India-China border standoff continues as disengagement seems remote

Why no heads rolled for the surprises in 2020 with PLA exercising in Aksai Chin and a new road constructed five km short of Galwan?

India-China meeting in Beijing

In the backdrop of 21 rounds of India-China Corps Commander-level talks failing to achieve a breakthrough to the continuing India-China standoff in Eastern Ladakh, the 29th meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) was held at Beijing on March 27, 2024; this being the 15th WMCC meeting since the Galwan clash in June 2024.

The Indian delegation was led by the Joint Secretary (East Asia) from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), while the Chinese delegation was led by the Director General of the Boundary & Oceanic Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

According to the MEA, both sides had an in-depth exchange of views on how to achieve complete disengagement and resolve the remaining issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and in the interim to maintain regular contact through diplomatic and military channels, upholding peace and tranquility in border areas. There was no breakthrough.

Conflicting ministerial speak

Earlier on March 24, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was asked in a TV program whether there was any threat from China. He responded by saying, "We will tackle if any threat arises, what's there in it? But, we cannot sit holding our head in our hands thinking about the threat. If the threat arises, it will be tackled.” What he implied was that in his perception presently there is no threat from China, even as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had termed the Chinese border situation "very tense and dangerous” in February.

With reference to the recent WMCC meeting, the media has quoted Jaishankar saying, “We’re negotiating with the Chinese. We meet from time to time. But we are clear that we had an agreement. There is a Line of Actual Control. We have a tradition of not bringing troops to that line. Both of us have bases some distance away, and we want that normalcy.” 

Jaishankar also said, “India attributes the current situation between the two countries to China’s violation of bilateral agreements and protocols for border peace and tranquility. India will not compromise on the border issue and normalization can only be achieved through a return to the normal and traditional troop deployment.

But when Jaishankar talks of “normal and traditional troop deployment”, can he quote which bilateral agreement or protocol says troops on both sides will be stationed in bases and not deployed on the LAC? Is citing “traditions” to cover our pusillanimity?

China is sitting pretty

The media has been focusing on Jaishankar calling “ludicrous” China’s claim on Arunachal Pradesh in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually dedicating Sela Tunnel to the nation on March 9, 2024.  China has made such illegal claims many times in the past, as also given Chinese names to 11 places/areas in Arunachal Pradesh. But as analyst Brahma Chellaney writes, no Indian prime minister has visited Tawang - for fear of annoying the dragon?

Jaishankar knows full well that there will be no further disengagement in Eastern Ladakh for the simple reason that China holds all the aces and the PLA has consolidated its new positions in 2020. But he will go on proposing more talks because it helps the government deny: loss of control of over 4,000 sq km; PLA deployed west of its 1959 claim line which India never recognized; India’s inability to patrol 26 protective patrol;  anymore; all buffer zones in Indian territory; repeated indications that the PLA will not withdraw from its new locations.     

China is more than happy. It calls India the “aggressor” while India cries about “normal and traditional deployment”. China has hiked its defence budget by 7.2 percent (actual expenditure would be much more) while India’s defence budget continues to be below 2 percent of GDP. India is helping modernize the PLA though the $100 billion annual profit China makes in bilateral trade. India has killed its manpower advantage over the PLA through the politically motivated Agniveer scheme and stopping Nepalese recruitment into the India Army is advantageous to China.

According to media reports, China can interfere in India’s upcoming general elections. China sure can do so but why would it want to unseat the present Indian government which has given it so many advantages, as mentioned above. The status quo in Ladakh is more or less permanent, known both to India and China, till China decides to violate it again. India, anyway, won’t even rubbish the ‘One China’ policy and officially say that Tibet is not part of China.    

Why no heads rolled

Bards have traditionally sung songs that the king wants to hear. So we have an analyst write that grabbing Indian territory has become a strategic disaster for Chinese President Xi Jinping. If China’s internal problems are causing a strategic disaster, India is in a much bigger soup. Besides, India has shown lack of resolve to stand up to China with Jaishankar publicly stating that India cannot pick up a fight with China because China has a bigger economy. The question of imposing any sanctions on China doesn’t even arise when failing to acknowledge the 2020 Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh; harping on not even an inch of territory lost.

China is focused on India and Bhutan – the countries it doesn’t want to resolve the border with for well thought out reasons. Beijing’s influence in India’s immediate neighbourhood is spreading very fast with Indian diplomacy devoid of information warfare and the art of winning friends.

The question of PLA disengaging anymore from the standoff along the LAC does not arise. But should this happen by any chance, can India afford to pull back – to be surprised all over again? Why no heads rolled for the surprises in 2020 with PLA exercising in Aksai Chin and a new road constructed five km short of Galwan?    

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal)

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