Distrust More, Verify More: India-China Relations Post Foreign Ministers’ Meeting
Amb Kanwal Sibal

China, through his reckless aggression in Ladakh has seriously jeopardised peace and tranquility on the India-Tibet border. China is already in occupation of large parts of Indian territory in Ladakh. To seek to consolidate its hold on this occupied territory by encroaching further into Indian land makes little sense if China wants to avoid a direct military conflict with India. China’s calculation that India will not actively defend itself and that by offering negotiations and proposing that India meets it half way it would gain control of a further slice of Indian territory has proved to be a serious misjudgment.

A military conflict with China, despite the latter’s bullying tactics and provocations, is not in India’s interest. India has therefore, as in earlier cases of China’s aggressive territorial moves, relied on diplomacy to find a solution. This time too, despite the scope of unprecedented China’s military moves and intrusions into Indian territory since 1962, India has made efforts to find a negotiated solution and avoid a conflict, if possible.

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on September 10 should be viewed as a continuing effort to find a diplomatic solution, with the difference that this time India has shown its resolve to challenge China militarily on the ground, as is demonstrated by the violent confrontation in the Galwan Valley and India’s latest moves to occupy mountain heights south of Pangong Tso to obtain tactical control of the Spanggur Gap. This bold move has rattled China, as its vulnerability has been exposed in this sector.

As India’s latest move will be seen as a military blow by China, one making a dent on its self-esteem and leaving a psychological impact, it is entirely likely that instead of inducing it to look for a diplomatic solution, it will seek to neutralise India’s move by some other stratagem. China is duplicitous and deceitful, its word cannot be trusted, and as it is highly self-centered, it will always seek advantage for itself. Its ingrained hierarchal thinking makes it treat those it considers weak with disdain.

The results of the Jaishankar-Wang Yi meeting have to be analysed keeping in mind some of these fundamental points. This meeting was preceded by a meeting of the Defence Ministers of the two countries, also in Moscow. That meeting, from the statements issued by both sides subsequently, did not break any meaningful ground. On the contrary, both let it be known that they are determined to protect their sovereignty and will not yield an inch of their territory. The Chinese Defence Minister, a PLA General, a former commander of China’s Rocket Forces and a member of the Central Military Commission chaired by Xi Jinping, carried no mandate to disengage, de-escalate and restore the status quo ante eventually. Instead he appears to have blamed India for provoking the present crisis. It was therefore, most unlikely that the Chinese Foreign Minister would have carried a different, a more conciliatory, mandate.

The nature of talks at military level and at diplomatic level is in any case, different in nature. Defence level talks have to be more matter of fact, more situation-oriented, more about the mandate to the two armed forces from the leadership. The Chinese Defence Minister would have more direct involvement with the ground level situation as a military man. At the diplomatic level the emphasis has to be on dialogue, on keeping the channels of communication open, of bearing in mind the international diplomatic ramifications of the brewing conflict. As the situation is a rolling one and how it develops cannot be judged definitively as the conduct of one side cannot be fully anticipated by the other, keeping the diplomatic channel open to assess bottom lines or detect signals is important.

It is in this background that we can analyse the Jaishankar-Wang Yi joint statement. The reference in paragraph 1 to both sides taking “guidance from the series of consensus of the leaders on developing India-China relations, including not allowing differences to become disputes” is pro forma. It is no longer relevant as a serious dispute has arisen on the ground because of differences. But there was no harm in recalling it. That both “agreed that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side” can be seen as a realisation by China that a conflict with India is not in its interest, but it can also be used to give the impression that China did not want a conflict but was forced into it by India. They “agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. This would be hopeful except that the Corps Commanders have already met five times and other meetings have taken place at brigade and area commander levels, but with meagre results that are confined principally to the Galwan Valley and some limited withdrawal (from Finger 4 to 5) and thinning out of troops on the northern bank of Pangong Tso; steps that since then seem to have been reversed. What is important is our Army’s statement that even while talks on disengagement are being conducted Chinese troops have been trying to gain tactical advantage where they could. Unless a clear, fresh mandate has been given to Chinese troops to move back, continuing the dialogue is unlikely to produce results. More so, because the Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued a separate follow-up statement after the FM level talks, giving a “stern” warning to India.

As regards disengaging quickly, what it means in terms of time-frames is unclear. The quickness of disengagement will mean a fresh round of negotiations at the military level that will determine the conditions, the extent of disengagement taking into account the principle of equal and mutual security based on the ease of access to forward areas by the two forces in view of differences in terrain and ground infrastructure on both sides. This will mean withdrawing from positions that both sides currently hold.

This is going to be a very difficult call. We would expect Chinese troops to move back from the Depsang area in particular where they have intruded deeply, as it potentially threatens our road to Daulet Beg Oldie. They would also be expected to move back to Finger 8 at Pangong Tso. In return, we would be expected to move back from the heights we have occupied on south of Pangong Tso. Absent absolutely water tight agreements- which are difficult to imagine- China can always move back into the Depsang area, whereas once we vacate the heights we have taken, retaking them would be impossible should the Chinese capture them after our withdrawal. The problem is that the LAC is not defined or demarcated, which allows China to lay claim as it wishes. The peaks we have occupied south of Pangong Tso are on our side of the LAC. China has never earlier laid claim to them and now suddenly they accuse India of violating the LAC. Maintaining “proper distance” is an odd formulation as what is “proper” has little concrete meaning. “Proper” is a very flexible term, liable to be interpreted differently. “Ease tensions” is again a very imprecise terms, though the intention behind the use of this vague terminology is quite clear.

