India&China: Back from the brink

Print edition : October 09, 2020

India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow, on September 10. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP

While the recent joint statement by the Foreign Ministers of India and China signals an easing of tensions between the two countries, the wounds left behind by the four-month-long military stand-off will take time to heal.

Finally, there is some good news from India’s northern front. After months of tension, sabre-rattling and some bloodletting along a small section of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), India and China seem to have agreed to bury the hatchet, at least for the time being. The agreement came about after a meeting between India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar and the Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow on September 10. To the pleasant surprise of the international community, a joint statement was issued after the meeting between Wang and Jaishankar, signalling an easing of tensions between the two countries and averting an imminent limited military conflict.

The joint statement pledged that the militaries of the two countries would “quickly disengage, maintain proper distance, and ease tensions”. The statement reaffirmed the “series of consensus” that committed the two countries to a cooperative relationship. After the Wuhan summit meeting in April 2018, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had given a solemn commitment that both countries would not take any action that would impact on the core national interests of each other.

One of the key consensus points was that China and India are not strategic rivals but partners who have a stake in the development of each other’s economies. The joint statement said that the two countries would adhere to the existing agreements and protocols in “bilateral boundary affairs” and that the two militaries would “maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas and avoid action that will escalate matters”. Foreign Minister Wang told the media in Moscow that China was willing to take conciliatory steps, including the withdrawal of troops and heavy equipment.

The special representatives designated by the two governments will continue to hold discussions on the boundary questions and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) will continue with their meetings. Many analysts have noted that the joint statement does not mention the LAC but instead used the words “border areas”. Many analysts have concluded that the concept of the LAC has become redundant after the incidents witnessed this year.

It could also be a signal that the status quo ante may not be restored as demanded by the Indian side. The fact of the matter is that China never accepted the LAC as the border and has always stated that the claim line it put forward in 1959 is the only border it recognises. It is now widely agreed that the Modi government’s foolhardy move to abrogate the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, turning Ladakh into a Union Territory and including parts of Aksai Chin on the new Indian map was the trigger for the Chinese to change certain facts on the ground.

The situation along the Sino-Indian border in Eastern Ladakh seemingly got out of hand in early September. For the first time in more than 45 years, there were reports that Indian and Chinese troops had resorted to firing warning shots on August 29 and 30, and on September 7. Both sides blamed each other for breaking the commitment of not using firearms along the LAC. The 1996 Agreement on “Confidence Building in the Military Field” along the Indo-China border has a clause prohibiting the use of firearms “within two kilometres of the line of actual control”.

Pre-emptive operation

Tensions ratcheted up yet again after the Indian Army launched what it termed as a “pre-emptive” operation on the night of August 29-30, capturing some strategic heights overlooking the Pangong Lake. The Chinese government blamed the Indian side for the latest round of skirmishes. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that India’s claim that it had “pre-empted” the People’s Liberation Army’s move was in itself an admission that New Delhi had “unilaterally changed the status quo” and had “broken the agreement and consensus” reached by the two sides in July. Apparently, several thousand Indian troops were deployed to capture a few “strategic heights” in the first week of September.

The Chinese side was the first to complain about Indian troops targeting PLA positions with gunfire. The incident in the first week of September had taken place just two days after the meeting between the Defence Ministers of the two countries, Rajnath Singh and General Wei Fenghe, in Moscow. China’s Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, reiterated four days after the meeting between the Indian and Chinese Foreign Ministers that it was the Indian side which was responsible for the infringement of the LAC. “Recently, the relevant ministries of the Indian government had claimed in their statements that Indian troops had ‘pre-empted’ Chinese military activity in the South Bank of the Pangong Tso lake, which obviously revealed that there is illegal trespassing along the LAC and status quo change in the border,” the ambassador emphasised.

The meeting between Rajnath Singh and Wei Fenghe was the first high-level meeting between the two sides since the standoff in Ladakh began in the middle of the year. They were meeting on the sidelines of a meeting of Defence Ministers of the SCO. The meeting lasted almost three hours. The Chinese Defence Minister, while emphasising the need to maintain “peace and tranquillity” on the LAC, laid the blame for the rise in tensions on India. A statement by the Chinese Defence Ministry said: “Not one inch of Chinese territory can be lost”.

New Delhi has laid the blame solely on the Chinese side for the border row which has claimed the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. Rajnath Singh, during his meeting with Wei Fenghe, strongly argued for the restoration of the status quo ante along all the friction points in Eastern Ladakh and the expeditious withdrawal of all military forces. The Indian government has not acknowledged the loss of territory along the undefined LAC in Eastern Ladakh but large areas where the Indian Army used to regularly patrol is now out of bounds for them, at least for such time until the status quo ante that existed before May 2020 is restored.

Indian military experts say that in the Depsang area itself, more than 900 square kilometres are now out of bounds for the Indian Army. But the Indian government has so far denied any intrusion by the PLA, sticking to the claim made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July. Rajnath Singh told the Rajya Sabha on September 17 that the clashes in the last four months have occurred primarily over the issue of patrolling rights. He claimed that India’s timely action helped prevent the change of the status quo in the Pangong Lake area. The Defence Minister stressed that “no force on earth can stop Indian soldiers from patrolling” along the border.

