Ladakh standoff: Space for diplomacy shrinking fast as India, China remain on the edge of military conflict

India wants a political key to unlock the dangerous stalemate in Ladakh, but political engagements so far have failed to produce any breakthrough.

Sreemoy Talukdar September 10, 2020 08:14:21 IST
Ladakh standoff: Space for diplomacy shrinking fast as India, China remain on the edge of military conflict

File image of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. AFP

During a recent virtual event at ORF to launch his book The India Way, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar interrupted Samir Saran, the interviewer, at one point to press home his argument that a solution for the recent standoff between India and China “has to be found in the domain of diplomacy”.

“I made this point a few days earlier in another context, I would say that I am totally convinced that a solution to the situation has to be found in the domain of diplomacy. And I say that with responsibility,” said the minister.

The “earlier context” that Jaishankar referred to was an interview to Rediff last month where he categorised the ongoing border situation as “most serious crisis since 1962” but also pointed out that all earlier episodes at LAC (Depsang, Chumar and Doklam) “were resolved through diplomacy”. He was quick to add, however, that any solution must be “predicated on honouring all agreements and understandings. And not attempting to alter the status quo unilaterally”.

Tellingly, the minister’s remarks on that occasion were perceived as setting the focus back on diplomacy just days after Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat had said that military action to remove the PLA from their entrenched positions on India’s side was “also on table” if talks fail to achieve results.

A strategic thinker and a career diplomat given to measuring words carefully, Jaishankar’s “total conviction” on diplomatic resolution carries an unmistakable sense of urgency. This urgency is not misplaced. It reflects a larger Indian concern. The LAC remains poised on a razor’s edge. Animosity is high, mutual trust is nonexistent and all past agreements and mechanisms that provided the basis for managing the border dispute have broken down.

The situation may be slipping towards a point of no return, but a war is never welcome, now even less so for an Indian economy devastated by the pandemic. Since ceding territory to China, accepting its unilateral redrawing of the LAC and fueling further its revisionism is not an option either, India’s tactic is to remain firm on the ground, achieve strategic quid pro quo while trying to find a resolution through diplomacy.

This explains the EAM’s consistent stress on talks as the only way out. The minister repeated his point again on Wednesday during an event at Indian Express, where he said “at this moment, I note that this very serious situation has been going on since the beginning of May. This calls for very, very deep conversations between the two sides at a political level”.

The fact that Jaishankar is scheduled to meet his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow today on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since the standoff began in April-May — calls for cautious optimism. Trouble is, space for diplomacy is shrinking as fast as the inevitability of military conflict is becoming clear.

India wants a political key to unlock the dangerous stalemate at Ladakh, but political engagements so far have failed to produce any breakthrough. Consider the recent sequence of events. During Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Moscow last week, the Chinese side requested a one-on-one on the margins of SCO. If hopes of an agreement were raised, those were quickly dissipated. During the meeting, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe put the onus of the crisis entirely on India.

“The root and truth of the current tensions is very clear. The Indian side is entirely responsible. Not an inch of China's territory shall be lost. The Chinese military is absolutely determined, capable and confident in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In reply, the Indian defence minister “emphasised that the actions of the Chinese troops, including amassing of large number of troops, their aggressive behaviour and attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo were in violation of the bilateral agreements and not in keeping with the understandings reached between the Special Representatives of two sides… and while Indian troops had always taken a very responsible approach towards border management, at the same time there should also be no doubt about (India’s) determination to protect (its) sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

This exchange reflects the failure of the political process where both sides refuse to budge from their respective positions or cede a modicum of space for compromise. It is tempting to blame both parties for rigidity. Yet this equivalence is misleading.

The genesis of the crisis lies in China carrying out a series of stealthy manoeuvres since April-May to steadily encroach upon territory along the LAC where Indian and Chinese claims overlap. This un-demarcated, 2200-mile border is a legacy of history when “British empire bequeathed to India official maps that were in many cases literally borderless”, as historian Kyle Gardner writes in ORF.

The superstructure of the border management framework pivoted on an understanding that both countries would refrain from occupying these disputed, barren terrains in the high Himalayas till a mutually acceptable delineation and demarcation is arrived at. The protocols of banning firearms, raising permanent structures, avoiding confrontation during patrols, multi-tier military and diplomatic level talks were put in place as part of a border management procedure so that bilateral relationship may progress in other areas.

