The new India-China border agreement only entrenches the status quo, and reflects India’s sinking regional position.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trip to China last week was, by all appearances, a success. Coming just a few months after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to New Delhi, it left the impression of healthy and sustained working relations. The trip was fruitful, producing nine signed agreements, including the much-discussed-in-India Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), as well as an agreement on strengthening cooperation on trans-border rivers. A closer look indicates, however, that the visit only institutionalised the status quo at best, or, if one takes a more pessimistic view of India’s situation, reflected the deterioration of its regional position. To guard against the latter, India ought to strengthen partnerships with neighbours — China will certainly not be shy about doing the same.
The new BDCA, the fifth since 1993, commits the two sides to “maximum self-restraint”. It states that neither side shall use its military capability against the other. The two sides will also have to give notice of patrols along the border and will ensure that “they shall not follow or tail patrols on the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas.”
The agreement does not address the border issue per se and thus, to some extent, institutionalises the status quo. It has been criticised for de facto allowing what India used to consider border violations. While it is presented by both sides as a means of ensuring the safety of a border area (where, indeed, not a single bullet has been fired since 1975), the agreement is primarily a tool for the political management of bilateral relations. It does not constitute a guarantee against potential future incidents. The safety of the border area is likely to remain dependent on future political tensions between the two countries. The BDCA is, however, a pragmatic and realistic answer to a rapidly changing situation along the border, where the construction of new military infrastructure and the deployment of additional troops on both sides increase