Written by Rajiv Ranjan
After seven months of standoff along the India-China border in Ladakh, the troops’ disengagement has begun. Given the unpredictable behaviour and rising power-dilemma between India and China, the soldiers’ tanks and boots can return at any time to destroy the permafrost in the Himalayas. However, to preserve the sanctity and serenity of the region, India and China must give space to the Himalayan civilisation to prosper by entrusting the local people of Ladakh and Tibet region to move freely, trade, resume their lost family and culture connections.
Both India and China have dictated the terms of engagement and connections for locals from a comfortable distance. Civilisations thrive on interactions. An attempt to create exclusive and restricted identity brings no good but silently kills the knowledge gained from interactions. Imagine an invitation-only exclusive ancient “silk road club”, prohibiting different cultures from sharing knowledge and trading along the route.
As the disengagement has started to temporarily create a demilitarised zone from finger 4 to 8 in the Pangong Tso area, it may be constructed as a zone of peace managed by locals for development, eco-tourism, community and border trade. The hard border creates temporary peace. Any desire for sustainable and lasting peace lies in ensuring communities divided by an imaginary line must continue their age-old traditions of social, religious and economic interactions. Instead of emulating the Wagah border muscular nationalism along the India-China border, the success of the Nathula Border trade can be replicated and even further developed along this contested border.
In an enabling environment, India and China can explore constructing a “Kailash Mansarovar Corridor” for pilgrimage via the Leh-Demchuk route, fulfilling the goals of the Ladakh 2025 Vision document. This could reduce the 27 days it currently takes to complete the yatra, trekking through rocks via Uttarakhand, to a few days.
Creating a soft border serves at least three purposes. First, it replaces encounters between patrolling soldiers with that of local inhabitants to strengthen the social connections, religious fraternity and economic inter-dependency. Second, it acts as a viable and sustainable confidence-building measure. Third, it also reduces the inviolability of the border as a threat to the Westphalian notion of sovereignty. The original architects of the Westphalian treaty are on the path to replicate the ancient Asian civilisational model for the new century. Sadly, in 21st century Asia, we are emulating the 17th-century construct.
With increasing infrastructural development and troop mobilisation capabilities, friction spots along the border will rise proportionally. Although the chances of any full-scale war are minimal given that both countries pose nuclear capabilities, the interdependent nature of the engagement and the unprofitability of war for both the nations. What is odd is that infrastructure and communications development along the border, instead of creating more avenues for constructive and profitable engagement, endanger security and peace in the region. The problem lies in the objectives behind this construction. These developments for securing the border and protecting the territorial integrity threaten the lives and livelihoods of the local inhabitants if tensions arise between two neighbours. Also, these military-grade constructions in the fragile Himalayas ecosystem damage the flora and fauna of the region.
From the road construction that induced the Doklam standoff to the current violent Galwan clash, security-driven developmental work at border regions catalysed the military brinksmanship. To avoid frequent military transgressions and clashes along the contested border, locals must be empowered to participate in the decision-making that affects their lives by not securitising the development agenda, but by catering to local needs and sustainable development practices.
For this purpose, both countries must promote the establishment of a joint local-civilian authority to oversee conservation, promotion of eco-tourism and sustainable development. The creation of joint local-civilian authority has the following advantages over border forces guarding the territory and carrying the infrastructural development in the border region.
But having said this, it’s entirely up to the leadership of the two countries to trust their own people to secure and manage their home. India and China must learn to cohabit in the Himalayas.
The writer teaches international politics at Shanghai University, Shanghai, China