Diplomacy

What Narendra Modi’s Enigmatic Silence Means to China

Modi needs to be told that while the Indian armed forces may be capable of holding their ground when attacked, they simply cannot hold on to each and every inch of the 3,000 km-long Line of Actual Control.

Beijing’s sole English language newspaper, the Global Times, is not an official mouthpiece of its foreign ministry. But it is also not an ‘independent’ newspaper. Ever since its English version was launched in 2009, it has reflected not only official policy but also official thinking.

When the June 15 clash took place at Galwan and, presumably, took the lives of Chinese soldiers too, the Chinese government went out of its way to highlight responsible voices in the Chinese social media that were asking for moderation in the face of a tide hyper-nationalist condemnation of India. Its comment on the meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, published on Friday, September 11, was equally positive.

“The joint statement and five-point consensus reached by both Chinese and Indian foreign ministers in Moscow on Thursday evening,” the Global Times reported, “marked a substantial step in cooling down the current border situation, exceeding the expectations of most international observers and creating favourable conditions for a possible future meeting between the leaders of the two countries…”.

In India, the foreign policy analyst M.K Bhadrakumar, a former diplomat himself, also came to the same conclusion: “A joint statement wasn’t anticipated after the talks… In diplomatic terms, a joint statement signals that a “critical mass” developed through the three-hour discussion between the top diplomats”.

In their joint statement to the press, the two ministers had agreed that both sides should take a cue from their leaders’ consensus and not allow differences to become disputes; quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tension; abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs; maintain peace and tranquility in the border, and as the situation eases conclude new confidence building measures to maintain and enhance peace in the border areas.

Also read: Ladakh LAC on the Boil, India Must Avoid Stirring Gilgit Baltistan Cauldron With Pakistan

The relief was palpable in both capitals, but not unmixed with misgivings: “The successful implementation of the joint statement,” the Global Times concluded, “depends on whether the Indian side can truly keep its word. Given the country’s history, it is possible that the joint statement will end up as merely ‘paper talk’.”

Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, put it even more bluntly: “We should not only observe what India says, but also what it does. For a country like India, the most important thing is how it acts. In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao held important talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before signing a joint statement by the two governments, in which both sides declared the establishment of a strategic partnership to promote peace and prosperity.”

“The two governments also signed the Agreement on the ‘Political Guiding Principles for Resolving the Boundary Issue between China and India’, in which they pledged to reduce armed forces and maintain peace. However, since Modi assumed power, the Indian government has totally neglected  (the second part of)  this joint statement. China has kept its word, but the Indian side has provoked the recent border clashes,” Hu concluded.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (right) and external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Moscow, Russia, September 10, 2020. Photo: China Daily via Reuters

Hu Zhiyong’s remarks echo the misgivings that several China watchers, including the writer, have come to, for he too has emphasised the inextricable exchange built into the agreements China and India have signed since 1993: that as the strategic cooperation between China and India grows, the precise demarcation of the LAC will lose its salience in the relations between the two countries.

In effect this would mean that China would keep the parts of Aksai Chin it already has, but cease to claim another 100,000 sq. km in the Himalayas something that it had already ceased to do after Premier Wen Jiabao’s meeting with Manmohan Singh at Hua Hin in 2009.

This would be a win-win outcome for both countries. Beijing has immediately acknowledged the interdependence between military disengagement and renewed cooperation on strategic and economic issues.

Sun Weidong, its ambassador in Delhi has immediately urged that ‘as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work on new confidence building measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas’.

Pointing, as the two foreign ministers did, to the series of consensuses reached by Modi and Xi at their recent meetings, and highlighting their ‘basic judgment’  that China and India are partners rather than rivals, he stated: “We need peace instead of confrontation; we need to pursue win-win cooperation instead of a zero-sum game; we need trust rather than suspicion; we need to move our relationship forward rather than backward.

Also read: Deeply Concerned About India-China Border Issue, Says Us Congressman

So all that was needed was a few words from Modi, if not of outright endorsement then at least  appreciation for his foreign minister’s achievement. But ten days have passed since the Moscow meeting and not a single such word has passed his lips.   Instead of addressing the first session of parliament in six months himself, Modi delegated this  not toJaishankar, but to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh .

In his 25 minute, 2,000-plus word statement, Singh did not mention the five-point agreement at Moscow, and did not  move one jot away from the earlier official line that it is only China that had shown a  flagrant disregard for its obligations under the 1993, 1996 and subsequent agreements, and that India is utterly blameless. 