By encroaching into, occupying and building permanent and semi-permanent structures on almost 1,000 square km of territory that India perceives to be on its side of the LAC in violation of all protocols and mechanisms, refusing to honour a consensual disengagement procedure and then getting into a murderous clash with Indian troops, Beijing has set forth a chain of events that may be reversed only if Chinese president Xi Jinping perceives the cost of continued confrontation with India to be greater than a pullback that will be perceived as a ‘setback’ and affect Xi’s ‘tough on sovereignty’ image at home.

To expect both India and China to make political concessions to arrive at a solution is to expect New Delhi to accept the violation of its territorial integrity -- a condition that no nation-state may willfully accept. Therefore, the success of a political process is predicated on India persuading China to roll back its encroachments and Beijing showing a willingness to do so. At this stage, this looks unlikely.

As the stronger power, China sees no merit in pulling back its troops, restoring status quo ante and handing India a “win”. Beijing believes such a compromise on its part will be perceived not as the benevolence of greater power, but a surrender forced by a resolute India. This is not only politically damaging for Xi, but it may also, in Beijing’s calculations, embolden India further.

China has a realist grasp of power. An editorial China’s state-controlled nationalist newspaper Global Times reads: “China-India border area has largely maintained peace for over 40 years. There were cases of military standoff, which didn’t lead to serious military conflicts, because the two sides have conformed to an agreement not to use firearms in conflicts.” However, the writer reminds India that “sticking to the principle of not using firearms in border areas is the goodwill of the PLA and China. The move of the stronger side is only about whether it is rational, rather than whether it is weak.”

One of the theories behind China’s latest incursion into Indian territory states that India’s recent stress on infrastructure development along the LAC has worried the Chinese who are keen to lock their comparative advantage. “For the Chinese, the infrastructure arms race in the border region has enabled the repeated incursions and changes to the status quo, and therefore needs to be stopped. Otherwise, all the things China fought for in the 1962 war would have been in vain,” writes Chinese scholar Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington DC, in War on the Rocks.

This indicates the structural nature of the Sino-Indian conflict. If China sees a strategic threat in India’s infrastructure building and interprets the roads and bridges built by India (that New Delhi perceives to be on its own side of LAC) as altering the status quo, then it becomes easy for China to self-justify its land-grab.

It has been interesting, therefore, to note how China has gone about justifying its latest instance of territorial expansionism. At one level the propaganda involves blame-gaming and threats of violent retribution: “We must warn India seriously: You have crossed the line! Your frontline troops have crossed the line! Your nationalist public opinion has crossed the line! Your policy toward China has crossed the line! You are over-confidently provoking the PLA and Chinese people - this is like doing a handstand on the edge of a cliff!”

At another level, the propaganda involves turning on its head accusations that China has long been charged with. London-based Financial Times newspaper quoted scholar Yun Sun, as saying that “a settlement or a rough consensus on the line of control can only be settled on the ground… They (Chinese side) had attempted to reach a consensus. But what the Chinese found out is that the Indian negotiating position was ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable’.”

Not only does this indicate that Beijing will henceforth settle the boundary issue through force instead of negotiation, but the irony also lies in the fact that after decades of salami-slicing Indian territory in disregard of established agreements and protocols, China now blames India of carrying out the tactics that Beijing has mastered.

The final piece of the propaganda puzzle lies in an aggressor China playing the role of an injured victim. After stealthily encroaching into disputed land, occupying and fortifying it, China now wants India to “strictly follow the series of agreements inked with China in tightening their control over the front-line troops and make sure they make no provocation by trespassing across the LAC, take no action that may stoke tension, and refrain from hyping up and highlighting negativities. Both sides should set eyes on the big picture of China-India relations and regional peace and stability. We should work together and pull towards the same direction so as to cool down the situation as soon as possible and uphold peace and tranquillity in the border areas”, as Chinese defence minister Wei told his Indian counterpart Singh even as PLA squats on Indian territory. The implication being that India should forget about getting back the territory it has already lost.

China lacks incentives to give up on its territorial gains since Ladakh aggression and remains convinced of the righteousness of its actions. Consider foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s claims that “China never provoked any war or conflict and never occupied an inch of other country’s territory. China border troops always strictly abide by the LAC and never crossed the line”

This irredentism stems at least partly from the tone of strident nationalism set by President Xi, reflected in China’s conduct over the South China Sea, in Hong Kong, over Taiwanese airspace or on Japan’s territorial waters.

