Latest India-China joint statement suggests New Delhi is misreading Beijing's gameplan, playing into its hands

Keeping up the pretence of talks allows China enough time to reinforce its control over newly acquired areas that are on the Indian side of LAC by creating more infrastructure, boosting logistics and building communication network.

Sreemoy Talukdar September 24, 2020 12:34:26 IST
Latest India-China joint statement suggests New Delhi is misreading Beijing's gameplan, playing into its hands

Representational image. AFP

The sixth round of senior commanders’ meeting between India and China — the first in two months — reflects the rapidly vanishing space for diplomacy. A lot has happened between the fifth and the sixth to indicate that both sides are struggling to keep the consultative mechanism going. But that is where the similarity ends.

A protracted stalemate favours China because it is the aggressor and has managed to change the status quo with its stealth encroachments. Conversely, India’s options are looking scarce. The joint statement issued after Monday’s marathon meeting suggests that India really has only two options — accept China’s fait accompli and territorial loss or launch a military offensive to evict the PLA squatting on India’s territory.

Before he left for Moscow earlier this month to attend the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting where he eventually had a one-on-one with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had described the situation at the border as “serious”, one that needs “very, very deep conversations” at a “political level.”

Unless Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an interaction with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the highest level, deep political engagements have taken place below that threshold (between respective defence and foreign ministers) and what has been evident is the widening gulf between the two sides and the impossibility of a diplomatic resolution.

The Jaishankar-Wang meeting had hammered out a five-point consensus that achieved little beyond tokenism, necessitated issuing of separate statements by both sides and since then has been violated in letter and spirit by the Chinese who are showing an unwillingness to even nominally abiding by it.

Under these circumstances, the meeting between senior military leaders was expected to achieve little beyond keeping the “talks going”. Within this limited context, and given the intensifying divergences, Monday’s 13-hour affair in Chushul-Moldo did manage to thrash out two agreements. A decision was taken “to stop sending more troops to the frontline”, and “strengthen communication on the ground, avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments.”

The pervasive distrust, wide divergences and huge deployment of forces, artillery and armament in front line mean that kinetic action is just one misinterpretation or miscalculation away. For instance, South China Morning Post had reported that PLA increased its “combat-readiness” to second-highest level and “mobilised more troops and weapons systems to the LAC in preparation for the worst” following gunfire exchange between both sides. That heightened alert, according to the report, was only relaxed after Jaishankar met Wang on 10 September.

If none of the sides wants war, then strengthening of communication is a small but important step. Similarly, the decision to not send more troops to the frontline in an already super-militarized zone and stop the relentless beefing up of forces along the LAC suggests conflict prevention is the aim.

As Times of India has reported quoting a government source, this wasn’t a meeting to achieve agreement on disengagement, but to create a positive atmosphere. “The understanding is to keep the situation stable until agreement on disengagement is reached for which further rounds of talks have been proposed.”

According to reports, China has already amassed about “50,000 troops, surface-to-air missiles, a large section of rocket forces and close to 150 fighter aircraft within striking distance of LAC” with a more recent report putting the number of PLA ground force deployment at 10,000 on the south bank of Pangong Tso alone.

Since India has undertaken a policy of mirror deployment, a huge number of armed troops are within a shooting range in a super-charged atmosphere. It would seem that the sixth round of talks has been fruitful in arriving at a decision to step up communication, stop further deployment at the frontline and dial down the tension. With the focus on continuing with the consultation mechanism, this has been interpreted as a positive outcome.

But what if this is exactly what China wants? Maybe all that China wants is to continue “talks” without any viable disengagement and eventually wear down India — all the while using the time provided by “talks” and “engagement” to fortify further its hold on the Indian territories it has freshly occupied and create enough “facts on the ground” to make a return to April-May status quo an impossibility?

India has said on more than one occasion that it wants a diplomatic resolution to the border issue. This signals an unwillingness to use kinetic action to evict the PLA squatters that are interfering with India’s ability to patrol on areas over which it exercises sovereign control. According to a report in The Hindu that quotes a senior government official, “there are at least 10 patrolling points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh that have been blocked by Chinese troops.”

Keeping up the pretence of talks allows China enough time to reinforce its control over newly acquired areas that are on the Indian side of LAC by creating more infrastructure, boosting logistics and building communication network or initiate surreptitious force deployments on sensitive locations such as Depsang plains that poses an immense strategic threat to India.

It is possible that after occupying Indian territory through creeping manoeuvres, China now wants to consolidate its position along the LAC and create a new status quo secure in the belief that India wouldn’t dare to initiate a military conflict to wrest back control of those areas. This can be gauged from the fact that six rounds of meeting have brought both sides nowhere close to the resolution that India seeks — whish is to restore status quo ante of April-May — and instead, China is furiously preparing its troops for the long and bitter winter in Ladakh, forcing India to do the same.

Simultaneously, China is launching psychological warfare against India by evoking memories of the 1962 war and tapping into Indian insecurities associated with it — the aim is to deter India from initiating kinetic action. There have been countless articles in Chinese media on how India will suffer a worse defeat than 1962 were it to miscalculate on war. China wants to avoid war as much as India wants, simply because it doesn’t need to wage a war when it already has the advantage. Rather, it would suit Beijing’s purpose to create a fear psychosis in India’s minds and “win” without having to lodge a war. Here, “winning” would denote forcing India to accept the new status quo.

So far, India has openly shunned the option of applying coercive military pressure. As geostrategist Brahma Chellaney told Firstpost in an interview, “Imposing substantive economic and diplomatic costs, coupled with the application of coercive military pressure, holds the key. The costs India has sought to impose thus far seem woefully inadequate to make Beijing rethink its aggression.” The latest joint statement suggests India is playing into China’s hands.

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