India-China Face Off- Has China Committed a Faux Pas?
Amb Kanwal Sibal

China has committed a grave error in triggering a military confrontation in Ladakh. It has underestimated the Indian resolve to stand up to its bullying tactics. Doklam should have been a warning to China that its military efforts to gain territorial advantage at India’s cost would not go unchallenged. That rebuff seems to have goaded the Chinese leadership to plan a blow on India in Ladakh and retrieve lost political, military and psychological ground.

With almost 40,000 troops mobilised by both sides the situation has become most tense. Withdrawal by either side without a solution that meets immediate and longer term interests is not easily conceivable. If China, having taken an adventurist step with the intention to brow beat India retreats, it would have lost that political, military and psychological edge it has so far enjoyed vis a vis India. It could until now pin prick India at will in sensitive areas on the border, force India into a negotiation mode with advantage on its side, rattle the Indian political establishment, put pressure domestically on the government, demonstrate to India and its neighbours that China held the upper hand, and so on. The strategy also was to release pressure on Pakistan by keeping the Indian forces tied down on the Tibetan border.

If there is any truth in the analysis that Xi Jinping faces domestic pressures, and this is compelling him into shows of strength internally and externally, then the likelihood of China seeking a rational compromise with India would seem little. China is now in a confrontation mode with the US and is losing grip of the developing situation. Wolf warrior diplomacy may give the Chinese emotional satisfaction but it doesn’t win them understanding or support of others. On the contrary, it draws more attention the ugly side of Chinese policies. China’s belief that other countries are now tied so inextricably to it economically that their choices are limited and reality would compel them to temporise and not go too far in cutting off economic links with China, is wishful thinking.

The problem has now gone beyond economic realities. China is now seen as a systemic threat even by Europe. The more China tries to solidify its grip internationally on advanced digital technologies through companies that enjoy state support and subsidies and are linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the more other countries would be worried. At the heart of the problem is China’s political system, especially the tight control that the CCP exercises over the country and the suppression of freedoms that it entails. The contradiction between China’s economic attraction and political distaste for its system is becoming increasingly unmanageable. The more China comes under pressure externally, the more the CCP will harden its domestic political controls. How the global tensions created by this duality in China’s system are drained out of the international system is very difficult to predict. What is clear is that these tensions will continue and their fall-out will be felt by India.

India has the misfortune of being China’s direct neighbour after its occupation of Tibet. Worse, China’s interference in our neighbourhood that spans politics, economics and the military makes China an even more troublesome neighbour. It has reinforced Pakistan as a constant threat to us. It cannot go as far with our other neighbours as they are small and weak and do not nurture that degree of animosity towards India, though they (except Bhutan) are lending themselves to exploitation by China to put pressure on India under the guise of development projects. China can threaten India directly on land because of contiguity, which it can do with its other contiguous neighbours but these countries do not have India’s profile and cannot singly dent China’s hegemonic ambitions the way India can. China’s connectivity projects through Pakistan and Myanmar, as well as its maritime ambitions in the Indian Ocean, require some degree of neutralisation of Indian power, either through friendship or intimidation. Real friendship with India, with settlement of outstanding issues, will shake the basis of Chinese policies on land and sea around us as they are based on China curbing India’s power and making itself attractive as a partner to our neighbours. That kind of friendship with India would seriously complicate the Pakistan-China relationship, for instance. It would also mean respecting India’s political, economic and security in its periphery, which will, in turn, mean that China will have to accept two tigers on the same mountain.

India has, therefore, to deal with China’s current provocation keeping in mind the future. Undoubtedly, we have a serious problem at hand. China is a strong, deceitful and unprincipled adversary, with more resources than India. We may be able to counter China on the ground in Ladakh but any prolonged conflict will put a heavy burden on us, not the least because of the slowdown of the Indian economy and the additional pressure put on it by the pandemic. A military conflict would be avoidable, but the choice is not entirely India’s. We have from the start seriously pursued a negotiated solution, seeking the restoration of the status quo ante before the Chinese massing of forces and incursions began in April. Five rounds of talks have been held at the Corps Commander level, which itself is unprecedented, and at other military levels. The diplomatic/military working mechanism (WMCC) has met several times. The two Foreign Ministers have spoken to each other, as have the Special Representatives. The Indian and Chinese Defence Ministers have met in Moscow during the SCO meeting. Nothing tangible has come out of these parleys.

