External Affairs

We Need to Look at What Was Missing in the India-China Joint Statement

Restoration of status quo ante has to be squeezed into the agenda of negotiations. Until this is achieved, bilateral relations will remain skewed.

Nothing is deemed to be done till words have translated into deeds. This is the vertebrae of the cold war principle of trust, but verify.

The outcome of the low-expectation dialogue of foreign ministers of India and China, S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi, from the five-point agreement in Moscow on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), is neither breakdown nor breakthrough. Simply put, it is old wine in new bottle.

Still, for the first time, neither country has blamed the other for the tensions on the border which had become standard practice. It is also the first time there was a joint statement instead of customary separate ones, but each side issued a supplementary note.

What was conspicuously missing from the joint statement was RSQA – restoration of status quo ante. Think of it. RSQA has never appeared in any of the Chinese statements in the past. The Chinese have repeatedly mentioned ‘restoration of peace and tranquility in border area’. The word LAC is also not used.

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The Indian statements have also not used RSQA probably due to deference to Chinese sensitivities. But RSQA has figured frequently outside the formal Indian statements.

Similarly, Depsang where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made the deepest incursion and is the most strategic ingress is not covered by the DDP – disengagement and de-escalation process – which has revived in military lexicon, the terms buffer zones and friction points.

‘Provocative action’

Pre-empting the PLA’s attempts at what it has done on the north bank of Pangong Lake on the south bank, Indian elite troops from Special Frontier Force consisting of exiled Tibetans occupied the commanding heights on the ridgeline of Kailash Range overlooking Chinese Moldo garrison, including tactical heights point 5167, Bump, Magar Hill, Gurung Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La and Rechin La stretching almost 30 kilometre.

Rattled by this bold pre-emptive forward deployment similar to their own multiple intrusions in April-May, the PLA has deftly created a friction point by occupying a plateau opposite Mukhpari about 500 metres (m) away and 100 m lower than that. It is here that 40 to 50 PLA soldiers, armed with rods, spears and firearms, fired shots, sparring Indian soldiers into a Galwan-like clash.

After the PLA fired in the air, Indians reciprocated and did not allow the PLA to close in.

A friction point was manufactured a few days prior to the Moscow talks by the PLA so that the tactically significant Mukhpari and other heights could be included in the DDP when Corps Commanders resume their sixth round of talks later this week. The last round was held on August 2.

Incidentally it is now being reported by government sources that between 29 and 31 August, Helmet and Black Top – both on or close to Kailash ridge and on Chinese side of LAC – which were reported to having been occupied by Indian troops are in fact not in their possession, and are probably occupied by the PLA which gives them a foothold on these commanding heights.

Also read: The Key Issue Dividing India and China Today Is Not the Border

In brief, the five-point joint agreement calls for quick disengagement to ease tension, avoiding escalatory action, abiding by existing border protocols and continuing dialogue at all levels including special representatives and instituting new confidence building measures (CBMs).

Engaging through diplomatic channels

Some escalation has already taken place: the Galwan clash which resulted in casualties and the prophylactic firing by both sides near Kailash ridge, both events occurring for the first time in 45 years.

Each side made separate comments and statements after the agreement accompanied by vicious reports by China’s Global Times, reflecting deep differences and, especially, the demolition of trust.

A file photo of S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi. Photo: PTI

At a press conference along with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Wang said: “As for relations between China-India, the whole world follows the development…most important is to avoid new violations of the obligations of the border”.

More importantly, he added: “We are ready to take conciliatory steps. Troops and equipment should be withdrawn from the Line of Actual Control.” He also noted that strategic guidance from Indian and Chinese leaders suggested that India and China were not competitive rivals or threat to each other.

Overall, he struck a friendly note, quite the opposite of the belligerent comments made by PLA western theatre command.

But a document released by the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that the “Indian side does not consider the relations to be dependent on the settlement of the boundary question”. This is 360 degrees to what Jaishankar has publicly asserted: bilateral ties cannot be separate from the situation on LAC.

