India changes rules of engagement with China in border area

New Delhi said to have given green light to soldiers in disputed Himalayan region to open fire, if necessary

The Indian government is reported to have amended the rules of engagement for its troops along the disputed border with China in the Himalayan region, a week after the most violent clash between the two countries since they fought a brief border war in 1962.

New Delhi is said to have allowed its soldiers to open fire, if necessary, in extraordinary circumstances.

Previously, troops strictly adhered to a 1996 agreement, Confidence-Building Measures (CBM) in the Military Field, which governs military behaviour between the two sides. The agreement states that neither side should open fire within 2km of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border in the disputed region.

The Indian media has dubbed the latest move as "new rules of engagement".

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh gave the go-ahead during a review of the border situation with Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, and the chiefs of the three armed services on Sunday.

Sources said it was aimed at giving greater clarity to commanders on the ground following the violent clashes in Galwan Valley on June 15, which left 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops dead.

"There will be no more burden of CBMs on Indian soldiers," a source told The Straits Times.

Talks were continuing yesterday between the two sides to resolve the border stand-off in Galwan Valley and elsewhere along the LAC.

Several areas along the undemarcated border are disputed, even though it has remained largely peaceful for the past 45 years. In 1975, four Indian soldiers were killed at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh.

The current row erupted last month after India accused China of changing the status quo in the region and moving troops into forward positions in Galwan Valley and elsewhere.

Analysts say New Delhi, by unilaterally changing the CBM, was trying to assuage domestic concerns about the safety of Indian soldiers, and attempting to better manage the border issue.

Questions have been raised over why the soldiers had to follow protocol when their lives were in danger. Opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi asked if those who lost their lives were unarmed.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar responded by saying that all troops on border duty were always armed but had to follow the CBM.

"Those at Galwan on 15 June did so. Longstanding practice (as per the 1996 and 2005 agreements) not to use firearms during face-offs," the minister tweeted.

In 2005, the two countries reiterated their commitment to the 1996 agreement.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also faced criticism from the opposition Congress party and others for not giving a clear picture of the developments along the border, a charge dismissed by his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and government.

Mr C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, said: "It's a case of saying earlier protocols are being reviewed and made flexible to deal with the post-Galwan situation... Because domestically, there is a lot of criticism."

Defence analyst Abhijnan Rej believes New Delhi's latest move also served a strategic purpose.

"This is the largest strategic signalling from New Delhi to Beijing that India is willing to run the risk of escalation," he said.

So far, China has not responded to the move.

But China's Global Times editor Hu Xijin has warned India against violating the CBM.

"If Indian soldiers use firearms against Chinese soldiers in the future, there will be a different picture in the border areas," he wrote in an editorial in the paper published by Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily.

Thus far, neither side has claimed victory in last week's violent clash.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2020, with the headline India changes rules of engagement with China in border area. Subscribe