Border Tensions

India&China: Fragile truce

Print edition : August 28, 2020

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

A convoy of Indian Army vehicles moving towards Leh on July 15. Photo: PTI

Chinese Ambassador to India Sun Weidong. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Even as their military commanders negotiate disengagement of troops along the border, the “forced decoupling” of economies threatens to hurt both India and China.

Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not mention the unresolved stand-off with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in his monthly “Man ki Baat” broadcast to the nation, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh more than made up for it when he welcomed the arrival of the first batch of five Rafale fighter jets from France at the Air Force base in Ambala. Tweeting on the occasion, he said that the addition of the jets would give the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) combat capacity a “timely boost” and make it “much stronger to deter any threat”. To make it clear that he was referring to China, Rajnath Singh added that if anyone “should be worried or critical about this new capability of the Indian Air Force, it should be those who threaten our territorial integrity”.

The French-made jets are capable of carrying out a variety of missions, including reconnaissance and nuclear strike deterrence. The planes had landed under strict security measures to prevent the leakage of sensitive information. Senior retired IAF officers and aviation experts in the country have claimed that the jets will prove to be game-changers in the event of a military conflict, although they also concede that the IAF needs at least 42 fighter squadrons to be fighting fit. It currently has only 31 squadrons, comprising mainly Russian-made fighters, including some of the Soviet vintage. All the 35 Rafale jets that India had ordered will be delivered only by the end of 2021. It will take some time to make the first batch of five to be fully operational.

The IAF has moved air defence systems, as well as a sizeable number of its frontline combat jets and attack helicopters, to bases near the northern border. Chinese military analysts claim that the Rafales are only slightly superior to the Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets that the IAF already has, and are a generation below the PLA’s J-20 stealth fighter jets. The only other countries that have ordered Rafale jets so far are Egypt and Qatar.

The arrival of the Rafale jets coincided with a noticeable stiffening of the Indian government’s attitude vis-a-vis China, after the successive rounds of military and diplomatic talks in the last two months failed to result in withdrawal of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from the disputed areas in the Pangong Tso. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson had claimed in the last week of July that the Chinese and Indian troops had “disengaged” in most of the locations in eastern Ladakh. The Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, reiterated this claim a few days later: “With the joint efforts of both sides, the border troops have disengaged in most localities. The situation on the ground is de-escalating and the temperature is coming down.”

The Indian side, however, painted a more pessimistic scenario. The Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Anurag Srivastava, while conceding that progress has been made, stressed that “the disengagement process has as yet not been completed”. He emphasised that the maintenance of “peace and tranquillity in the border areas is the basis of our bilateral relationship”, while expressing the hope that the Chinese side would “sincerely work with us for complete disengagement and de-escalation and full restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas as agreed by the special representatives”.

The senior commanders of both Armies last met on August 2 as part of the ongoing efforts to complete the disengagement process. It was the fifth round of commander-level talks in the last two months between the two sides. After the previous talks held on July 14, the Indian Army had said that both sides are “committed to the complete disengagement of troops” but had cautioned that the process was “intricate” and that it needed “constant verification”.

The spokesperson for the PLA, Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang, however, stuck to the narrative that the disengagement process was being “gradually carried forward” and that there was “effective communication and coordination” between the two sides, both on the diplomatic as well as on the military front. Meanwhile, the Indian Army has let it be known that it is taking no chances and has indicated that it will have to keep a larger permanent force deployed along the disputed border until there was a verifiable disengagement by the PLA from the friction points. According to the Indian Army, Chinese soldiers remain deployed east of Finger 4 at Pangong Tso and are preventing Indian troops from resuming patrolling in the five patrol points in the Depsang Plains. The PLA has, however, pulled back from the Galwan valley and most of the other friction points.

The Indian Army has said that it has already deployed an additional 35,000 troops along the border. From its point of view, the restoration of status quo ante would mean reduction of the additional troops deployed by both the sides on the LAC, removal of the new infrastructure installed in areas claimed by India and restoration of patrolling rights as they had existed until May. The Indian Army also wants the delineation of the border to avoid a repeat of what happened in May and June.

Sun Weidong has said that the Indian insistence on the clarification of a disputed boundary would only lead to more confusion and disagreements between the two sides. He said that China has “not strayed beyond its customary boundary lines” on the northern side of the Pangong Tso. “China’s traditional customary boundary line is in accordance with the LAC,” he said. The Chinese envoy also made it a point to emphasise that his country never claimed land outside its territory: “The label of ‘expansionist’ cannot be pinned on China.”

