The press release by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs at the end of the 13th round of the India-China corps commanders meeting held on 10 October was explicit in declaring that “the situation along the LAC had been caused by unilateral attempts of Chinese side to alter the status quo and in violation of the bilateral agreements.” It put the onus squarely on the Chinese side to “take appropriate steps… so as to restore peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the Western Sector.”
The statement is noteworthy for being one of the few times that New Delhi has directly accused China of bad behaviour outside of the context of major provocations such as the Galwan clash in June 2020 or the Chinese attempts to unilaterally change the status quo on the south bank of the Pangong Tso a few months later on 29-30 August. Other instances include Minister of State in the MEA, V. Muraleedharan’s replies to questions in the Rajya Sabha in February and the Lok Sabha in February and March, as well as Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla in a speech at the end of June this year. Both would refer to Chinese attempts over the last year to unilaterally alter the status quo in Ladakh.
A major change in tone and tenor is evident especially if one compares the latest statement with one from just a year ago at the end of the 7th round held on 12 October 2020. That statement was, in fact, a joint one with the Chinese that characterised discussions as “constructive” (twice in the space of a single paragraph), as “positive” and as having “enhanced understanding of each other’s positions”.
Reports have emerged that China has increased its troop strength along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh breaking its agreement made at the sixth round of talks on 21 September 2020. Earlier in December, videos emerged of Chinese civilian vehicles transgressing into the Demchok area also in Ladakh. Meanwhile, the Indian Army referred to a confrontation last week between Indian and Chinese troops in the wake of a transgression by the latter at Naku La in northern Sikkim, as a “minor face-off”.
Essentially, what we are seeing since the Galwan clash in June 2020, is the steady normalization of confrontations and tensions along the LAC as well as of fruitless bilateral talks. This was predicted.
Since May this year, India and China have been involved in a serious confrontation along their disputed boundary known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has pushed its version of the LAC further westwards at multiple locations in the Western Sector of the dispute in eastern Ladakh/Aksai Chin. This, it has done, in clear violation of existing bilateral agreements and Chinese troops now occupy vast swathes of territory previously falling within Indian control.
On the night of 15 June 2020, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers lost their lives in a fierce and brutal physical fight at high altitude in the Galwan Valley. The casualties are all the more notable because the clash involved not firearms but an almost medieval-era array of clubs and assorted weapons. These are the first casualties on the disputed boundary since 1975 and brings to a close an era of relative peace guided by a series of bilateral agreements on confidence-building measures and protocols on troop behaviour along the LAC.
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.
It is a fact that New Delhi and Beijing have concluded some major bilateral agreements—here used to refer to treaties, statements and declarations—with implications for the boundary dispute since the end of the Cold War. Given that these agreements have been reached between two former belligerents that continue to have many reasons to be suspicious of each other, it must be surmised that they were concluded after tough negotiations and with great deliberation from both sides. While Indian foreign policy is often accused of lacking a grand strategy, these agreements suggest if not a vision for the direction of Sino-Indian relations, at least a desire to keep these stable and peaceful. This chapter is a brief examination of key agreements concluded between India and China in the post-Cold War era with implications for their boundary dispute, including the development and progression of military CBMs between the two countries.
In Sino-Indian relations, it would appear that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or do they?
2012 was still young when another ‘visa issue’ cropped up between China and India. This time the Chinese refused a visa to an Indian Air Force officer from Arunachal Pradesh slated to leave for China as part of a 30-member Indian military delegation. Contrary to expectations, however, the visit actually carried on with the delegation being halved in size and the IAF officer in question one of the 15 who were dropped. One can wonder about the wisdom of deliberately including an Arunachali in any delegation to China when the person is sure to run into a (great) wall. But perhaps this was, as is normal in the practice of statecraft, simply a testing of the waters? Continue reading 2012 Kicks Off: No Visas and More Boundaries
Early May, even as the world was coming to grips with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US was moving to deal with the other great challenger to its global interests, namely, China. The 3rd Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) between the two countries was held between 9 and 10 May in Beijing and touched upon a wide gamut of bilateral issues of concern. These ranged from human rights to China’s bias against foreign companies.
In addition to the usual heads of state summits between the two sides, the SED that involves cabinet ministers on both sides provides an opportunity for both sides to get down to the brass-tacks in the full glare of the media. The Dialogue indicates not just the gravity of the problems between them but also the seriousness of their bilateral dialogue. And the seriousness can only increase. Hitherto, the SED has performed the function more of maintaining status quo between them than of really ironing out differences. But the current SED suggests that the Obama administration has begun to reconsider its hitherto overly cautious China policy and is willing to take up confront Beijing on more sensitive matters. And coming in the wake of the bin Laden killing, the Chinese were no doubt aware that a reinvigorated US would also begun to turn its gaze back towards East Asia.