That the “two Ministers agreed that both sides shall abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs, maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters”, is neither here nor there as China has violated all the existing agreements on maintaining peace and tranquillity and border management. No value can be placed on what they say in a joint statement which has no legal sanctity. If they can violate signed agreements, violating a joint statement has no dissuasive force.

The agreement “to continue to have dialogue and communication through the Special Representative mechanism on the India-China boundary question” and continue the meetings of “the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs (WMCC)” merely amounts to keeping the doors of a dialogue open, with no new commitment taken.

Finally, “The Ministers agreed that as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas”. If the old CBMs have not worked it is not clear how any new ones will work. If China wanted peace with India it would have ceased making aggressive claims on Indian territory repeatedly and worked towards settling the border issue, which it has shown no inclination to do, baulking at even clarifying the LAC as agreed both sides in 1996.

It is important to note that the joint statement is structured around disengagement and de-escalation. There is no reference in it to restoring the status quo ante. In fact, in recent weeks Indian statements have ceased to mention this presumably because the immediate need is to prevent an eruption of hostilities because of the close proximity of the amassed troops. The restoration of status quo ante will depend on very complex negotiations thereafter, with uncertain results.

It would appear that for their own reasons both India and China do not want to break off dialogue and buy some more time for the dynamics of the situation to become clearer and enable a better assessment, as far as we are concerned, of Chinese intentions and bottom lines. The situation has, however, become very complex and no easy way out is available to either side. India’s distrust of China has now become profound. The downward slide in the relationship will continue. It is not a question of framing our future ties with China purely in the bilateral context. We have to take into account China’s overall policy of expansionism, the manner in which it views sovereignty issues, its hegemonic ambitions, its growing confrontation with the US, its policies in our neighbourhood, and so on. If major western powers decide to curb China’s behaviour more actively, India cannot release pressure on China by cooperating with it.

India has always had a China problem to face. Our earlier policies of cooperating, competing and confronting China where necessary have not succeeded. We have now to fashion a policy that will treat China as an adversary and de-link ourselves from it as much as possible. The most important thing is to build our deterrent capabilities as quickly as possible.

It would seem that India has put in enough troops in eastern Ladakh to meet the Chinese threat. Arrangements for deployment through the winter are apace even if the burden on our resources is considerable. The occupation of heights in the Kailash Range south of Pangong Tso has given us tactical advantage in a sensitive area. This should be preserved at any cost. Apparently, at the Black Top the Indian troops are at hand shaking distance from the Chinese, and on some other heights our troops are within hearing range of Chinese troops. The situation is therefore tense, though it would appear from the nature of the deployment of Chinese troops that a large scale military clash is not being prepared. The rules of engagement have been revised for our troops after the Galwan butchery. Whether what is said in the joint statement would require a revision again is a point to consider, given that shots seem to have been fired in the air at Black Top. Given our vulnerabilities in the Depsang sector, there is urgent need to make the Advance Landing Ground at Daulet beg Oldie operational with new technologies to ensure supplies in volume as helicopters can carry only limited load. Ladakh needs at least an additional operational airfield and the project of one at Nyoma would need urgent implementation.

The concept of the LAC now seems to have lost meaning as the Chinese have used it to their advantage to encroach into Indian territory. The Chinese media have begun speaking of the 7 November 1959 as the basis of a solution, a proposal made by Zhou en Lai in 1959 which was rejected by Nehru. The concept of a buffer zone figured in Zhou’s letter to Nehru. Apart from the propagandist airing of such proposals, it is inconceivable that the Modi government can accept something rejected even by Nehru.

It is interesting that the word “LAC” does not figure in the joint statement; instead the term “border areas” is used, which is revealing about our thinking now about the utility of the LAC concept. There is a view that it would not be in our interest to discuss new CBMs as mentioned in the joint statement, work on which is supposed to take place when the present situation eases. One can argue that with our confidence in China eroded new CBMs that do not address the basic source of the conflict, namely, the un-demarcated Indo-Tibetan border, will mean continued instability and tensions. This would be so in particular as India will have to continue to keep improving the border infrastructure on our side, and curbing that would be a Chinese aim in discussions on new CBMs.

It seems that there is not enough time available to reach any understanding before the winter sets in, as the points of negotiation are very complex and have political ramifications. The stand-off should therefore span the winter. Come next summer, what would be the scenario? Once the trial of the winter has been gone through by our forces our resolve not to make any concession to China will be even stronger next year.

One should not place much hope on a Xi-Modi encounter at the SCO summit in Moscow to resolve the stalemate. A lot of preparatory work will need to be done for this meeting, and that work will require a major change in China’s position, for which neither the Chinese Defence Minister not the Foreign Minister gave any signal. In any case, if the two principals met they can agree on general principles such as “differences should not becomes disputes”, but cannot negotiate the details of compromises, which in this case has now been left principally to the armed forces mainly.

All in all, a situation that has very uncertain outcomes.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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