United States’ encouragement

New Delhi is being openly encouraged to take a tough stand on the border issue by the Donald Trump administration. The United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who wants to claim the mantle of John Foster Dulles and launch a new Cold War, told the U.S. Congress that the recent border skirmishes on the Indian border and China’s “real-estate claim” on Bhutanese territory were part of China’s expansionist policies. Pompeo even claimed that Beijing’s goal was to spread “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to the rest of the world. He then went on to claim that the Trump administration’s policies had led to the growing international ostracism of China. Pompeo said that China’s recent actions had “reinvigorated” the Quad [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue], the anti-China military coalition consisting of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.

The Quad first began during the United Progressive Alliance government in 2007. Beijing had strongly protested to New Delhi about the blatant anti-China character of the putative military alliance at the time, following which the Indian government had put the Quad on the backburner. Beijing had particularly objected to Australia being invited to participate in the annual Malabar military exercises held by the navies of India, the U.S. and Japan. The Narendra Modi government resurrected the Quad in 2017 and Australia is being sent an invitation to participate in this year’s Malabar exercises. Since 2017, the group has met seven times.

Derek Grossman, a former adviser to the U.S. Defence Department and currently a senior defence analyst at the RAND Corporation, specifically mentions the key role of the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in resurrecting the Quad. He credits the former Foreign Secretary with convincing Prime Minister Modi to accede Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s request that all four leaders of the Quad sit together across the table from President Xi Jinping at the 2019 G-20 summit. It was a signal that did not go down well with Beijing. The Modi government’s rush to re-embrace the Quad, according to most strategic observers, was triggered by the 2017 military stand-off with China at the Doklam trijunction.

With the Trump administration declaring an open “Cold War” against China, Washington has adopted the Quad as the preferred mechanism to maintain “a free and open” Indo-Pacific region. Washington has also taken the lead in criticising China on a host of issues, including Beijing’s handling of its internal affairs in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang. The U.S. is the only government that has officially labelled China as an “adversary” in its latest National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy and Indo-Pacific Strategy Reports. There has also been an attempt by the Trump administration to water down the country’s “one China” policy, in force since 1979. Washington’s allies in the Quad seem eager to follow suit.

Upgrading ties with Taiwan

For the first time, the Indian government has appointed a senior diplomat of Joint Secretary rank, Gaurangalal Das, to Taiwan as Ambassador. The Indian diplomatic mission there is called the India-Taipei Association, and the new appointment signals an upgradation of ties between India and a country which is not recognised by the international community of nations. Modi had invited Taipei’s chief representative in India along with the representatives of the Tibetan government in exile in Delhi for his first oath-taking ceremony as Prime Minister in 2014.

In the first week of August, the Indian government used the occasion of the death of Taiwan’s pro-independence former President, Lee Teng-hui, to send a strong message of solidarity with the breakaway republic. Its statement described the late President as “Mr Democracy”, and said his vision and leadership “helped deepen democracy and economic prosperity” in Taiwan. President Lee spearheaded Taiwan’s efforts to be recognised as an independent country, which is anathema to Beijing’s “one China” policy.

Participating in a webinar in the last week of July, Ambassador Sun Weidong had emphasised that issues relating to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang were “totally China’s internal affairs and bear on China’s sovereignty and security”. He pointed out that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and at the same time “it allows no external interference and never compromises on its core interests either”.

Sun Weidong also took the opportunity to comment on the Indian government’s moves to accelerate the decoupling of the economies of the two countries. In the last week of July, the Indian government issued orders for the banning of 47 more Chinese apps. It has delayed imports of machinery and other goods from China, and restricted Chinese companies from bidding for contracts in infrastructure projects. Sun Weidong pointed out that in the age of globalisation, the two economies are interconnected and that the “forced decoupling” would adversely impact the economies of both countries: “Whether we want it or not, the trend is difficult to reverse”. He gave the example of German automakers in India complaining of delays because of the lack of spare parts coming from China.

China had lodged a strong protest on June 29 after the first round of banning by the Indian government, saying that the move “severely damaged the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies”. But the Indian government seems determined to teach a lesson to the Chinese government, even if it means shooting itself in the foot.

China accounts for 14 per cent of Indian imports, and is the source for even rudimentary products such as nails and toothpicks. While alternate sources can easily be found for such products, the fact remains that the electronic and pharmaceutical industries in India are substantially dependent at this point of time on imports and expertise from China. A significant amount of imports are also sourced from Hong Kong. Indian corporates have warned that hasty decoupling would add to the woes of an already beleaguered economy.

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