The developments over the past month are not only unusual but unprecedented, as per most of the strategic thinkers in India. Lt Gen H S Panag (retd) has described the scenario best when he said that India’s fingers have become trapped under Chinese boots.
The unresolved border drama between India and China is flaring up again. There is almost a unanimity amongst Indian strategic thinkers and former military and diplomatic officers that the Chinese incursions since the week of April 2020 have led to encroachments on Indian territories. A consensus is that the events transpiring along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) vis-à-vis China are not normal. According to a general estimate, Indian and Chinese patrolling teams confront each other nearly 500 times every year, but only in the Ladakh sector. Some of the face-offs turn into stand-offs almost every year. But the developments over the past month are not only unusual but unprecedented, as per most of the strategic thinkers in India. Lt Gen H S Panag (retd) has described the scenario best when he said that India’s fingers have become trapped under Chinese boots.
There is, however, a difference of opinion amongst the strategic community on how good the reaction and response of the Indian government to the current crisis on LAC is. While the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, acknowledged the presence of a few thousand Chinese troops, which is not normal, he tried to calm tempers by using the well-established phrase “differing perception about the LAC”. Many in the defence community are upset that the minister has not accepted the effective control that the Chinese troops have established over a few square kilometres of the disputed territory. They demand full disclosure of the ground situation, particularly the changes that happened since 1st April 2020. An open and sincere discourse on what the Chinese did, and what India should do, would force the government to act quickly and with full force.
What does China want? Primarily, China wants to gain control over as much of the disputed territory as possible to strengthen its claims in the border negotiations with India. The timing of the Chinese moves, nonetheless, indicates that it is more interested in merely strengthening its position in the negotiation. This motive would make China retain the newly encroached space until the final settlement of the border dispute. Perhaps this is one of the key messages emanating from Chinese behaviour. It wants a settlement of its border conflict with India so that it can concentrate more on East and South China Seas and Taiwan. However, China needs to understand that any peaceful settlement of the border dispute involves a commitment to due procedures of negotiations. The Chinese have deceitfully avoided exchanging the maps of the entire LAC, which is a prerequisite to formalize positions of negotiations. The Chinese are intent on moving their goalposts and claiming more and more land, which means that they have no desire to delineate the entire LAC. One wonders what has caused shortfalls in Indian diplomatic efforts to pin China down on this count even after 22 rounds of talks between the Special Representatives! One of the major reasons could be total blindness concerning the ideal settlement of the border dispute with China. Do we even know what the best is and what the optimum is that we can derive from the border negotiations? Even at a fundamental level, are we negotiating to determine where exactly McMohan line runs on the ground between India and China or are we willing to make deviations in the border, which was finalized by British India and the Tibetan administration at the time? While we engage China in border talks, we have never discussed these issues internally at the military, diplomatic, ministerial and policy-making levels.
The second message that China is conveying is about its resolve and strength in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. This message is not only for India but for the entire world, and more specifically aimed at countries in South Asia. It is conveying in no uncertain manner to India’s neighbours that China is not a diminishing power in Asia or the world, and is certainly not incapable of defending its borders. Thus, the present crisis is about prestige for both India and China. It also means that the Chinese will not blink easily and so soon. Rather, they have come prepared not to blink first. Only after extracting something substantial from India on non-border issues, are the Chinese likely to withdraw from their newly acquired positions on the LAC. There are three issues that China is likely to take up with India. First, they would probably like India to rethink joining Belt and Road Initiatives. Secondly, they would probably like a discussion regarding the non-curtailment of Chinese investments in India. The Chinese would insist on the first and would like to get away with the second demand.
The third message of most urgent attention that could be read in Chinese posturing along LAC is with regard to India’s cosiness with the United States. China is conscious of – and concerned about – the increasing closeness between India and the US. India’s leveraging of its strategic independence to firm up the defence, economic and people to people ties with great powers, particularly the US, has made China conscious of its ramifications in the Indo-Pacific region. This is certainly a position of strength for India wherein New Delhi can take advantage of Beijing’s concerns. India must utilize this position to nail down the Chinese in negotiations without which the advantage is meaningless. The Indo-US friendship is nothing to India if it doesn’t deliver substantially in resolving border disputes with China without the direct involvement of Washington. Otherwise, it serves the US purpose much better than ours that ensures the diversion of Chinese attention and pressures on China’s strategic resources. The overall message from the current stand-off on LAC is loud and clear. India has to deal with China in its entirety and not merely on the disputed territory between the two countries.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
6th June 2020