While speaking earlier at the SCO meeting in Moscow, Rajnath Singh said that peace and security in the SCO region “demand a climate of trust, non-aggression, respect of international rules and peaceful resolution of disputes”. A few days before the move by the Indian Army in the last week of August, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat had said that India had “viable military options to deal with the transgressions of the Chinese army in Ladakh” in case talks with the Chinese at the diplomatic and military level fail”. General Rawat has also been saying for some time now that India is even prepared for “a two front” war with both China and Pakistan if the need arises.

The General’s assertion could be just for domestic consumption. It is well-known that keeping thousands of troops deployed in the inhospitable Himalayan terrain for long periods is an untenable option for both countries. The deployment of soldiers just on the Siachen Glacier costs Rs. 5 crore every day. India will have to substantially raise its Defence budget which, given the perilous state of the Indian economy, is not a feasible proposition at this juncture. As much as 80 per cent of the winter clothing needed for the soldiers in high altitudes is imported.

India is already the third biggest military spender in the world. However, 60 per cent of its budget goes towards the payment of salaries of its 1.3 million-strong standing army. The Defence budget is already stretched. Salaries for the staff of the government’s premier think tank, the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), have been delayed in September. The government revealed in Parliament that it had taken two loans worth more than $1,200 million from the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) even as the Indian Army was facing off against the PLA in May and June.

By mid August, the armies of the two nations had massed troops in the inhospitable mountainous terrain even as the harsh winter months were fast approaching. According to reports, India had deployed three army divisions numbering up to 70,000 soldiers, along with tanks and howitzers positioned at strategic points. The PLA was similarly deployed in large numbers across the LAC and had raised their combat readiness to the second highest level possible by the second week of September.

The Indian side claimed that more than 50,000 PLA soldiers were deployed in the Aksai Chin border region, backed by fighter jets and artillery. The international community was getting increasingly concerned as an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation was building up along the LAC. Jaishankar said at the end of August that the danger of a military confrontation between the two countries was the greatest since the 1962 war.

U.S. game plan

United States President Donald Trump once again offered his good offices to negotiate a deal between Beijing and Delhi to end the standoff, saying that the situation along the Indo-China border was “very nasty”. At the same time, U.S. officials told the media that they believed that the two sides would not allow the border dispute to get out of control and spark a full-scale war. Both India and China have been insisting that there is no need for third party mediation.

The Trump administration, while pretending to play the role of a peacemaker, is actually encouraging the Modi government to take a confrontational stance against China and join Washington as a partner in the new Cold War it has launched against Beijing. Starting from the days of the Barack Obama presidency, Washington’s game plan has been to turn India into “a frontline state” in the looming military confrontation with China.

Speaking at a U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum conclave in early September, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun called for a NATO style Indo-Pacific military grouping in the region to counter China. He said that India’s membership was crucial for such an alliance to be a reality. The Modi government continues to insist that the country will not become a full-fledged member of any military alliance so as to preserve its “strategic autonomy” in decision-making. But in actual fact, under Modi, the Indian government has slipped even further into the military ambit of Washington. U.S. planes and warships routinely use Indian air bases and ports. In July, the Indian and U.S. navies conducted joint exercises. The USS Nimitz participated in the exercises.

The Indian government, which had previously objected to a U.S. military presence in the Indian subcontinent, seems to have welcomed the recent signing of a military agreement between the Maldives and the U.S. According to an U.S. Defence Department statement, the agreement “is an important step forward in the defence partnership between the two countries”. Indian officials said that the agreement showed that the Maldives was now a supporter of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region. The Maldives is a key member of China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI). The U.S. and India seem to be working in tandem to get the Maldives to sign up to an anti-China military alliance.

The wounds left behind by the four-month military stand-off between India and China will take time to heal. India’s open playing of the “Tibetan card” and the precipitate ban on Chinese apps such as TikTok and WeChat could have a long-term impact on bilateral relations. The Special Frontier Force (SFF), consisting of Tibetans living in India, played a key role in the capture of the mountaintop in the Pangong Lake area which was within Chinese claim lines.

The Indian government is no longer shy of publicising the existence of the hitherto secretive force. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ram Madhav attended the funeral of a slain SFF soldier who was killed in operation to take a mountaintop in the Pangong Lake area. A 21-gun salute was accorded to the fallen Tibetan soldier. The SFF was set up after the 1962 war and was initially armed and trained by the CIA, under the overall supervision of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB).

Leading Chinese commentators have said that the involvement of the SFF along the LAC was an open incitement of Tibetan separatism and warned that Beijing could return the favour in India’s troubled North-eastern region, where many insurgencies are brewing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that Beijing was not aware that Tibetans were fighting for the Indian Army. The spokesperson said that China was “firmly opposed to any country, including India, supporting the secession activities of Tibetan pro-independence forces or providing them with any assistance or physical space”. Before the long winter ends, India and China have a lot of issues to sort out. Otherwise the next summer may witness more fireworks.

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