Rajnath Singh’s Parliament address is an admission that India-China five-point pact is an inconsequential piece of paper

India seems to have belatedly understood and now appear more accepting of the reality that peaceful resolution of the dispute is a long shot and the focus should instead be more on prevention of an armed conflict that looms large.

Sreemoy Talukdar September 16, 2020 10:51:49 IST
Rajnath Singh’s Parliament address is an admission that India-China five-point pact is an inconsequential piece of paper

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.

Rajnath Singh’s maiden statement in Parliament on Tuesday on Chinese incursions along the LAC and the resultant border crisis, among other things, is an acknowledgement that the five-point consensus reached between both sides in Moscow last week is little more than a piece of paper.

The Union defence minister struck a note of caution, defiance and fortitude, delivering a warning to the nation that we are nowhere close to a resolution despite back to back diplomatic efforts in Moscow, and military conflict is a real possibility.

The minister’s statement was notable for its stark admission of reality on the floor of the House — minus operational details — that carries an indication that this time India is not being taken in by China’s duplicity. Throughout the crisis China has spoken with a forked tongue, masking PLA’s aggression at the border with diplomatic sweet talk — or what has been termed as “Chinese policy of talking and fighting simultaneously”.

Ahead of the Jaishankar-Wang talks, Chinese state media, without a hint of irony, had commented: “Whatever India says diplomatically, China should not only listen to its words but also observe its actions” — a strategy that India must adopt to deal with Chinese deception.

It is not a coincidence that the dialogue between the two foreign ministers on the sidelines of SCO Summit in Moscow has been followed by renewed Chinese troop movements and fresh buildup along LAC in Arunachal Pradesh while eastern Ladakh remains poised on a knife’s edge with no hint of reduction in troops or disengagement despite the five-point formula.

Meanwhile, reports have emerged that just before EAM S Jaishankar sat down with his counterpart Wang Yi, Indian and Chinese troops exchanged 100-200 rounds on the north bank of Pangong Tso, “far more intense than the firing of warning shots in the Chushul sub-sector”, according to Indian Express.

Singh’s tone in Parliament indicates a palpable shift in the mood among India’s military, political and policymaking establishment that was not seen even after the murderous 15-16 June intervening night at Galwan. India seems to have belatedly understood and now appear more accepting of the reality that peaceful resolution of the dispute is a long shot and the focus should instead be more on prevention of an armed conflict that looms large. At the very least, a stalemate through the biting winter cold is certain.

Consider Singh’s statement where he said: “I met my Chinese counterpart on 4th September in Moscow and had an in-depth discussion with him. I conveyed in clear terms our concerns related to the actions of the Chinese side, including amassing of large number of troops, their aggressive behavior and attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo that were in violation of the bilateral agreements. I also made it clear that even as we wanted to peacefully resolve the issue and would like the Chinese side to work with us, there should also be no doubt about our determination to protect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

On the battle ahead, the minister said, “our commanders and soldiers understand that the entire nation stands behind them in support of the just cause of defending our territorial integrity. They are accordingly being provisioned with suitable clothing, habitat and the required defence wherewithal. The determination of our troops is praiseworthy. They are capable of serving at forbidding altitudes with scarce oxygen and in extremely cold temperatures, something that they have effortlessly done over the last many years on Siachen, and Kargil.”

And finally, his declaration “I will not hesitate to share with this august House that we are facing a challenge in Ladakh and I urge the House to pass a resolution in support of our Armed Forces” points to the grim reality on India’s borders and an admission that diplomatic domain has failed to provide the answers.

Where does that leave the five-point agreement arrived at by Jaishankar and Wang after 150 minutes of “frank and constructive” discussion on 10 September? Even before Singh’s statement in the ongoing Monsoon Session of the Parliament, it was clear that the consensus provided little more than a brief pause because the fundamental issues remain unaddressed.

The fact that both sides issued separate explanatory notes following the joint statement should tell us while none wants war and seeks to continue with the engagement framework at different levels, both sides do not really believe that a diplomatic resolution is possible without an off-ramp that will remain elusive unless one side is ready to accept the political loss.

As Devesh Kapur of Johns Hopkins University writes in Financial Times, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image will be severely dented at home if he does not craft a strong riposte. This leaves Xi Jinping with two options: inflict the damage and brace for consequences or withdraw to pre-June positions and lose face.”

The key issue still remains the fact that while India wants a resolution at the border as a prerequisite to restoring normalcy in a broader relationship, China wants to decouple the border tension from larger bilateral ties — quite possibly from the calculation that it has already made territorial and strategic gains and now wants to secure that and move on.

This dichotomy is evident in the statements that have been issued. The joint statement referred to the fact that “two Foreign Ministers agreed that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side. They agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.”

The Indian explanatory note, issued the next day by the MEA, adds: “While there have been incidents from time to time, peace and tranquility has largely prevailed in the border areas. As a result, India-China cooperation also developed in a broad range of domains, giving the relationship a more substantive character. While the Indian side recognized that a solution to the boundary question required time and effort, it was also clear that the maintenance of peace and tranquility on the border areas was essential to the forward development of ties.”

Concurrently, the Chinese explanation in Xinhua stresses its own position: “Wang said that China-India relations have once again come to a crossroads. But as long as the two sides keep moving the relationship in the right direction, there will be no difficulty or challenge that can't be overcome.” The Chinese statement then goes on to quote the Indian foreign minister to make an incredible claim that “Jaishankar said that the Indian side does not consider the development of India-China relations to be dependent on the settlement of the boundary question and India does not want to go backwards.” This appears more a case of pressure tactic than tectonic change in stance.

While the joint statement did move away from the blame game that we had seen in statements following Rajnath Singh-Wei Fenghe talks and sought to create a new modus vivendi between both sides by way of concluding “new Confidence Building Measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquility in the border areas” this positive step may only follow if disengagement and easing of tension takes place. Notably, this huge responsibility has been delegated to the respective militaries and special representatives — indicating the wide political gap that still persists.

This is a tacit admission of political failure, and the reflection of that failure was evident in Singh’s Parliament address. We should brace for impact.

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