India and China

Time for talks

Print edition : July 17, 2020

Indian soldiers at the foothills of a mountain range near Leh, Ladakh, on June 25. Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting in New York on September 25, 2019. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of other political parties during a videoconference on the border situation, in New Delhi on June 19. Photo: PTI

In an image provided by Maxar Technologies, a Chinese army base in the Galwan Valley near the unofficial border with India in May 2020. Photo: NYT

Tensions raised by the bloody June 15 clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the Galwan Valley remain, but both sides have apparently decided to choose dialogue rather than aggressive rhetoric as the way forward.

THE Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between India and China, has remained calm since the bloody clash on June 15 in the contested Galwan Valley which claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers and injured 70. Ten Indian soldiers were taken prisoner and released within days. The Indian Army was threatening a decisive response but cooler heads seem to have prevailed, at least for the time being. The Chinese side has been trying to downplay the skirmish, the most serious in the last 45 years, and emphasising the need for the dialogue process to continue.

Satellite imagery taken in the days following the clash showed that both the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were reinforcing their positions across the border. The Indian government has let it be known that the military commanders stationed along the LAC have been given a “free hand” to respond to any further Chinese “aggression”. Satellite pictures that have been released purport to show some PLA structures in the Galwan valley near the area where the clash took place.

The three major friction points are in Galwan, Hot Springs and the Fingers area near the Pangong Tso lake. The PLA had occupied territory up to Finger 4 in the Pangong Tso area in early May and wants the Indian Army to confine its patrolling up to Finger 2. The area had witnessed clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the third week of May. As of now, the Chinese side is showing no intention to restore the situation that existed on the eastern Ladakh border until the end of April.

India has placed 300,000 troops along the LAC on “the highest alert”. The Indian Navy has been placed on alert for possible encounters with Chinese naval vessels. There is even talk by retired diplomats and army officials about India considering the eventuality of a blockade of the Straits of Malacca in tandem with the United States, Japan and Australia, its military partners in the Quad, if the situation escalates further. Much of China’s imports and exports pass through the choke point of the Straits of Malacca. A former Indian Army chief, General V.P. Malik, said that the Indian Army was capable of fighting a “two front” war.

But the last thing the Narendra Modi government, like the international community, wants is an unwinnable war in the times of a pandemic. But whipping up nationalistic feelings and jingoism helps divert people’s attention from the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic and the economy.

The Chinese side insists that the Galwan Valley has been part of China since the time of the Qing dynasty. The Indian side has strongly differed, stating that its troops regularly went on patrol duty to the area. There is a picture of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing troops in the Galwan Valley soon after the Bangladesh war. Both sides have varying perceptions about where exactly the LAC runs through in the remote mountainous terrain. No maps of the Himalayan border have been exchanged so far.

Anyway, Prime Minister Modi has chosen not to escalate the conflict: he has said that the Chinese side has not made any territorial gains after the clashes. “No one has intruded into our territory,” Modi told the all-party meeting which he convened after the June 15 incident. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) issued a statement saying that Modi at the outset of the meeting had clarified that “neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured”. Two days earlier, the Indian External Affairs Ministry had accused the Chinese side of crossing the LAC and building illegal structures in the Galwan Valley.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a statement on June 22 cautioning the government that the Prime Minister “must always be mindful of the implications of his words and declarations on our nation’s security as also strategic and territorial interests”. He said the Prime Minister “cannot allow them to use his words as a vindication of their position and must ensure that all organs of the government must work together to tackle this crisis and prevent it from escalating further”.

The Chinese media were generally appreciative of Modi’s statement and said it would help defuse the tense situation. According to the Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman, Wu Qian, Indian soldiers were responsible for the June 15 incident; he claimed that it had taken place on the Chinese side of the LAC. “The incident took place solely due to India breaking the consensus [between the two sides],” the spokesman said. The two sides had started military-level talks on June 6 to try and resolve the differences that had suddenly cropped up. Both sides claim that the agreements reached during the June 6 corps commanders’ talks were disregarded and that led to the clash of June 15. Talks between senior military officers were resumed on June 22. According to Indian officials, they remain deadlocked as the Chinese side has not shown any inclination to vacate recently occupied areas.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijiang asserted that the confrontation in the Galwan Valley had taken place on the Chinese side of the LAC. The Chinese side had initially refused to go into the details of the June 15 clash but is now increasingly becoming vocal. “The reckless actions by the Indian military seriously violated agreements signed between the two countries and seriously violated the basic principles of international relations. They were evil in nature and the consequences were severe,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted. Zhao said the Chinese side had to be more forthcoming to counteract what he described as the “large amount of fake news” being circulated by the Indian media and diplomats.

Beijing finally reacted to the assertion by Indian officials that there were more casualties on its side in the Galwan clash. Former Indian Army chief Gen. V.K. Singh, who is now a Minister of State in the Central government, claimed that at least 40 PLA soldiers had been killed. China’s Defence Ministry spokesman said the reports about the number of deaths on the Chinese side were “fake news”. He said some Chinese soldiers received only “light injuries” in the June 15 confrontation. Chinese officials have maintained that they had initially preferred not to comment on the issue as they did not want to inflame domestic sentiments.

After the June 23 military commanders’ meeting on the Chinese side of the LAC at the Moldo border crossing point, the two sides agreed to continue with “a mutual consensus to disengage” and had detailed discussions on “all the friction areas” like the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso areas. Local commanders from both sides will now meet regularly to “cool down the situation”. The idea is to create a de facto buffer zone between the two armies along the friction areas.

The Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman expressed the hope that the Indian side can now at least meet the Chinese side “half way” to work together in easing the tensions and to “maintain peace and tranquility in the border region”. India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman cautiously responded by saying “that both sides remain deployed in large numbers in the region, while military and diplomatic contacts are continuing”.

Wang Dehua, a specialist in South Asian studies in Shanghai University, told South China Morning Post that the military-level talks to de-escalate the situation along the LAC were an encouraging sign. He said that many more rounds of talks had taken place compared with the talks held after the Doklam stand-off started in 2017. “At that time, I was concerned that a fight would break out, but it did not. We have learned since then and discussions are the best way forward,” he said.

The border tensions were barely mentioned at the virtual trilateral Russia, India, China (RIC) group meeting hosted by Moscow on June 23. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, chairing the meeting, said India and China did not require any outside help to resolve their outstanding issues. Russia does not want the two RIC partner countries to drift apart. India and China, along with Russia, are members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) grouping and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Russia is also the biggest arms supplier to both China and India. Moscow has a stake in cooling down the tensions between the two Asian neighbours. Russia believes that good relations between New Delhi and Beijing are essential for the rise of a multipolar world.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, in his speech, emphasised India’s commitment to international law, multilateralism and the legitimate interests of partners. It was meant to be a none-too-subtle message to China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi preferred to focus on the importance of the three countries unitedly facing up to the challenges thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic than comment on the Ladakh clash. This was the first time the Indian and the Chinese Foreign Ministers were meeting after the June 15 incident. According to the Indian Ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, Jaishankar told his Chinese counterpart that the recent events “cannot but have an impact on the bilateral relationship”.

There are indications that New Delhi is unwilling at this juncture to come “half way” as suggested by the Chinese side. “The heart of the matter is that since early May, the Chinese side has been amassing a large contingent of troops and armaments along the LAC,” External Affairs Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava stated in a media briefing on June 25. He also said that the PLA’s attempts to “obstruct” patrolling by Indian troops were “in complete disregard of all mutually agreed norms”. Srivastava also accused the Chinese government of not adhering to the various bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC.

The 1993 “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility” along the LAC specifically mentioned that “each side will keep its military forces in the areas along the Line of Actual Control to a minimum level compatible with friendly and good neighbourly relations between the two countries”. Ambassador Misri, in an interview with Press Trust of India (PTI), said that the Chinese side should realise that “there is no gain in changing the status quo on the ground, especially by resorting to force”.

Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong, in an earlier interview with PTI, also made similar allegations against India. He said that India had violated the 1993 and 1996 agreements on the border. He said that the Indian government should conduct a “thorough investigation, hold the violators accountable, strictly discipline the frontline troops and immediately stop all provocative acts to ensure such incidents will not occur again”.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson alleged that China had been trying to “unilaterally change the status quo” on the LAC for some years and that this year it “disregarded all mutually agreed norms”. According to Srivastava, the June 15 incident is an illustration of the “recent shift in the Chinese position”. He emphasised that security along the border was the “basis” of the relationship between the two countries. “A continuation of the current situation would only vitiate the atmosphere for the development of the relationship”, the spokesman warned, signalling a hardening of the Indian negotiating position. The spokesman’s comments came after the meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs met on June 24.

Hypernationalism

In response to calls from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and other groups to boycott Chinese goods, imports from China are being held up in Indian ports. The Indian authorities are asking for additional documents for their clearance. The imports from China that are being inordinately delayed consist of containers from U.S. companies such as Apple, Cisco, Dell and Ford. The Modi government is making little efforts to tamp down the hyper nationalism and jingoism that have gripped the country after June 15.

In the last week of June, the Delhi Hotels and Restaurant Owners Association, which claims to represent around 3,000 budget hotels, announced that the hotels would not provide hospitality to Chinese nationals. The association had come out in support of the Confederation of All India Traders, which had called for the boycott of all Chinese goods. Leading economists and industry heads have warned the Indian government against making moves against China that would further endanger the beleaguered Indian economy. Annual trade between the two countries is worth $90 billion, with a deficit of around $50 billion in China’s favour.

The only country that has rushed to support India in the military standoff is the United States. After the Donald Trump administration failed miserably to control the coronavirus surge and prevent mass unemployment, Washington has been blaming China for all the ills the world is facing. One of the Trump administration’s biggest China baiter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, denounced China as a “rogue actor” which had “escalated border tensions with India, the world’s most populous democracy”. Speaking at an event in Denmark, billed as “the Copenhagen Democracy Summit”, he said China was militarising the South China Sea and illegally claiming more territory there threatening vital sea lanes.

Speaking in Germany at another event, Pompeo claimed that the U.S. was pulling out some of its troops in Germany to be redeployed in the Indo-Pacific region in order to meet the threat China posed to countries such as India. Pompeo claimed that the PLA posed an increasing threat to countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines too. For the first time since 2017, the U.S. Navy has deployed three of its aircraft carriers in the disputed South China Sea along with eight nuclear submarines in the surrounding seas. The Trump administration has been using the pretext of “freedom of navigation” to flout the territorial sovereignty claimed by China in the South China Sea. Beijing has warned Washington to stop moving its “chess pieces around” and stop “flexing its military muscles around China”.

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