Indian media may do any amount of spin doctoring, including claiming that the bilateral meeting was requested by the Chinese side, but the noteworthy issue is that none of the two Chinese statements mention disengagement and de-escalation.
Indian media reports of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit at Johannesburg talk of both leaders “agreeing to intensify efforts for expeditious disengagement and de-escalation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. This is not very different from the 19 rounds of Corps Commander-level and other military-to-military talks which cite such directions from the leadership of both countries.
The Chinese Embassy in New Delhi posted the message: “On August 23rd, President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a candid & in-depth exchange of views on current China-India relations & other questions of shared interest on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit.
Responding to a question about the Modi-Xi meeting in a press conference in Beijing on August 25, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: President Xi Jinping talked with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the BRIC Summit at the latter’s request on August 23, 2023. The two leaders had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on current China-India relations and other questions of shared interest. President Xi stressed that improving China-India relations serves the common interests of both countries and peoples and is also conducive to peace, stability and development of the world and the region. The two sides should bear in mind the overall interests of their bilateral relations and handle properly the border issue so as to safeguard peace and tranquility in the border region.
Indian media may do any amount of spin doctoring, including claiming that the bilateral meeting was requested by the Chinese side, but the noteworthy issue is that none of the two Chinese statements mention disengagement and de-escalation. In this context, it is amusing to read in the media reporting on the Modi-Xi meeting saying that the “spotlight is now on the exact contours of plans being drawn up by military commanders on the ground to pull back troops'', as commanders on the ground discuss possible scenarios for “limited disengagement”.
As a distinguished veteran scholar notes, these military-to-military talks (Corps Commander-level, Major-General-level or below) are the outcome of sheer dereliction of duty by the External Affairs Minister (EAM), Ministry of External Affairs, bureaucrats and the National Security Advisor (NSA), whose job is to engage in talks, not the military. But the ball being shown in the military’s court indicates that the EAM, NSA and the diplomats-bureaucrats have probably been snubbed so badly by China that they have abdicated their responsibilities, preferring to sit on the fence and keep inserting in pliant Indian media what they never told the Chinese.
What modalities are the military expected to work out with the PLA having consolidated their new positions occupied in 2020? Do we expect them to dismantle their post at Y-Junction 20 km inside Despang? Do we expect them to allow patrolling up to Finger 8 (as was the case earlier) along the north bank of Pangong Tso where they have deployed tanks now?
Government in denial?
The bane of the problem is the government’s pusillanimous attitude towards China. In November 2019, Tapir Gao, BJP MP from Arunachal Pradesh, told Parliament that PLA had intruded 50-60 km inside Arunachal Pradesh and warned of a Doklam-like situation. There was no response from the government. Response by the MEA even to the construction of dual-use military villages in Arunachal Pradesh despite anti-China youth protests in Arunachal didn’t go beyond “we have seen such reports …..”. Obviously, no written protests are raised in such cases.
The government remains in denial of losing control of vast tracts of territory in Ladakh in 2020, including the loss of traditional grazing grounds that have forced migration of Ladakhi locals. On August 23, 2023, former MP and BJP member Subramanian Swamy said in a video interview that India has lost 4,600 sq km of territory in Ladakh, and the PLA is entrenched well inside our 1996 claim line. Government policy towards China appears to be of appeasement although the impression created in media is that China is being shown its place.
China is making more money through bilateral trade with India than was the case before the 2020 Chinese aggression in Ladakh. There are occasional reports of banning some Chinese products and rejecting an odd Chinese bid. But Chinese banks are functioning merrily in India. China enjoys multiple indirect avenues to invest in India and Indian investors continue to pour money into China-focused mutual funds. The message to China appears to be you make as much money as you want but don’t attack us – especially during elections.
All eyes on Xi
Indian troops can no longer access 26 of their 65 patrolling points between Karakoram Pass and Chumar in eastern Ladakh and there is little chance of the PLA dismantling any of the new locations that it occupied in 2020. It is, therefore, for the government (not the military) to work out what modalities can be fed to own public – patrolling up to whatever point and the like. The military would anyway abide by whatever charade the foreign ministry wants to pull and Beijing would unlikely make any statement as long as the status quo is accepted by India – of which there is every chance.
Semantics like disengagement and de-escalation matter little to Xi with the PLA fully entrenched in the new locations. Any change in China’s stance towards India would be visible if Xi attends the G20 Summit in New Delhi in person next month and both leaders have a proper bilateral meeting. However, the Indian foreign secretary did not confirm whether Modi reiterated the invite to Xi at Johannesburg to attend the G20 summit.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal)