India needs to develop a more muscular political, diplomatic and military policy against China, military muscularity being contingent on political will. With clear designs on Indian territory, China cares two hoots about military-to-military cooperation.
The media had been abuzz with the Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu attending the SCO Defence Ministers Meet in New Delhi on April 28, 2023, and a bilateral meeting with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on the preceding day. The 18th Corps Commander-level India-China talks on April 23, 2023 in Eastern Ladakh had failed to make any headway. Ahead of the bilateral defence ministers' meeting, locals in Ladakh had launched protests against the loss of traditional grazing areas and forced migration due to the Chinese invasion in 2020. It was expected that Shangfu would be given a stern message during the bilateral defence ministers meeting. Incidentally, the Pakistani army chief was visiting Beijing around the same time.
Defence Minister Singh held a nearly 45-minute bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart on April 27. A statement issued by India's Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that the two ministers had "frank" discussions about the developments in the India-China border areas as well as bilateral relations. The statement said, “The Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) ‘categorically’ conveyed that the development of relations between India and China is premised on the prevalence of peace and tranquility at the borders. All issues at the LAC need to be resolved in accordance with existing bilateral agreements and commitments.” He also said that violation of existing agreements has "eroded" the entire basis of bilateral relations and disengagement at the border will logically be followed with de-escalation.
The meeting between the two defence ministers was more diplomatic than specific. Rajnath Singh did not convey that the PLA should fall back to the pre-Apr-May 2020 locations despite the locals of Ladakh protesting the loss of traditional grazing grounds before this meeting. The need for the PLA to withdraw from Depsang and Demchok should have also been specifically pointed out to Shangfu to see his reaction.
Chinese version missing
Media has quoted unnamed sources saying that China presented a new proposal to re-start military-to-military cooperation “just before the bilateral meeting” but it was rejected with the message that it can only be considered if the situation at the border returns to normal. This appears to be a deliberate plant without mentioning who exactly made this new proposal and what its wording was. Why would China do so before the bilateral and not during the bilateral, if it was keen at all? Moreover, Chinese officials have been saying periodically that the situation along the LAC is stable, without ever calling for re-starting military-to-military cooperation. If we insist that military-to-military cooperation is premised on the prevalence of peace and tranquility at the borders, why then are we calling for round after round of futile Corps Commander-level talks?
Indian media’s emphasis on Rajnath Singh not shaking hands with Shangfu is also laughable when the Indian minister folded his hands in namaste instead of merely nodding his head with a smile. The fact is that one needs ammunition to fire and Rajnath Singh had none. Shangfu must be laughing inwardly at his Indian counterpart's discomfiture and tongue-tied narrative, especially knowing his earlier exhortations that “not even one inch of territory has been lost”.
It is significant to note that the response by the Chinese defence minister at the bilateral meeting has been completely ignored by the media. This is obviously by design because it is unthinkable that in a nearly 45-minute meeting, Shangfu sat mum, dumbstruck by Rajnath Singh’s personality in their first face-to-face meeting. Among other things, he would have definitely said that the situation on the border remains stable, which Chinese officials have been saying over the past several months, even despite the PLA's attempted incursion in Arunachal Pradesh last year. By saying that the situation along the LAC is “stable”, China has already conveyed it doesn’t see the need of changing the present status quo.
India needs to develop a more muscular political, diplomatic and military policy against China, military muscularity being contingent on political will. With clear designs on Indian territory, China cares two hoots about military-to-military cooperation. It is more than happy to make even more money through bilateral trade than before the PLA invasion in Ladakh in 2020. Besides, we know why it does not need to open police stations in India as it has done in the West.
(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal.)