The Xi-ng Thing: Strategic assessment of failure of India-China military-level talks and what may lie ahead

Driven by the insecurity of burgeoning India-US ties, China’s assumption has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading India and the US towards an ever-tightening strategic embrace

Sreemoy Talukdar October 13, 2021 12:30:51 IST
The Xi-ng Thing: Strategic assessment of failure of India-China military-level talks and what may lie ahead

President Xi Jinping casts his vote during the closing session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Thursday, 11 March, 2021. AP

India made its frustration evident at the apparent failure of the latest round of military commander talks with China over the ongoing border standoff. The development carries grim portends. We may see a further intensification of tension along the entire 3500-km LAC, more deployment of troops and equipment right through the winter and a steeper dip in bilateral ties.

In many ways, the 13th round of Corps Commander-level meeting at the Chushul-Moldo point on Sunday marks a shift in the trajectory of the 17-month long standoff. Up until now, despite showing intransigence, China has been amenable to disengagement from some friction points albeit through prolonged negotiations and as a quid pro quo to India giving up its own leverage.

In February, both sides pulled back soldiers, arms, weaponry and destroyed permanent and semi-permanent structures on the northern and southern banks of the glacial Pangong Tso. That was a breakthrough, and it came at the cost of India vacating the Kailash Range heights. A few months later in August, there was further disengagement from Gogra Post, also called Patrol Point 17A, another friction point in eastern Ladakh following the 12th round of talks.

That had raised expectations that the flashpoint in Hot Springs where troops remain engaged in PP15 could be next, eventually leading the way for disengagement and de-escalation from knottier friction points such as Depsang Plains.

However, if the 13th round of negotiations is anything to go by, it seems China has decided that it has created enough ‘facts on the ground’ to present India with a new fait accompli and sees no reason why it should give up its territorial gains and restore the pre-April 2020 status quo at the border especially when India, an inferior power, lacks leverage to force China to do so.

There were recent indications that Chinese calculations on the standoff were turning cynical. In September alone, reports emerged of PLA holding live fire-drill on Tibetan plateau and testing air defence equipment against possible Indian air raids, stepping up night drills and deploying more advanced weapon systems and building new winter-proof shelter for troops in the friction points in a clear indication that it has no intention of leaving.

Along with these signaling, the PLA stepped up incursions. We heard of about 100 PLA troops, some riding on horseback, enter Uttarakhand’s Barahoti and damaging some infrastructure before leaving. Towards the end of September, another 200 Chinese soldiers crossed over from Tibet into Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh and were intercepted before they could damage some bunkers.

The importance of PLA entering Tawang notwithstanding, this was a major provocation just a few days ahead of the military commander talks. These incidents showed that instead of gradually moving towards disengagement from remaining friction points — areas where PLA troops remain encroached on territory that India considers its own — China is creating the ground for turning infringement into fait accompli. This grey-zoning maneuver ends with Beijing formalizing its aggrandizement and eventually claiming sovereign rights over the terrain it has snatched — pushing the buffer zone deeper into Indian territory.

It is quite clear that Beijing has decided to employ this very playbook in Hot Springs, Depsang and other areas such as Charding Nullah junction where the PLA are squatting. And at being dealt such a hand, the level of frustration in India is high enough for that to be reflected in the post-meeting statement. Instead of the usual anodyne remarks aimed at nudging China carefully towards disengagement, the blunt readout released by New Delhi stated: “During the meeting, the Indian side… made constructive suggestions for resolving the remaining areas but the Chinese side was not agreeable and also could not provide any forward-looking proposals. The meeting thus did not result in resolution of the remaining areas.”

India said it was China that had started this “situation along the LAC” by its “unilateral attempts… to alter the status quo and in violation of the bilateral agreements. It was, therefore, necessary that the Chinese side take appropriate steps in the remaining areas so as to restore peace and tranquility along the LAC in the Western Sector.” Mindful that China seeks to decouple the border issue from overall bilateral ties, India reiterated that “such resolution of the remaining areas would facilitate progress in the bilateral relations.”

This suggests India believes it still enjoys some leverage — in terms of normalizing bilateral ties — in forcing China to return to the discussion table and agree on mutual disengagement, except that for Beijing, New Delhi’s leverage is no leverage at all, or at least not coercive enough for China to give up its gains.

In a statement attributed to a PLA spokesperson for the western theatre command, China said it made “great efforts to promote the easing and cooling of the border situation and fully demonstrated China’s sincerity of maintaining overall interests of bilateral military relations” during the meeting. “However, the Indian side still persisted in its unreasonable and unrealistic demands, which added difficulties to the negotiations.” The release stated that “China is firm in its resolve to safeguard national sovereignty” and the spokesperson added condescendingly that “the Indian side should avoid misjudging the situation and cherish the hard-won situation in the China-India border areas.”

China’s statement makes several things clear. In blaming India’s “unreasonable and unrealistic” demands, Beijing tacitly admits that it is encroaching on territory over which India claims sovereign rights, or at the very least is disputed, because India’s sole demand which China now terms as “unrealistic” is a return to the pre-April 2020 status quo. By the same token, invalidating India’s demands as “unreasonable and unrealistic” and stating that it will firmly “safeguard national sovereignty” indicates that Beijing has no plans to give up the claims. This message is carried further through the remarks that scornfully advise India to “cherish the hard won situation… in the border areas”. In other words, India should be happy with the fact that China has given up some of the gains and should not press for more.

