Disengagement at LAC a Breakthrough, but What Can India Do To Make It Last?

To consolidate this first step towards lasting peace, we need to shed our mantle of righteousness and find the mote in our own eye before we start examining the beam in theirs.

With our ingrained distrust of the Chinese, it does not come as a surprise that Beijing’s emphatic assertion that India should host the BRICS summit in the latter part of this year despite the confrontation in Ladakh, has been greeted with suspicion by the media.

In an editorial titled “Push and pull”, the Times of India opined, “Perhaps China is pursuing grey zone tactics with India. This means China will continue to be aggressive with India, as and when it deems fit, but without leading to all out conflict”. It also dismissed President  Xi Jinping’s decision to attend the meeting personally as throwing “another crumb” to strengthen cooperation.

The TOI’s scepticism is understandable, but after we have examined every other ulterior motive, can we not entertain the possibility that China is backing us because it needs us? That its rapid disengagement in Ladakh stems from more than just a desire to return to the status quo ante, and is an attempt to re-engage India in its main endeavour: the creation of a multipolar world order, in the wake of economic globalisation and the collapse of the Westphalian international order?

This was the original purpose of BRICS after its formation in 2008. It attained its most explicit formulation in BRICS’s Delhi declaration in 2012 and was on its way to becoming the mainstay of the China-India relationship when Indian foreign policy was abruptly reversed by Prime minister Narendra Modi in 2014.

The celerity with which Chinese troops are fulfilling the commitment to disengage with ours in the Pangong Lake region of Ladakh, the speed with which the corps commanders have moved to the next stage of disengagement, and the establishment of a hotline between foreign ministers S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi have confirmed that Beijing’s purpose had not been to acquire more territory in Ladakh but to force India into a much-needed reappraisal of bilateral relations after six years of Modi rule.

Indian and Chinese troops and tanks disengage from the banks of Pangong lake area in Eastern Ladakh where they had been deployed opposite each other for almost ten months now. Photo: PTI/Indian Army handout

Had strategic dominance been its goal, it would have captured all the heights along the Shyok river, and most of the Depsang plains last May while the Indian army was still in peacetime mode. That it did not do so then was a clear indication that it did not want a rupture but a reappraisal of its relations with India, in particular a reaffirmation that the Modi government still intended to honour India’s commitment to a multipolar world rather than taking sides in the evolving US-China rivalry.

The skill with which the disengagement has been achieved despite these obstacles is therefore commendable. But it is only the first step towards lasting peace. To consolidate it, we need to shed our mantle of righteousness and find the mote in our own eye before we start examining the beam in theirs.

Also Read: India and China Are on the Verge of Lasting Peace, if Modi Wants It

How the Chinese see us

Seeing how the Chinese perceive us has been made a good deal easier by a 33-page assessment of the sources of our growing estrangement titled ‘The Behavioral Logic behind India’s Tough Foreign Policy toward China‘, written by Hu Shisheng and Wang Jue and released on December 7, 2020.

Hu Shisheng, is not an analyst to be taken lightly. He is the director of the Institute for South Asian Studies, of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and its leading expert on South Asia, especially on India and Pakistan. CICIR is one of China’s most influential think tanks and comes directly under the Ministry of State Security (MoSS), China’s external intelligence establishment. His paper, therefore, deserves careful study.

In December, Hu had written an op-ed in the Global Times that accurately summed up the contradictions in India’s foreign policy. “India’s mentality toward multilateral mechanisms has been changing,” Hu Shisheng noted. “The trend is particularly obvious this year. On the one hand, New Delhi hopes to become a leading force to reshape the current international order. On the other hand, its multilateral diplomacy has increasingly become pro-West and Sinophobic.”

He added, “India is less interested in multilateral mechanisms where China plays a leading role. Clearly, India wants to prevent (these) multilateral mechanisms from boosting China’s rise. In the BRICS and SCO, India rarely makes efforts to promote internal unity, but tries to dismantle aspects of them from within.”

Hu and Wang’s research paper on the subject is far more detailed and delicately nuanced. Regrettably, however, it starts on a resoundingly false note: They blame India squarely for the Galwan incident on June 15, and treat it as an irresponsible solo adventure “planned and led by Colonel Santosh Babu of the Indian Army in pursuit of credit or reward”. As evidence of this, they point to the absence of medical backup for the Indian soldiers that was allegedly responsible for most of their deaths.