At the recent two-day central symposium on Tibet, CCP’s marquee policymaking event for the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Xi called for “efforts to ensure national security and enduring peace and stability, steadily improve people’s lives, maintain a good environment, solidify border defence and ensure frontier security,” reports The Hindu.

It is hardly a coincidence that within a few hours of Xi’s comments, China launched more audacious land-grab manoeuvres in the southern bank of Pangong Tso (on the intervening night of 29 and 30 August) but was thwarted due to preemptive action by alert Indian troops who took control of the dominating heights in the Chushul sub-sector (that were previously unoccupied) to seize the tactical advantage.

Within this political paradigm set by Xi, the space for a Chinese compromise is almost nonexistent. And with Indian troops moving in to secure the heights of Kailash Range that now allows India to “dominate the Chushul bowl on the Indian side, and Moldo sector on the Chinese side” apart from having a “clear sight of the almost two-km-wide Spanggur gap, which the Chinese used in the past to launch attacks on this sector in 1962” as a report in Indian Express points out, the stage is set for retaliatory kinetic action. China would be desperate to restore the advantage it believes to have squandered in the comparative jockeying for strategic positions in eastern Ladakh.

This presents India with a slim opening but it also heightens the risk of a military conflict. On the positive side of the ledger, when EAM Jaishankar sits down with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, India will have a better bargaining chip during negotiation — a reality acknowledged by Chinese media.

On the other hand, the loss of tactical advantage — and that too induced by a secretive Indian unit manned by rebel Tibetan forces — will trigger China and may lead it to make a desperate lunge for the strategic heights now dominated by India.

We got an early glimpse of what lies in store when on 7 September, PLA troops armed with assault rifles as well as medieval weapons attempted to close-in on one of India’s forward positions along the LAC. “Dissuaded by Indian jawans, the PLA troops fired a few rounds in the air”, a statement by the MEA read on an incident that has been described in Indian media as China’s bid to “dislodge Indian forces from strategic heights in Mukhpari peak and Rezang La areas in Ladakh”.

India’s statement came a few hours after China first accused India of illegally crossing the LAC and “outrageously (firing) warning shots on Chinese border patrol soldiers who were about to negotiate” Colonel Zhang Shuili, spokesperson of PLA’s Western Theater Command, called India’s actions “a serious military provocation and very vile in nature” that may “easily cause misunderstandings and misjudgments.”

The pictures of PLA troops carrying spears and machetes sit at odds with Chinese claims that they were “negotiators”. Amid the claims and counter-claims, however, lie the reality that bullets along the LAC have shattered a 45-year-old consensus. Late reports indicate India has managed to consolidate its defence on the south bank as well as the north bank of Pangong Tso.

The situation is primed for a rapid escalation. While India has consolidated its force posture and held its forward position, China’s state-controlled media reported that PLA has mobilised massive amount of troops including artillery, armoured vehicles paratroopers, infantry and air defence personnel along the border while H-6 bombers and Y-20 large transport aircraft have been diverted from the Central Theater Command to be deployed to the plateau region.

Reuters adds that Indian and Chinese troops are just a few hundred meters apart at a forward position near the Rezang La mountain pass and the situation remains incredibly tense.

Though the force posture of both sides suggests military conflict, there are no real incentives for war. India certainly does not want a military conflict and neither does China, that is aware of India’s tactical and operational superiority at the border areas led by a robust conventional deterrent, reports The Hindu quoting from a report by the Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Beijing wants to force a change in India’s posture without crossing the threshold of war because a military conflict here will force China to divert its attention from the western Pacific that remains its primary theatre. However, China would certainly want India to internalise a lesson that as the bigger power, Beijing reserves the right to set the terms of engagement. It thought that consolidating its early gains it has put New Delhi on backfoot but India’s recent domination of heights at the southern bank has added an element of quid pro quo.

The danger lies in the fact that as the standoff gets prolonged, the tinderbox at Pangong Tso may get ignited by one stray miscalculation, leading to kinetic action and military conflict that may not remain localised. The approaching brutal winter has added a sense of urgency and a layer of complicacy to proceedings.

It is possible that a solution may still get hammered out through a face-saving formula as the two foreign ministers meet. The nature of that mutually acceptable face-saver is not clear and the crystal ball is rather hazy.

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