of both the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army of China, that although there is absolute firmness in protecting the respective ‘perceived’ LAC, there has been no kinetic military action.
One needs to understand the difficult conditions in which soldiers operate. Soldiers deployed at barren high altitudes, fighting the harsh and unforgiving climatic conditions, and protecting at all costs a ‘notional’ border, which has not yet been demarcated on ground, face extreme physical and mental challenges. The competitive narratives built due to the geo-political posturing by both nations add to this complex milieu.
Under these circumstances, apart from hardcore soldiering to maintain territorial integrity, it is also the deft diplomatic skills to maintain peace that come to the fore. These diplomatic skills are practised by both sides on a daily basis during regular interaction of troops along the LAC, including the face-offs arising out of patrolling in disputed areas.
From greeting each other and holding conversations through interpreters and maintaining the standards of professional conduct during face-offs to having a firm but friendly demeanour, the diplomatic skills exhibited by the soldiers are truly exceptional because these are soldiers who are well-trained to handle weapons and not words.
The diplomatic sophistication and symbolism are best epitomised when senior military officers meet during the Border Personnel Meetings scheduled at designated places close to the LAC. Even after a tense situation, the remarkable composure maintained by these senior officers during such meetings can make any career diplomat proud. At times, pure goodness seems to transcend the language barrier, leading to peaceful and healthy relations.
A fine balance
The existing peace and tranquillity architecture is a fragile one because of unpredictable and, sometimes, bizarre human behaviour, especially under unusually stressful conditions. One needs to understand the psyche and emotions of frontline troops who consider protecting the territorial integrity of the nation as their sacred duty. There have been numerous occasions in the past when tempers have flared, leading to acrimonious situations. Today, with an omnipresent media, any incident, which otherwise would have been handled at the tactical level, may require the intervention of the highest political leadership.
Only a political redressal of the border dispute through a joint mechanism can offer a lasting solution to these issues.
But in the real world, for sustained peace along the borders, it will be prudent to have more formal and informal interactions between the garrison troops deployed. There should also be a ‘practical’ working agreement on the patrolling schedule of both sides, including an agreement for a ‘No Patrolling Zone’ in the disputed areas along the LAC.
In the meantime, soldier-diplomats along the LAC will maintain peace and tranquillity.
Colonel S. Dinny is a faculty member of Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), Wellington, Tamil Nadu. Views are personal.