India&China: Talking peace

Print edition : July 31, 2020

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi ahead of the 21st round of India-China border talks at Dujiangyan city in Sichuan province of China, on November 24, 2018. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi adressing Indian soldiers during a visit to Nimu, Ladakh area, on July 3. Photo: PRESS INFORMATION BUREAU/AP

A satellite image, taken on June 22, and releaed by Maxar Technologies shows the Line of Actual Control and Patrolling Point 14 in the eastern Ladakh sector, the border between India and China. Photo: AFP

A convoy of Indian Army trucks moving towards the LAC in eastern Ladakh, in Leh on July 4. Photo: PTI

After weeks of tension India and China agree to expedite disengagement of the troops stationed along the Line of Actual Control and desist from taking any unilateral action to change the status quo.

In early July, India and China once again signalled their intention to keep the dialogue process going in order to try and defuse the tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). A few days after the “surprise” visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Ladakh and the combative speech he made there, the “Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question”, after a telephone conversation, agreed to find an amicable solution to the face-off. The last round of meetings between the two Special Representatives, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Indian National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, was held in December 2019.

It is reported that Chinahad been requesting Special Representatives-level talks and activation of other top-level diplomatic and military channels after the June 15 incident which resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley. For reasons that are yet unclear, the Indian government took its time to respond. It is reported that Doval was indisposed and was in self-quarantine from the middle of June. The Indian side kept insisting that diplomatic and military channels, including the Working Mechanism for the Consultation and Coordination on India-China Affairs (WMCC), were sufficient to defuse the situation along the LAC. The Indian side apparently wanted the nationalistic pot to boil for some time. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, went to Ladakh and further heated up the rhetoric against China.

Thankfully, better sense prevailed finally. New Delhi and Beijing announced on July 6 that the Special Representatives had a two-hour-long telephone conversation a day earlier. The Indian External Affairs Ministry, in a statement following the announcement, said that both countries had agreed to expedite complete disengagement of troops stationed along the LAC and pledged to desist from taking any unilateral action to change the status quo. It said that the Special Representatives agreed that it was necessary to “ensure at the earliest complete disengagement of troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity”.

The statement said that the NSA and the Chinese Foreign Minister had a “frank and in-depth” exchange of views on the recent developments in the western sector of the LAC. The two sides agreed to be guided by the consensus reached by their respective leaders (Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping) at their meetings in Wuhan, China, in April 2018 and Chennai, India, in December 2019 that “differences, should not be allowed to become disputes”. The Special Representatives, according to the statement, agreed to continue with their conversations to “ensure full and enduring restoration of peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas in accordance with bilateral agreements and protocols”. It was agreed that while the WMCC and the military commanders on both sides couldengage with each other to discuss border issues, the two Special Representatives would have the final authority on approving an agreement.

If both sides stand by the commitments made in the first week of July, the tensions along the LAC can be defused within a short period of time despite the deep scars left on the Indian psyche by the June 15 incident. The Chinese side has agreed to defuse tensions despite Modi’s speech placing the blame exclusively on the “expansionist” policies of Beijing. Military and strategic experts in India had described Modi’s speech as an indication that the government was preparing for a tough military response.

Modi had said in his speech that the era of expansionism was over and that history was proof that “expansionists” had either lost or perished. Addressing the Indian Army’s 14 Corps , better known as the “Fire and Fury” corps, he said that “the enemy has seen your fire and fury…. The weak can never accomplish peace, the brave do”. Modi had reiterated that the infrastructure work the Indian military was undertaking along the LAC would continue “speedily”. He emphasised that the funding for border infrastructure had “gone up by three times”.

China’s reaction

Beijing was quick to react although it was obvious that Modi’s belligerence was meant for domestic consumption. “China has demarcated its boundary with 12 of its 14 neighbouring countries through peaceful negotiations, turning land borders into bonds of friendly cooperation. Itis groundless to view China as ‘expansionist’, exaggerate and fabricate its disputes with neighbours,” the spokesman for the Chinese embassy in New Delhi said in a statement. Modi had also claimed in speeches he delivered at an all-party meeting and in the “Man ki Baat” radio programme he hosts that India had won the fight in Galwan and no territory controlled by India had been ceded.

With the Prime Minister claiming that no Indian territory had been lost, the Chinese side had a further reason to de-escalate. The face-off with India has not been front page news in China as Beijing is more pre-occupied with the military threat that the United States is posing in its backyard. The spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry had been stating since early July that both sides were engaged in negotiations “for lowering the temperature through military and diplomatic channels” and that “no party should engage in any action that may escalate the situation at this point”. The spokesman warned India against making another “strategic miscalculation” and said that the priority for the two countries wasto focus on “the historic mission of national development and rejuvenation”.

The statement released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on July 6 following the breakthrough made in the talks between the Special Representatives said that the consensus reached with India to withdraw troops from the border should be implemented as soon as possible. This is another indication that the Chinese side does not want any further escalation along the LAC. The statement acknowledged that bilateral ties were facing a “complex situation” but stressed that both sides should adhere to the “strategic judgment that they do not pose a threat to each other”.

It emphasised that both sides welcomed the recent military- and diplomatic-level talks to resolve the situation along the LAC. Wang had spoken to his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar, during the Russia India China (RIC) meet in June. Theyalso held a virtual meeting of the WMCC on June 25. At the same time, the Chinese Foreign Ministry statement once again blamed India for the flare-up on the LAC. “What happened on the western border between China and India in the Galwan Valley is very clear. China will continue to effectively defend its territorial sovereignty and continue to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas,” the statement said. Unlike in the Indian statement, there was no mention in the Chinese statement about maintaining the “status quo” in the contested pressure points.

