Amidst a pandemic with origins in China that has been engulfing the world, what international relations also witnesses is increasing Chinese aggression. The biggest theatre of military conflict currently has become the boundary between India and China as armies of the two sides continue in a standoff for more than four months now. “Military option on the table if LAC (Line of Actual Control) talks fail,” said India’s Chief of Defence Staff General Rawat to ANI news agency. In this context, it becomes pertinent to ask, how efficient have the disengagement and de-escalation talks between India and China been? There have been five rounds of Corp. Commander level meetings, four Working Mechanism for Consultation; Coordination on Indo-China Border Affairs (WMCC) meetings, multiple division and brigadier level meeting and a phone conversation between the two sides’ special representatives. A top level meeting between the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe was also held. However, the efforts to restore the status quo ante at the LAC continues.
How did this all begin? The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, in the late April and early May, intruded into the Indian side of the LAC at Galwan valley, Gogra-Hot springs-Kongka-La, Depsang Y-junction and Pangong Tso. Satellite imagery shows that the PLA has not only intruded but also built infrastructure such as Helipads and fortifications with more than ten thousand PLA troops stationed. The Indian Army on the other side stood firm and matched the troop deployment and infrastructure build-up against the PLA in this ongoing escalation which resulted in the death of twenty brave Indian soldiers on June 14th.
The border relationship between both countries has always been the amalgamation of transgressions and incursions from the Chinese side. However, the difference this time is not just the death of Indian soldiers but the lack of political will, which left the Government of India with very limited options. It has been more than a hundred days since the incursion but the situation at the intruded areas remain unchanged. To force China to restore the status quo, New Delhi has banned the Chinese apps, imposed restrictions on Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) and accelerated military acquisitions. But these actions have proven woefully Inadequate to force China to restore the status quo. Even after the much-hyped and emotionally driven slogans such as ‘Boycott China’, In June this year, Chinese exports to India increased from $4.79 billion to $5.6 billion. As strategic analyst, Dr.Brahma Challaney put it “The only way China will roll back its aggression is if India begins exacting mounting costs that make its territorial gains unbeneficial to hold”.
The Prime Minister’s statement on June 19th at the all-party meeting, “there is neither an incursion nor any transgression at the LAC” has been widely reported and quoted by the Chinese State media and Ministers, weakened India’s position and perhaps, done more damage than Prime Minister Nehru’s “…our heart goes out to Assam” address in 1962. China has occupied the whole of the South China Sea without firing a single bullet and now it has also occupied the vantage points of high strategic importance at eastern Ladakh without a battle. While the talks are ongoing, it has been solidifying the incursion by building infrastructure, laying optical fibres at the occupied points and intruded at Kugram Heights.
Successive Indian governments have been following an appeasement policy towards China. As Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai once said, “The stronger China is, the more solid national unity is, the more India’s attitude will change”. China may be economically and militarily ahead but India has the most experienced army in the world in mountain warfare and stronger national unity against foreign aggression but lack of political will to bring the nation together and take decisive steps has been the New Delhi’s, Achilles Heel.
While there has been some de-escalation, the process is too opaque and there certainly remains a long way in restoring the status quo. Even as few government sources claimed victory over the disengagement at Galwan, the ‘Buffer Zone’ that was created as part of the disengagement is believed to be largely on the Indian side of the LAC. Though the agreement was meant to be temporary for thirty days as officials claimed it has been more than two months and there is no news over the status of the agreement. China’s ‘Two steps ahead, One step backwards’ tactic, which proved successful during the 72-day standoff with India at Doklam, where India failed to protect the sovereignty of Bhutan despite being the de-facto protector of the nation, due to lack of political will at New Delhi, could well be repeated. During the recent talks, China was adamant about no retreat and demanded further retreatment by India at Fingers area and Kugram heights, thus it is unlikely that PLA will restore the status quo as long as New Delhi doesn’t possess substantial leveraging assets as it had during the earlier incursions.
China, which considers itself as a ‘Middle Kingdom’, does not want India to challenge it and wants it to be its subservient power in Asia. Any military conflict at the LAC with India would fuel the India-USA relations closer at unprecedented heights. This could well be New Delhi’s “Sudarshana Chakra” which the Prime Minister referred in his speech during his visit to Leh, last month. Rather than mere rhetoric and machismo politics, the officials should at least be in a position of strength to name and call out the Chinese.
Containing and stopping the Chinese aggression is not a choice for India but a necessity. The government must rethink its decision on delisting China from “Country of concern” and following the One China Policy, by which India recognises the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate China, and does not recognise Taiwan as a separate country. In negotiation talks with a country like China, which is expansionist, India should be able to negotiate from a point of strength. India needs a containment strategy with hefty economic and diplomatic sanctions which should make the cost of incursion unbearable for China.