What is more, Modi has already changed China’s recent actions in Ladakh into a domestic political issue by seeking a parliamentary resolution to laud the Indian army’s sacrifices in the Galwan Valley. By doing this he has also pre-empted criticism from the Congress party, for any reminder by it that it was the UPA under Dr Manmohan Singh, that brought China- India-relations from wary hostility to  the brink of partnership, will be twisted by BJPs media machine and tame TV channel anchors into a  criticism of the army and callousness towards its jawans. 

Defence minister Rajnath Singh speaking in the Rajya Sabha. Photo: Screengrab/RSTV

It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that the tone of comment on Sino-Indian relations in the Global Times has changed. On September 15, Hu Jixin, the editor in chief of the Global Times wrote a signed article titled, ‘China ready for Peace, and War’.

Two days later, in an article titled, ‘India’s sincerity key to ending conflict before winter,’ a writer warned Chinese readers once again, citing Chinese experts as saying: “By continually going back on their word, India is wasting the opportunities and high expectations that China has for peacefully settling border tensions before winter.”

“Their attitude to agreements has disappointed China, but China has not stopped its efforts to solve the crisis in a peaceful manner,” experts said, calling for India to show their sincerity at this time as well”.

Army Chief M.M. Naravane interacts with the troops while reviewing operational situations on the ground after the stand-off in the region during his visit, in Eastern Ladakh, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Photo: PTI

“…but with China it will not end well”

Prime Minister Modi has been able to get away with such perennial grandstanding in India, but with China it will not end well. The Chinese have studied Modi and concluded that he is not a reliable partner.

As Hu Zhiyong told the Global Times, “Given the country’s sluggish economy and poor epidemic control, the Modi government may continue to try and stir up border tensions to deflect the public’s attention. These border tensions are used as chips to fool the public”.

Without a drastic change in Modi’s approach, therefore, a war in the Himalayas next spring is becoming a real possibility. Beijing has been preparing for the worst ever since the 73-day stand-off on the Doklam plateau in 2017.

Satellite photos taken in January 2018 showed that the Chinese had not vacated the area, but erected several permanent military posts, a few helipads and new trenches not very far from where the two Armies had faced off. About 1,800 Chinese troops had stayed in the area through the bitter  winter.

In the following year Beijing began to reinforce the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) western theatre command (WTC) which decides PLA deployments on the Himalayan border. Apart from reinforcing its ground forces, it changed the order of despatch of its fifth generation ‘stealth’ fighter aircraft, the J-20, and put the western theatre second after the eastern theatre, instead of fourth (after both the northern and southern theatres), as it used to be.

Also read: Modi, XI Jinping and Six Years of Battle for the Psychological High Ground

In 2019, it sent its first “brigade” of J-20s to the WTC Air Force. A Chinese Air Force Brigade has 24 aircraft. But the WTC Air Force also has several varieties of older combat aircraft as well. In all China has around 2,150 combat aircraft.

Since 2018, the WTC has been conducting training exercises for both its ground and air forces, ‘in actual battle conditions’.

They were conducted in June this year at the height of the Ladakh confrontation and widely shown on Chinese television. It showed the movement of several thousand paratroopers of the WTC Air Force wing with supporting armour and artillery from Hubei province, more than 3,000 kilometres, commandeering every kind of civilian road rail and air transport,  to “an undisclosed location” in the “plateaus of north-western China.”

The J-20 air superiority fighter plane. Photo: Wikipedia

India’s military capabilities have also developed substantially. The PLA probably hasn’t forgotten the battle of Rezang La in 1962 where 300 Indian Jawans, knowing that they faced certain death, still fought to the last bullet and almost the last man, and killed an estimated 1,300 Chinese soldiers. So it knows that a full scale war in the Himalayas will be enormously expensive.

But Modi also needs to be told, firmly and unequivocally, that while the Indian armed forces may be capable of holding their ground when attacked, they simply cannot hold on to each and every inch of the 3,000 km-long Line of Actual Control.

The Chinese can choose their time and place of attack and they will do so where India is weakest. In addition to that, their advantage of terrain and vastly superior logistics virtually preordain the result of any pitched battle in the Himalayas. India will lose and thousands of lives will have been sacrificed in vain.

And all this will be over a war that the Chinese government has said repeatedly, and Wang Yi reiterated in Moscow, simply doesn’t want.