China, the LAC, and the Possibilities of Diplomacy

As far as China is concerned, it has deftly achieved its political objectives by unilaterally pushing LAC westwards, annexing several hundred kilometres of territory. At this juncture, will diplomacy work?

The Chinese attempt to intrude across LAC by stealth on the south bank of Pangong lake over the weekend was extremely provocative but was thwarted by the alertness of troops on heightened vigil following the PLA’s wholesale aggression in East Ladakh. 

China has denied its troops violated LAC and Brigade Commander-level talks were held to defuse tensions. Clearly the PLA will not abandon its efforts to encroach into Indian territory. Wish our troops had reacted in May in the way they have acted now!

Still, the current debate in strategic circles is whether dialogue on disengagement and de-escalation has failed or if it can still be salvaged. Once the call is made, hard options like use of force and economic decoupling could come into play. Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, four months after transgressions were declared intrusions became the first government official and senior most military commander to assert that if dialogue does not work, military force could be employed to vacate aggression.

Almost immediately after his statement, Minister for External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, chipped in to say that diplomacy could potentially resolve the border crisis provided China followed the rule book.

Also read: Disengagement: China Cites ‘Progress’, India Reminds Need for Mutually Agreed Upon Actions

He described the situation ‘most serious after 1962 with casualties occurring after 45 years with unprecedented deployment of troops on the border’.

He recalled that Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014) and Doklam (2017) were all resolved through diplomacy but for this it was essential that China honours the border protocols and agreements. He did not mention Wangdung, the first major intrusion by PLA in 1986 across McMahon Line which was also resolved through diplomacy laced with Indian coercion but took nine years.

The McMahon Line. Photo: File

While not giving up on negotiations, India has introduced an element of coercion but the threat of use of force as last resort has lost its sting and is past its use-by date as in such situations, speed of reaction is of essence as Wangdung demonstrated.

For the time being, two months before winter sets in across the frozen desert, by accident  or design, both India and China are pursuing a common public policy on border tensions.

Also read: 5 Rounds of Military Talks Later, Army Prepares for Long Winter Deployment at Ladakh

New Delhi has shifted the focus from intrusions on LAC to the Galwan clash. This has allowed it to remain in denial about Chinese encroachment in sync with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pivotal statement of June 19 to the all-party meeting virtually giving China a clean chit. The inadvertent admission by the MoD on its website detailing the profile on intrusions was suddenly removed.

From the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, Modi misinformed the people about the ground reality along the LAC and loss of territory to China. Not only did the government mishandle the initial response to intrusions, it also perpetuated the intelligence and operational lapses, believe it or not, by portraying disaster as success by separating intrusions from the Galwan clash. Incidentally, on the August 15 gallantry awards list, not a single person involved in the Galwan clash or in other face-offs in east Ladakh apparently made it.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inspects the Guard of Honour during the 74th Independence Day celebrations, at Red Fort in New Delhi, August 15 2020. Photo: PTI

China’s envoy in New Delhi, Sun Weidong, sings to  India’s tune, lyrics provided by Modi in June which were translated widely in Mandarin. Last week, Sun described the Galwan clash as an ‘unfortunate incident’ and ‘a brief moment from the perspective of history’. In the past, Chinese leaders have described relations with India as 99% perfect except the 1% bad, referring to the 1962 war.

Sun has continued couching bilateral relations in favourable terms and while  commending dialogue cautioned it be handled properly. PLA Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson for MoD was prescriptive, in asking India to be cognisant of the ‘big picture’ and ‘put border dispute in appropriate position’’ and ‘take concrete steps to bring bilateral relations back to the right track’.

As far as China is concerned, it has deftly achieved its political objectives by unilaterally pushing LAC westwards, annexing several hundred kilometres of territory from Depsang to Galwan and imposing a lockdown on Indian forces on LAC.

India misread Chinese intentions even after witnessing multiple intrusions in the first week of May.

Also read: It Is Time to Accept How Badly India Misread Chinese Intentions in 1962 – and 2020

These were far removed from single intrusions of the past with multiple ones stretching from Ladakh to Sikkim. The Army should have occupied Galwan heights and carried out counter intrusions on the Chinese side of LAC to secure equity for bargaining during negotiations.

Just why no offensive action was taken will come out from the enquiry into multiple failures which the government at present is attempting to whitewash so that the muscular prowess of Modi government is not tarnished.

The comments of Gen. Rawat about military option being on the table days after President Ram Nath Kovind and Minister of Defence, Rajnath Singh, had said on eve of Independence Day that India is capable of giving befitting reply in case of military aggression were not surprising. Modi, of course, has stuck to his Galwan theme: ‘We have shown what we can do in Ladakh’.

Domestic political rhetoric is unlikely to impress Chinese who have studied with impeccable scrutiny Indian copybook of the past even as New Delhi failed to analyse Chinese strategy and tactics. Chinese leaders understand that while Indian military might have the capability to repeat Nathula (1967) it will not risk escalation even to a limited conflict at a time when it is deeply mired in COVID-19 pandemic and a debilitating economic recession.

Jaishankar in his new book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World to be released on September 4, has sought realism on India’s China policy and said the border and future of ties with China cannot be separated. The book was written before the current stand-off on LAC but but he is banking on diplomacy to resolve the existing stalemate provided the Chinese are willing to cooperate by adhering to agreements and border protocols.

Jaishankar is also expected to call upon Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement on Saturday. Photo: PTI

Union Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar. Photo: PTI

He is also right that you may resolve the ongoing crisis like the past ones, but these could recur in the future at other places. In short, he is aiming at ending the luxury the Chinese enjoy of coercive diplomacy along an undefined LAC. While iron brother Pakistan has continued cross border terrorism for the last 70 years, China has now unleashed a new proxy war of land grab. It knows that India does not have the military strength to combat ‘a coupled-conflict’ given the comprehensive national  power asymmetry with China and memory of 1962.

So while Sun will continue to blame India for Galwan and our Ambassador in Beijing Vikram Misri plead before Chinese officials to restore status quo on the border, 30,000 additional Indian troops will spend a harsh winter along LAC in conditions somewhat akin to Siachen at huge human cost. It is little comfort to them that they are better acclimatised at such torturous heights than the PLA which enjoys superior interior lines of communications and logistics but with less vigorous terrain familiarisation.

The ball is in Jaishankar’s court.

He is expected to meet Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow around September 10 for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Foreign Ministers conclave. Wang has been hyperactive in organising a south Asian QUAD – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh – ostensibly on COVID-19 in India’s heartland and intermittently raised the ante on J&K in cahoots with Pakistan in New York but with little joy.

S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi. Photos: Twitter/@DrSjaishankar and Reuters

Jaishankar must persuade Wang into fulfilling commitments on restoring peace and tranquillity on the border. This should start an institutionalised dialogue process between the two for incremental progress, first in defusing and then defining the LAC, the former  preferably before winter sets in.

For Jaishankar the challenge and genius lie in picking up the threads in India’s new map of J&K last year following which he said in Beijing that it does not materially change the border with China. To which Beijing retorted that status quo was unilaterally altered on map.

Jaishankar will have to make amends for Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s rhetoric in Parliament on Aksai Chin like Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh had to, in Beijing in 1999, when it came to his words on the China ‘threat’ following India’s nuclear tests.

We must remember, the Jaishankar way is diplomacy.

General Ashok K. Mehta was part of the monitoring team of Defence Planning Staff in MOD of the year long PLA intrusion at Sumdorong chu in 1987/88.