The statement from Beijing also underlined the importance of “correctly guiding public opinion, maintain and promote normal exchanges and cooperation between the two countries, avoid practice of expanding and complicating disputes, and jointly safeguard the overall situation of China India relations”. This was a reference to the jingoistic and hyper-nationalist tone adopted by leading functionaries of the Indian government after the June 15 incident.

The banning of 59 mobile apps developed by Chinese companies and the exclusion of Chinese companies from telecom and road projects have disturbed Beijing. Some Indian Cabinet Ministers and politicians have also started blaming China for the spread of the coronavirus.

At a meeting between the Indian and Chinese military commanders, Lt. Gen. Harinder Singh, commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps, and Major General Liu Lin, commander of the South Xinjiang Military Region, on June 30, it was agreed that de-escalation would first take place in the “friction areas” where the two sides had serious physical clashes and wouldbe followed by the withdrawal of forces from “depth areas” such as Depsang. Doval and Wang have approved this agreement. Both sides are emphasising the need for a phased and step-wise de-escalation process. Following the Doval-Wang agreement, a four-kilometre-wide “buffer zone” will be created with the two armies retreating 2 km each.

India and China are aware that the disengagement process is easier said than done. But things seem to have got to a good start. Indian Army sources have confirmed that China has started moving its forces back in the four contested stand-off points-Galwan, Gogra, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso. The disengagement process, according to most military experts and analysts, will take some time. Doval and Wang are due to hold talks again by the end of July to assess the progress made. Before that, there will be a meeting of the Joint Secretary-level WMCC on border issues to discuss the implementation of the Doval-Wang agreement

Troops massed along LAC

Meanwhile, thousands of troops remain massed on both sides of the LAC backed by sophisticated weaponry. The Indian government has apparently changed the rules of engagement after the June 15 incident. According to reports, Indian soldiers patrolling along the LAC are no longer banned from carrying weapons. A shooting incident has the potential to spiral out of control. The Indian side is aware that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is in a much stronger position in the area.

Anyway, most military experts agree that if push comes to shove, the Chinese army today is in a much stronger position than it was in 1962 and China’s economy is five times the size of India’s. China is armed with more advanced conventional and nuclear weapons than India. In the long, harsh winter it will be very costly to maintain the 30,000 extra troops India has rushed to the LAC.

India, meanwhile, is trying to further strengthen its military strike power by persuading Russia, France, Israel and the U.S., from whom the bulk of the country’s armaments imports are sourced, to fast-track war material. The Defence Acquisition Council has earmarked $4.4 billion for the procurement and manufacture of armaments. The government has approved the emergency purchase of artillery rounds for the ultralight howitzers from the U.S. Israel has agreed to supply Spike anti-tank missiles. It is bonanza time for arms dealers as India once again goes on a weapon-buying spree.

The Russian government has agreed to rush the sale of 33 advanced fighter jets—21 Mig-29s and 12 Su-30 MKIs. It also agreed to upgrade the 59 Russian-made jets in the service of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The Indian government wants Russia to speed up the delivery of the S-400 air defence missile systems. The deal was clinched when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited Russia to attend the 75th Victory Day Parade in Moscow, which was held in June to commemorate the triumph of the Soviet army over Nazi Germany at the end of the Second World War.

China did not comment on the deal though it may not be happy about the timing, coming as it did when the PLA was standing eyeball to eyeball with the Indian Army along the LAC. China is Russia’s biggest client as far as the purchase of defence weaponry is concerned. The two countries have been geopolitical allies for decades now. India, on the other hand, has veered closer to the West. Russia played an important role in getting India to be a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi interact closely also in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the RIC (Russia-India-China) grouping.

While Moscow has been trying to defuse China-India tensions, the U.S. has been busy stirring the pot. With President Donald Trump deciding to seek re-election on a decidedly anti-China platform, it is notsurprisingthat the U.S.has rushed to blamed China for the incidents that took place along the LAC in May-June. The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was quick to issue a statement labelling China as a “rogue actor” after the June 15 incident.

Pompeo has been in touch with Jaishankar frequently in recent months. His latest telephone call, according to reports, was at the end of June. He reiterated the U.S.’ support for India in the current standoff. According to reports, Pompeo offered to share military intelligence about Chinese troop movements along the LAC with the Indian government. He had earlier issued a statement welcoming the ban on 59 Chinese mobile apps.

Mike Meadows,White House Chief of Staff, told Fox News that America was not “going to stand by and let China or anyone else take the reins in terms of being the most powerful, dominant force in this region, or anywhere else”. He said the U.S. military “stands strong and will continue to stand strong, whether it’s in relationship to a conflict between India and China or anywhere else”.

The Indian political establishment hopes that if it joins the U.S.-led alliance against China, the West will provide preferential market access to India for Modi to realise his pipedream of converting India into a $10 trillion economy. Even as India was locked in a bitter stand-off with China along the LAC, the Trump administration stayedthe issuance of H-1b visas whose major beneficiaries are Indians. It was also not happy with India’s latest defence deals with Russia. Besides the U.S., the only country openly supporting India in its latest stand-off with China is Japan. In South Asia, even Bhutan has chosen to keep quiet on the issue.