It seems not to have crossed Hu and Wang’s mind that there were no medical staff with the detachment because they had not expected to get into a fight. They also do not mention that the Indian soldiers were unarmed; and do not ask what “credit or reward” Babu expected to gain by leading an exercise that did not even involve the carrying, let alone use of, firearms.

They do not even mention what this website, among others, had extensively reported – that the detachment had been sent to oversee, and ensure, an agreed Chinese withdrawal from an observation post built on the Indian side of the India-defined LAC at patrol point 14. And, surprisingly, they seem not to have known that Indian Army colonels do not normally accompany, let alone lead, small detachments of soldiers into combat. Nor have Hu or Wang given any credence to what we also reported – that Babu’s purpose in accompanying the detachment had been to prevent a mishap, not cause one.

This is obviously the explanation China has given to its own people for how at least four of its soldiers were killed and many more seriously wounded, for a similar explanation has been given by another columnist, Qian Feng, in the Global Times, as recently as January 19.

Close up satellite image of the Y-bend in the Galwan River, site of the recent clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers on June 15, 2020. The Line of Actual Control, shown in red, runs a little west of the Chinese claim line of 1960, shown in orange. But both lines show the area where the clash occurred, and the Galwan Valley as unambiguously on the Indian side. Image: The Wire/Google Earth

Deep rooted preconceptions

But mercifully, Hu and Wang use the Galwan conflict only as a springboard for a sober analysis of the roots of India’s foreign policy, especially as it affects China, and this deserves serious study.

They trace the present confrontation to three deep-rooted preconceptions of the Indian polity:

  1. the Indian state’s self-image as the successor to the British Raj, and therefore as the inheritor of the boundaries the latter had created for itself;
  2. its quest for absolute security of these borders, and
  3. its attempt to obtain these through “Scientifically Defined Frontiers”.

These have resulted in a constant attempt to create hard, “defensible” borders, on the lines of the  European nation-state, in the Himalayan region.

According to Hu and Wang, India, despite its defeat in 1962, has never wholly abandoned the Forward Policy the British had initiated, of occupying and holding commanding heights along its definition of the Tibet-India border. After China withdrew from the southern side of the Himalayan watershed in 1962, India returned to pushing its control right up to the Himalayan watershed. By 2014, India had achieved this objective in the eastern and central parts of the LAC. Under Modi, they claim, India is doing the same thing in Ladakh.

Hu and Wang claim that India’s continued pursuit of “absolute security” is the source of the continuing sporadic confrontations, the placard-waving and occasional stone-throwing, between Chinese and Indian soldiers that culminated in the blood-letting at Galwan. ‘Absolute security’ requires a clearly defined and mutually accepted border. China has prevented the demarcation of such a border by not exchanging its maps of the region with India.

Also Read: India Needs To Look Into LAC Lapses To Be Future-Ready

This has resulted in the emergence of a ‘grey zone’ along the border between the two countries’ respective definitions of the LAC, and a never-ending assertion of territorial rights via aggressive patrolling within it. Possibly inspired by our defence analysts’ use of the term ‘salami slicing’ to describe China’s westward shift of its definition of the LAC, he calls this ‘sausage slicing’.

In Ladakh, it is this constant intrusion into the ‘grey area’ between the two LACs that has led to the fluid and unstable peace in the border region since 1993. This has followed an annual cycle of ‘beginning high and ending low’ – in which relations between the two armies are good in winter when patrolling is curtailed by the weather, and deteriorate as the weather warms till they reach their nadir in the autumn, when pressure upon local commanders to stake their territorial claims before winter sets in becomes most intense.

Hu and Wang’s analysis would have gained credibility if they had given even a cursory account of the reasons for Beijing’s reluctance to exchange maps. But they do not. Instead, they point out that all the four major confrontations that have taken place in the Himalayas after 1962 – Nathu La in 1967, Toulon pass in 1975, Sumdorong Chu in 1986-87 and Doklam in 2017, have been products of this quest.

