India’s land borders are unique in many ways. India has a 3,325 km border with Pakistan, 3,488 km with China, 1,770 km with Nepal, 662 km with Bhutan, 1,643 km with Myanmar, and the largest land border of 4,340 km with Bangladesh. Our borders are unique due to the variety of terrains through which these borders pass, namely deserts, mountains, glaciers and forests. It is obvious that managing such large borders in diverse terrain conditions pose myriad challenges.
Our biggest challenge is that we have contested borders with Pakistan and China due to the long-standing disputes and a Pakistan-China strategic nexus directed against the nation in a nuclearised environment. India has been facing a proxy war on its western border for many decades. Pakistan is using non-state actors to bleed India by a hundred cuts. The border management along the line of control (LOC) does not follow any geographical alignment and passes through mountain peaks and rugged terrains. Moreover, Pakistan has located the border posts to facilitate terrorist infiltration.
The Indian Army and the BSF are deployed in multiple layers to form an anti-infiltration grid. The border fence and deployment of other surveillance devices has helped in reducing infiltrations. The surgical strikes launched by our armed forces in the wake of terrorist attacks supported by Pakistan’s ISI have succeeded in sending the message of firm resolve to deal with the menace of terrorism and proxy wars.
Drugs smuggling from Pakistan is another major challenge for our paramilitary forces and state police. Punjab, a strategic border state, has been the target of drug smuggling for many years now. Drones have proved to be an effective tool in smuggling drugs across the border. It will take more than mere vigilance on the border to deal with this menace. Improving our intelligence network within the state to nab the drug dealers on our side of the border must be the main priority of our security forces. It is by dismantling the network on our side that we will thwart the evil designs of our adversary.
It is along the LAC with China that India faces the toughest border challenge. India has disputed borders with China in Ladakh, Middle Sector, and in Arunachal Pradesh. Despite many levels of talks, very little progress has been made to resolve the dispute. China is using the dispute against India, whom it sees as its competitor in Asia, to moderate our strategic behaviour and advance its national goals and aspirations. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that out of 14 countries with which China had border disputes, all but two disputes (India and Bhutan) have been settled.
In the past, China followed the strategy of keeping its periphery peaceful while it was focused on an unprecedented economic growth.
In 1993, President Jiang said that in order to keep the security environment around China peaceful, “we must follow the policy of stabilising the neighbouring countries, making more efforts, eliminating doubts and promoting good neighbourhoods and friendship.” It was with this objective in mind that China signed the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement in 1993, Confidence Building Measure Agreement in 1996, and Agreement on Settlement of the Boundary Question in 2005. China followed up these agreements by signing the Agreement on Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination in 2012 and Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in 2013.
However, China’s intentions changed after Xi Jinping took over as the president of PRC. He departed from the earlier strategy of ‘Hide your strength and bide your time’, propagated by Deng Xiaoping. China under President Xi has become more assertive and aggressive in the South China Sea, East China Sea, across Taiwan Strait, and also on LAC with India.
PLA has amassed troops across eastern Ladakh since 2020, intensified infrastructure development in areas close to the border, and is establishing ‘well-off villages’ along the LAC.
Despite 17 rounds of talks at Corps Commander level, no de-induction or de-escalation has taken place, and PLA continues to pose a ‘threat in being’.
The Indian Army responded to this development with a speedy build-up to mirror PLA’s deployment, increased surveillance, fast tracked infrastructure development projects in border areas, and rolled out the Vibrant Villages Programme (This is part of the border area development strategy where over 100 villages will be developed along the LAC). Once completed, this project will help strengthen our security along LAC and manage the vulnerable land border with China.
In the long term, India has to develop ‘Dissuasive Deterrence’ capability and convince China that India possesses conventional forces; any offensive by China stands an unacceptable chance of degenerating into a costly, risky, protracted and indecisive war. For this, we have to continue to fast track infrastructure development along LAC, which includes construction of highways, airports, bridges and digital infrastructure.
Projects like Trans-Arunachal Highway will help in mounting an effective and speedy response against an aggression by the PLA. However, this will take time; until then we have to be prepared to deal with its aggression along LAC in an ‘Armed Coexistence’ scenario.
India’s border management with our other neighbours—Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar—pose different kinds of challenges. Here, the principal objective is to secure our borders against elements hostile to the country and putting in place systems that are able to interdict such elements while facilitating legitimate trade and commerce, tourism and other such activities.
Our borders with these countries are guarded primarily by paramilitary forces, and they have to deal with smuggling and trafficking of humans, drugs, arms, illegal migration and movement of suspected insurgents. Porous borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar and open borders with Nepal pose challenges in dealing with these nefarious activities.
The way forward is to establish close coordination between security forces on both sides, real-time sharing of intelligence, and working towards economic prosperity on either side of the border.
Maj Gen R P S Bhadauria
Head, Centre for Strategic studies and Simulation at the USI