As important as diplomatic engagements are, there are at least four reasons why these are a mistake in the present India-China context.
One, diplomacy has to be leveraged and purposed carefully in such manner that it is not converted to mere talkfests and demeaned in value. There have been a series of high-level civilian exchanges between India and China since the Galwan incident of June. The latest confabulation between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Moscow on September 10, ‘lasted two and half hours’ but at the end of it, the Indian statement suggested that no progress was made. It pointed out that the ‘Chinese side has not provided a credible explanation’ for the deployment of PLA troops along the LAC and that their ‘provocative behaviour… at numerous incidents of friction along the LAC also showed disregard for bilateral agreements and protocols.’
In short, in this instance, diplomatic talks are unlikely to achieve what military commanders on the ground cannot.
Two, diplomatic parlays in the current scenario have the potential to take on added objectives — perhaps, as a way of showing progress — and can end up diluting the central goal. The joint statement released at the end of the aforementioned meeting acknowledged among other things, the need to ‘expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas’.
While these will be necessary eventually, the question is of their timing. The longer the present impasse on the LAC continues, the greater will be the temptation to set aside its resolution — the restoration of status quo ante, in other words — and to start talking about ‘new’, apparently larger objectives, for such, after all is what diplomats do for a living. Setting aside the goal of status quo ante might yet become necessary but the Indian Army must first be allowed the opportunity to shape the new status quo.
What is more, the Chinese will also in all likelihood want to walk back from the 2005 Agreement on Political Parameters and Guilding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question. This landmark treaty guarantees among other things that settled populations in the border areas — such as Tawang, for instance — would not be disturbed. Itself the culmination of over two decades of negotiations, it was, fortuitously for India, concluded well before the Chinese realised post-2008 that perhaps the United States was not as strong as they imagined, and that they could achieve rather more with their political influence and economic capabilities than they had imagined.
Three, talks at this stage between the foreign ministers, or even the Special Representatives and defence ministers also serve to provide an opportunity to the Chinese to distract and raise altogether different issues — such as India’s restrictions on Chinese FDI or its ban on Chinese apps. This approach is evident when the Chinese talk about “put[ting] the boundary question at an appropriate place in our bilateral relations” or when they say “[a]ny action that enlarges and complicates the contradiction will not help solve the problem.”
The Indian restrictions are connected to the LAC dustup only in terms of timing but they also stand on their own merit, and could have come sooner rather than later no matter the situation on the boundary. If for the Indian side, the problem is primarily about the LAC, then talks should be limited to the military leaders on either side as a way of keeping the focus on the central issue at hand.
Four, talking to the Chinese foreign ministry about problems at the LAC is a pointless exercise given that the ministry ranks lower than the PLA in the hierarchy of the Chinese political system. The Indian Ambassador to China acknowledged this reality by meeting in August with the Central Military Commission as well as with Communist Party officials — the PLA is the Party’s military wing, after all.
However, it is doubtful if he received anything more than a polite hearing at best, if not a hectoring. In any case, you do not improve the already thin likelihood of a resolution by putting diplomats unfamiliar with both ground realities in Ladakh and warfighting in a room with the Chinese military.
While the Indian military is lower in the comparative pecking order than in China, this in itself would not be a problem in a democratic and professionally-staffed government. India, however, offers one of the most dysfunctional civil-military relationships anywhere in the world, the recent high-profile appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff notwithstanding.
If a crisis is also an opportunity, then the current one on the LAC with China is an opportunity to institute reforms not just in India’s defence production sector, but also in its civil-military ties and within the military itself. Indian military leaders are not seeking war despite the talking heads on some TV channels. They also understand that it is not so much about tit-for-tat responses or holding or retrieving every inch of ground, but about both larger goals and calibrating the signal to China about India’s red lines.
Let talks with China be limited to and led by military commanders under political supervision with adequate staff support from Indian foreign ministry officials if necessary. Let us not confuse objectives and be confused in turn.
To think conflict can be avoided merely by talking betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how the Chinese political system operates, and of China’s worldview and strategic objectives. India ought to be directing its resources carefully and wisely. Its diplomatic energies should be focused on more productive tasks in the rest of South Asia and with like-minded partners elsewhere.
Originally published as ‘LAC Stand-off: Let’s not talk to China for the sake of talking’, Moneycontrol, 15 September 2020.