A pessimistic view

In what is their single most important insight, Hu and Wang point out that the quest for absolute security is a zero-sum game. ‘The Absolute Security of one side is bound to be the Absolute Insecurity of the other’. If it is pushed to the limit, it can end in war. They imply, but fight shy of suggesting, that the border problem will disappear if both countries opt for relative security and stop sending troops into it.  But the paper does not bother to hide the authors’ pessimism that this will not happen.

The reason is the rise of the Right in India and its use of a ‘muscular’ nationalism to seize power. In the Modi-era, the number of RSS shakhas has more than doubled from 40,000 in 2014 to 84,000 in 2019. More significantly, the RSS has abandoned its seven-decade-old pretence of being only a social organisation devoted to the cultural uplift of Hindu society and entered Modi’s government. Hu and Wang underline the fact that Modi has drawn more than two-thirds of his council of ministers from the RSS.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chairs a cabinet meeting. Photo: PTI/File

One indication of this new muscular approach to its neighbours is an exponential increase of Indian patrolling in the grey area between the LACs, especially in Ladakh. Hu and Wang reveal that in 2019, 94% of a total of 1,581 Indian ‘intrusions’ occurred in Ladakh.

Given India’s shift to the right, Hu and Wang are also frankly pessimistic about the prospects of long term peace, let alone strategic cooperation, between China and India. Instead, they foresee the continuation of the ‘no war, no peace’ situation in which patrolling and encounters continue, with periodic escalations that have to be brought under control through negotiations of the type we have seen in the past nine months. Eventually, they hope, a ‘Bottom Red Line’ will emerge that both countries will tacitly agree not to cross.

This unstable equilibrium will not change until there is a profound change in India’s perception of itself. The authors contrast China’s and India’s perception of themselves as follows:

“The Chinese nation feels only a deep sense of shame for its colonial history….. As a result, new China resolutely repudiated the colonial order and cleaned house for a new beginning. On the contrary, the Indians are full of gratitude for the British colonial rule, as it laid the base and framework for the modem national development of India… As a result, (under) Jawaharlal Nehru the first generation of leadership in India, tried to rid itself of British colonial rule on the one hand, while claiming to be the natural successor of the British on the other…..

As one newly-born state is a denier of the colonial order, while the other one is its successor, China and India were doomed to have a serious collision of interests or even military conflict from the very beginning of their independence and since establishing frontier and regional order. As a result, Tibet-related issues and border disputes between China and India continued to intensify until finally they went to war with one another”.

It is possible to agree with Hu and Wang’s conclusion while differing with him over its causes. There is an undeclared gratitude to the British for leaving a united India behind when they left. With 561 princely states, of whom several were openly asking for an ‘independent relationship’ with ‘The Crown’, it would have been fatally easy for Britain to succumb to the temptation. But it did not, and thanks to that, India did not need a Long March, a World War, a bloody revolution and the purge of several million landowning peasants (many of whom had fed and sheltered the Long Marchers), to create its nationhood.

Also Read: How India Played into China’s Hands on the Border Dispute

So Indians are proud of achieving in peace what others, including China, achieved through war.  Regarding ourselves as Britain’s successor state and not as a ‘new’ state, was therefore an inevitable consequence. But the freezing of that perception in the Himalayas and Aksai Chin is a product of the irresponsible and corrupt democratic politics that followed, in which cadres of every political party have consistently put their narrow self-interest above the interest of the nation they pretend to serve. The BJP is not only no exception but, time and again has taken the lead in fanning latent hyper-nationalism to defeat the national interest, in the masses.

This is the deadly trap that Xi Jinping tried, for his own reasons, to get us out of when he came to India in 2014. His aim was to bury the border dispute beneath an avalanche of Chinese investment in modernising India’s infrastructure, in exchange for strategic cooperation in consolidating global peace. Without which China’s own prosperity and rising economic influence could not long endure.

Prime Minister Modi, then new to foreign policy, casually dismissed Xi’s offer and, barely ten days later, took India unconditionally into the American camp. But in spite of that, and all that has happened since then, the Chinese side seems willing to hold out an olive branch once again. One can only hope that Modi has learned from India’s recent bruising experience and will grasp it this time.