India-China military standoff: What next?
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

The India-China military stand-off has worsened in the last few days. Each side has blamed the other for the current round of tensions. In a pre-emptive move, the Indian forces occupied important heights in the Rezin La/Rechin La area on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The move was dictated by the compulsion of preventing the Chinese to do the same. Warning shots have been fired on the border for the first time in the last 50 years.

The Chinese have been surprised and even rattled. They did not expect a pre-emptive action by the Indian troops. Now, the Indian Army positions have a clear view of the Chinese side of the LAC. This has changed the situation considerably. It will be extremely difficult now for China to repeat their actions of May and June along the LAC when their troops transgressed into the Indian side of the LAC and created a situation like that in the Galwan Valley where 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers died in a skirmish.

The Indian action has altered the current dynamic of the India-China military stand-off. India is now in a stronger position to deal with China in the military-political discussions on de-escalation and disengagement that have been going on for the last several months but without serious, tangible outcomes. The tension has only increased.

Apart from several rounds of discussions between the military commanders and the working mechanism at the diplomatic level, the two sides have also been in discussions with each other at the political level.

India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met his counterpart in Moscow on the margins of the SCO Defence Ministers’ meeting on 04 Sptember. It seems that the meeting took place at the request of the Chinese side. It lasted for a good 2 ½ hours. Judging by the strong accusatory statements issued by both sides, it would seem that the meeting did not produce much result.

The Chinese defence ministry’s statement repeated by Chinese MFA spokesperson said,

“The root and truth of the current tensions is very clear. The Indian side is entirely responsible. Not an inch of China's territory shall be lost. The Chinese military is absolutely determined, capable and confident in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The two sides should faithfully implement the important consensus reached between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi and stick to dialogue and consultation to resolve relevant issues.”, and,

“Both sides should set eyes on the big picture of China-India relations and regional peace and stability. We should work together and pull towards the same direction so as to cool down the situation as soon as possible and uphold peace and tranquility in the border areas.”1

As can be seen from this statement, there is an implicit threat that China can go to any extent to safeguard its national sovereignty and territorial integrity. At the same time, there is also a hope that the issue can be resolved through dialogue and consultation in the spirit of the Modi-Xi consensus on not letting the differences turning into disputes.

The crux of the matter is that the trust between the two sides has seriously eroded and it is difficult to believe anything that the Chinese say. Thus, India will have to remain prepared at all times to meet with any situation which might result from Chinese assertiveness and aggression. That seems to be thinking in the official circles in India.

So, what can one expect from the forthcoming meeting of the two foreign ministers in Moscow?

The 3 September 2020 statement of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson lays the blame of the Chinese side for the current tensions but reiterates India’s readiness to resolve the issue through negotiations:

“I can say that the ground commanders are still holding discussions to resolve the situation. We reiterate the consensus reached between the two Foreign Ministers and SRs that the situation in the border should be handled in a responsible manner and either side should not take any provocative action or escalate matters. It is clear that the situation we witness over the past four months is a direct result of the actions taken by the Chinese side that sought to effect unilateral change of status quo. These actions resulted in violation of the bilateral agreements and protocol which ensured peace and tranquillity in the border areas for close to three decades… Now the way ahead is negotiations, both through the diplomatic and military channels. The Indian side is firmly committed to resolving all outstanding issues through peaceful dialogue.”2

We therefore strongly urge the Chinese side to sincerely engage the Indian side with the objective of expeditiously restoring the peace and tranquility in the border areas through complete disengagement and de-escalation in accordance with the bilateral agreements and protocols.

The Indian External Affairs Minister speaking at a public event on 7 September stated that the situation at the LAC was “very serious” and called for “deep conversation between the two sides at political level”3 His remark seems to indicate that given the uncertainty, it is difficult to predict which way the situation will develop. So one has to keep one’s expectations from the forthcoming meeting low.

Much will depend upon the appreciation of the ground situation by the two sides. The recent Indian moves on the ground have strengthened Mr Jaishankar’s hand when he meets his Chinese counterpart.

One possible outcome of the meetings could be more senior-level engagement at the political, level. Special Representative talks may also be resumed. Potentially even a Modi-XI conversation cannot be ruled out in future but adequate preparation will have to be done before that.

India has a strong narrative. It is the victim of Chinese actions aimed at unilaterally changing the status quo and the Line of Actual Control. Indian position has been clearly stated in the numerous statements issued by the Indian side. Therefore, for India to resile from the ‘deescalation-disengagement’ formula which was agreed by the military commanders in June, will not be advisable.

China is now in a bind. It has pushed India too hard, without any ostensible reason. Its plans have been foiled. It has resorted to bluster. Its actions are baffling. It seriously miscalculated the Indian resolve to defend itself. Chinese moves have given have dealt a serious blow to bilateral relations. The trust has been completely eroded.

One cannot rule out that China may be looking for a face-saver. They cannot win a military bout with India. Their international image is already in tatters. The official statements that China will not compromise on its territorial integrity and national sovereignty are understandable but not helpful. They will not frighten India.

China knows quite well that the source of the problem is the unresolved border question and the ambiguous Line of Actual Control. Despite India’s insistence for years that both sides should clarify the Line of Actual Control, China has looked the other way in the belief that an unsettled LAC will be an instrument of pressure on India.

The situation has changed completely. India has seen through the Chinese game and is ready to stand firm and resolute. The past agreements have little efficacy today. It would be better if both sides agree to clarify the LAC and find a settlement to the border question. That will be in the long-term interest of both countries. Otherwise, the LAC will be militarised.

It will be too much to expect that in the forthcoming meeting of the foreign ministers, the two sides would come to any agreement with regards to the clarification of the Line of Actual Control or the settlement of the border question. In any case, there is a separate mechanism, the Special Representative mechanism, to discuss the border issues. But the point about the need to clarify the LAC should be raised strongly by the Indian side so that the root cause of the problem is removed.

India does not want a war with China but there should be no doubt that it will rebuff any military adventure perpetrated by the Chinese. it is prepared for a long haul. The External Affairs Minister should convey India’s firmness to his Chinese counterpart and yet be on the lookout for a reasonable, logical and long termpeaceful resolution of the problem.

We need to reset Sino-Indian relations, which have been damaged and changed forever. The resolution of the border question, beginning with the clarification of LAC is the answer. Neither side can afford to have repeated military skirmishes on the border every few months. This is ridiculous and completely avoidable. One hopes that the Chinese would change their rigid mindset and take sincere action to not only defuse the current tension but also pave the way for peaceful and normal relations between the two countries.

Endnotes
  1. Chinese MFA website, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1813183.shtml, accessed on 9.9.2020.
  2. https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/32925/Readout_by_the_Official_Spokesperson_on_IndiaChina_LAC_Issue, accesed on 9.9.2020.
  3. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/external-affairs-minister-s-jaishankar-addresses-express-e-adda-event-of-indian-express/article32546435.ece, accessed on 9.9.2020.

(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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