Jaishankar told Wang that India will not de-escalate until there is complete and verifiable disengagement at all points on the LAC, as overall relations will suffer if there is no peace since the root cause of tension is Chinese breaking existing agreements in April-May. The Global Times wrote: ‘If India wants peace, China and India should uphold LAC of 7 November 1959. But if India wants war, China will oblige’.

India is reasonably satisfied with the agreement though there is no reference to RSQA or a timeline.

India has no coercive deterrent or leverage to force a border settlement due to a simple capacity deficit. Otherwise it would have acted more resolutely as it did during the Sumdorong Chu standoff in 1986, or in 1996 when the terms of CBMs and the LAC were institutionalised between two nearly equal powers.

With the economy bottoming and COVID-19 pandemic skyrocketing, India is in no position to exercise the military option that Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat has put out on the table at this late stage. The government can keep its domestic constituency happy with such rhetoric but is dangerous in case the balloon goes up.

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China’s land grab policy

China certainly does not want war or even a limited conflict. It has demonstrated its policy of land grab by stealth without firing a shot through multiple intrusions presenting a fait accompli.

It knows India will not initiate hostilities and will only act in self-defence.

Some Generals from my tribe have been wagging their index finger on TV and print media to teach China a lesson (wish that were feasible), by recalling Indian soldiers’ combat superiority to PLA in mountains.

Realism has eluded them or josh and hosh must go together.

The PLA has cleverly drawn out Indian forces from their prepared conventional high-altitude defences to the plateau areas of Ladakh (except Kailash ridge) to fight combined arms combat not mountain warfare.

Jaishankar understands the perils of war better than some unthinking Generals. China’s recent massive build up following the debacle in south Pangong and battle drills in Tibet coupled with war cries from Global Times are components of psy-war matching India’s unprecedented deployment.

While the chances of an accidental trigger to a Galwan-like clash exists, military conflict is unlikely despite China delaying the DDP.

Whether the Wang-Jaishankar agreement will provide fresh impetus for disengagement is not clear yet. The imponderable is PLA’s willingness to give up its hard-earned gains on the LAC.

The war-baiting Global Times’ statements are in consonance with PLA thinking. It will also test Wang’s clout as a political councilor. The Chinese game since April-May has been to push LAC west toward its 1959 claim line which they call Green Line.

Also read: How China Turned the Tables on India and Converted 1993 Agreement Into a Land Grab

Clearly, the Chinese have abandoned the concept of LAC and are instead playing for the 1959 claim line. Further, they have changed the meaning of LAC to Line That You Can Control.

The first hitch in the DDP will be China’s insistence on Indian forces withdrawing from the new friction point at Mukhpari on Kailash ridge which is on the Indian side of LAC. This will require astute negotiating skills which the Indian military team has not displayed so far.

The immediate task will be to get PLA to disengage properly from Hot Springs and Fingers area where the pullback from Finger 4 was cosmetic and jostling for heights there has not stopped.

Equally, the deep freeze of Depsang blockade has to be thawed.

While RSQA is still a bridge too far, it has to be squeezed into the agenda of negotiations. This will not be easy. But until it is achieved, bilateral relations the Chinese will have to be told will remain skewed.

To take consolation from the US not being able to restore the status quo ante in South China Sea is to rub the ignominy of the fait accompli.

India must remind China how President Hu Jintao had prescribed the virtues of the India-China border peace and tranquility model to Pakistan. In his era India and China signed a strategic partnership agreement…yes!

There is a good chance that Prime Minister Narendra Modi could meet President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Riyadh in November. The two leaders will need to renew strategic guidance for the establishment of new framework to ensure stable and peaceful borders once RSQA is reaffirmed and implemented.

In which case, maybe only token garrisons from both sides will have to contend with harsh winter in east Ladakh. This could of course, be wishful thinking.

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.