The meeting of the Defence Ministers should have provided some light on the way ahead, but reports that have emerged show that both sides seem to have reiterated their known positions, with each side blaming the other of violating the LAC and the border agreements and vowing to protect their sovereignty and not yield an inch of their territory. The Chinese defence Minister was earlier the head of the PLA Rocket Force and is a member of the Central Military Commission chaired by Xi Jinping. He would have come with guidance from the highest level to the SCO meeting. Yet, after that incidents continue to occur, with our Army Command declaring that even when negotiations are being conducted the PLA has been attempting to make tactical gains on the ground, demonstrating China’s innate deceitfulness. This suggests that the Chinese are using the negotiations to gain time, strengthen themselves on the ground, keep India guessing about their intentions, maintain pressure on India, and deflect India from using political options of moving closer to the US and strengthening the Quad etc.

India was earlier demanding the restoration of the status quo ante, but no longer so, emphasising instead disengagement and de-escalation. There seems to be a recognition that China will not fully go back to is pre-May positions in Pangong Tso and Depsang areas in particular, or will lay down inequitable conditions for mutual withdrawal which will be unacceptable to India. The initiative taken by India to capture heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso suggests that the talks so far have not yielded desired results, and this has compelled India to acquire some bargaining chips, besides putting the Chinese in the same position as our side, which is that they have now to decide on escalation by trying to dislodge the Indian Army from its positions.

India has, meanwhile, acted on the economic front by banning Chinese Apps and game portals, putting regulatory curbs on future Chinese investments in India, targeting cheap Chinese goods flowing into India at the cost of our manufacturing sector etc. These are shots across the Chinese bow, signalling the costs China will have to pay for its aggressive policies towards India. Even if the pain in the short term for China may not be too high, the loss of opportunities in the Indian economy in the years ahead could prove very expensive in the light of the trade war with the US, and the decoupling of western economies from that of China in critical areas, and so on. India’s decisions, especially in the digital space, can have far reaching consequences for China’s global ambitions in this area. On the political side, the use of the Tibetans in capturing the heights on the southern bank of Pangong Tso carries an uncomfortable political signal to China.

The External Affairs Minister has recognised the gravity of the situation, the most serious one since 1962. No satisfactory solution is in sight. The next couple of months, before the winter sets in, may be critical in terms of action on the ground. India is preparing for its troops to pass the winter at these heights despite the burden it places on the armed forces. There is no other choice as it has to be demonstrated to the Chinese our determination to change the rules of the game played by China so far. Once the winter is over, the ground situation will have to be addressed anew as massing 40,000 troops on both sides interminably would make little sense, apart for the volatility of a continuing stand-off. India has made it clear that it will use its air force if the situation deteriorates further, not to mention its navy to pressure China on the sea. China’s bluff would have been called by standing firm. China will have to climb down from its high horse, as the situation for it internationally will continue to deteriorate in view of Xi Jinping’s inflexibility.

At the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting at Moscow, EAM is slated to meet his Chinese counterpart. It is even less likely that any serious breakthrough will emerge from this meeting. In the Chinese scheme of things the PLA carries huge weight and if the Chinese Defence Minister did not carry a brief for de-escalation on equitable terms, the Chinese Foreign Minister will not be armed with one. Wang Yi, in fact, has been an actor in China’s wolf warrior diplomacy and will read from the script.

What next? India, as a responsible power, cannot turn its back on negotiations. Its willingness to negotiate is visibly backed by a determination to defend itself militarily, with confidence that it can cause unacceptable damage to the enemy. Disengagement and de-escalation by themselves are no longer enough. The agreements signed so far to maintain peace and tranquility and on border management mechanisms-1993, 1996, 2005, 2012, 2013-have been blatantly violated by the Chinese. They have now lost relevance and returning to them as guidelines for the future make little sense. Killings have taken place in the Galwan Valley and some firing in the air has occurred on Pangong Tso’s southern heights. Heavy armour and artillery have been deployed. Air Forces have been activated. Border management is no longer enough as whatever the trust that existed that was built into the various agreements has evaporated. The fiction of the undefined LAC on the ground, which had no legal validity and was the result of Chinese unilateral claims and aggression, can no longer be maintained practically. China’s 1959 claim line, which also involved the eastern sector, was never accepted by us, and so it cannot be the basis of negotiations. If China insists on no loss of territory and India does the same, it is an impasse. EAM may go through the motions of engagement at Moscow but the status quo ante is no longer feasible. Serious negotiations to resolve the border issue are required. But this does not fit into Xi Jinping’s present foreign policy agenda.

(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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