The terms of the engagement are clear. China is not a normative power. It has no wish, unlike the liberal West, to win friends and impress through the “power of example”. China wants to be the unchallenged hegemony in Asia’s expansive geography, and it will not allow the rise of a rival state (India) that has great-power aspirations of its own. In achieving its objectives, therefore, China will employ every tool in its box and remind India of the asymmetry in power to outline its hierarchical superiority.

From China’s perspective, what the world perceives as revanchism is merely a strong China reclaiming its losses, and therefore it cannot be seen to be bowing down before a subordinate power over territorial conflicts. This becomes clearer when we look at an editorial on the 13th Corps Commander meeting carried by China’s state media Global Times.

Blaming India for the stalemate, the editorial states: “the root cause is that Indian side still hasn’t developed a correct attitude in the negotiations. It always makes unrealistic demands not in line with the real situation or its strength…” It then goes on to add: “The border issue is related to the dignity of all nations. So when border conflicts occur between two major countries, it needs to be managed based on major power relations.” And just to press home the point, it says, “India has lackluster abilities, but has turned itself into a ‘superpower of patriotism.’ In addition to border disputes with China, India also often raises unreasonable demands over other issues.”

Since the Chinese side uses state media as an integral part of its information war, the message should not be lost on India. And in this reading, the dispute becomes quite uncomplicated. China is more powerful so it will do what it wants to, and India must deal with it. The border dispute, therefore, is a manifestation of major power tussle in Asia and because Beijing perceives it to be so, an outcome favourable to India becomes impossible unless New Delhi manages to increase and match China’s national composite power.

The Global Times article also makes another point that may explain China’s attitude towards India. It accuses India of being “opportunistic”, and says New Delhi is driven by an assumption that “China needs India’s help because of China’s desire for stability in its western borders to achieve its overall national strategy. In particular, India sees the deterioration in China-US relations as an opportunity to gain key strategic bargaining chips.”

Driven by the insecurity of burgeoning India-US ties, China’s assumption has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading India and the US towards an ever-tightening strategic embrace. And as its feared outcome is confirmed, China’s hostility towards India is increasing. Another recent manifestation of this hostility has been China’s over-the-top reaction to Indian media’s coverage of the Arunachal incident. News18 reported, quoting government sources, that Indian soldiers had detained a few of the 200 PLA troops who ventured into Tawang and they were subsequently released after temporary detention following resolution of the situation at the local military commanders’ level.

While the Centre clarified that no such detention took place — a likely attempt at underplaying the development — China reacted with fury. Chinese social media handles started releasing hitherto unseen pictures and video clips of Galwan incident where Indian soldiers are seen bruised and battered in captivity while Chinese state media called the incident “purely fabricated”.

Quoting “military sources”, a report in Chinese media said “that Chinese soldiers were being detained was entirely fabricated and hyped by Indian media. The incident is a deliberate provocation and a distortion and smear campaign by the Indian side, which is a serious violation of the bilateral agreement”, adding, “the responsibility rests entirely with the Indian side.”

The furious reaction to a reported incident of temporary detention of PLA troops — not confirmed by the government — indicates that China cannot tolerate even the slightest scratch to its ‘reputation’, having built an image of an ‘invincible superpower’ at home. This places an additional burden on the CCP, and very often we find China tilting at the windmills.

For instance, PLA Daily, the official newspaper of Chinese military, in a post on Weibo said that “Indian media should have more integrity”, adding: “in recent years, the Indian media seems to have a particular preference for fabricating and hyping up Sino-Indian border issues, and they have played up the tense atmosphere and stimulated populist sentiments from time to time,” according to an article in South China Morning Post.

In effect, what we see here is China’s descent from nationalism into hyper-nationalism that realist scholar John Mearsheimer had foreseen, a condition that “goes beyond patriotism and exceptionalism” and seeks to satiate the ever-growing hunger of audiences at home. It is also a trap.

President Xi Jinping has so far been successful in harnessing the force of hyper-nationalism to consolidate his power over all avenues of the Chinese party-state but as the stakes grow bigger, Xi is being forced to run just to stay in the same spot. Keen to consolidate a third consecutive term at the helm (and maybe even more), chairman Xi is facing a lot of hurdles on different fronts in the run-up to the crucial Sixth Party Plenum in November.

As Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation points out, the apparently all-powerful XI is deeply distrustful of the police forces and launched a bone-deep purge of the political legal system last year that has already led to investigation and censure of 178,431 personnel, including 1,258 heads of departments, and unearthing of “conspiratorial cliques” within the system. Willy writes, “Xi’s hold on China’s security forces including the PLA leadership is less than ironclad was recently demonstrated by the unexpected leadership changes of the pivotal Western Theatre Command… (and) there is speculation that these extraordinary personnel changes may have involved issues of loyalty to the CMC chairman (meaning Xi).

Ex-R&AW officer Jayadeva Ranade points out that Xi is facing a backlash from veteran soldiers over rights and retirement benefits and on September 13, more than “200 veterans from across China managed to avoid barriers and detection by public security authorities and arrived in Beijing”, and they “assembled outside the headquarters of the Central Military Commission, which is chaired by Xi Jinping, and shouted slogans.”

There have also been murmurs of discontent over Xi’s turn to Maoism and sacrificing of China’s blue-eyed elite businesses on the altar of “common prosperity” in search of a more equitable distribution of wealth to mitigate rising inequality. While that objective remains is yet to see success, Xi’s regulatory noose risks triggering lasting economic damage.

To navigate these cross currents, Xi has doubled down on nationalist rhetoric and action. The intense bullying of Taiwan and a more hawkish stance towards India are manifestations of that tactic. At least until the 20th Party Congress next year, when Xi’s fate will be known, India should not expect a let up in hostility.

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