India-China Relations And Ladakh: Between Simmer And Boil
A file photo of an Indian Army truck crossing Chang la pass near Pangong Lake in Ladakh. (Photo: AP/PTI)

India-China Relations And Ladakh: Between Simmer And Boil

BloombergQuintOpinion

Hearing the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman say the near-clash on Sept. 7 at Mukhpari was due to the Indian Army offering “serious provocation of an egregious nature” and then have the Indian Ministry of External Affairs accuse the People’s Liberation Army of “blatantly violating agreements and carrying out aggressive manoeuvres” and firing small arms, a third country tuning in may find it hard to blame one or the other side for ratcheting up proceedings. This confusion would have persisted, but for a picture of the incident snapped by a mobile camera and flashed to the Indian media.

India-China Relations And Ladakh: Between Simmer And Boil

It shows 15-20 Chinese troops, some of them unusually large-bodied – specially chosen for this intimidation mission in padded body armour. They had automatic rifles slung across their shoulders, standing over a small stone wall marking Indian territory, shouting and gesturing with guandaos in their hands. A guandao is a Chinese polearm – a long lance with a slightly curved scything blade, a weapon from the Third Century AD in the time of the Eastern Wu Dynasty. It conforms with the PLA use of the slightly more modern, but still medieval, nailed maces in the June 15 confrontation in the Galwan Valley that led to the killing of 20 personnel of the 16 Bihar Regiment.

The PLA may not think such regression is the future of war. But it apparently believes it can use museum pieces, instead of in-date arms, to escape the charge of initiating military hostilities, and to shove the forward-deployed Indian mountain infantrymen, not similarly equipped, into escalating matters by reacting with automatic gunfire. Post the Galwan clash, Indian troops, if attacked, are instructed to use their assault weapons.

By such contrivances, Beijing hopes to make India responsible for starting a fracas, violating existing agreements on the use of force on the disputed border, and to secure an excuse for military escalation.

It is a clever ruse the Indian government and military seem to be dumbfounded by. Such PLA tactics can be easily countered by arming troops with nail-spiked steel maces, etc. to enable them to respond in kind, which hasn’t been done.

Immediate Provocation Vs Strategic Moves

The fact that the Indian jawans at Mukhpari neither flinched nor reacted precipitately in the face of jeering PLA troops itching for a fight, and discharged their weapons in the air only in response to the Chinese doing the same, indicates tremendous discipline on their part. Following on the success of the Tibetan-manned Special Frontier Force to surreptitiously secure Black Top on the night of Aug. 29, it is a genuine psychological and tactical military reversal for the Chinese. Black Top is the highest point in the Kailash mountain range surrounding the Spanggur Lake and Indian occupation of it renders vulnerable the PLA presence at lesser heights and its post at Moldo hosting artillery and a fleet of armoured vehicles. It does three other things—dominates all east-west routes in the vicinity, blocks the PLA from realising its original objective—capturing the southern shore of the Pangong Tso, and, according to the former Northern Army commander, Lieutenant General HS Panag, enables Indian units to move to the south bank of the Spanggur Lake and even advance northeastwards towards Rudok.

A more confident Indian Army, rather than waste time gloating over its so far small successes, should prepare, with fast-moving Special Forces (such as the SFF and the Ladakh Scouts) in the van, to take back the area—Fingers 4 to 8—on the northern bank of the Pangong Tso. Remove the PLA blockade at the Y-junction on the Depsang Plains, dislodge the Chinese from Indian territory around the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kugrang area, secure the mountain ridge on the east bank of the Shyok River to protect the new highway to Daulat Beg Oldi and the access route to the Karakoram Pass, and to fortify the hilltops it occupies in the Kailash Range.

General Panag, for one, rues the Indian army’s “error of judgment” in not occupying the “plateau-like areas” to the east of the Kailash Range which would have preempted their use by the PLA as staging areas for Chinese offensives he expects will be mounted to clear the Indian presence from the Chushul sector, in particular Black Top, which he thinks the Chinese cannot afford to have remain under Indian control. To thwart PLA attacks, he advises that the approaches to Indian-held positions be mined and embedded with improvised explosive devices.

Don’t Lose Ground In Diplomacy

The uptick in the Indian Army actions in eastern Ladakh, however, is not matched by equally efficacious Indian diplomacy. Commenting on the Chinese disregarding numerous “understandings” since 1993 to limit forces that can be deployed on the LAC and to restrain them, the External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, had nothing very profound to say other than that this “raises very, very important questions” and “calls for very, very deep conversations between the two sides at the political level.” All this may be very, very good but doesn’t progress a diplomatic solution.

In fact, it hints at the EAM kicking the can down the road, putting the onus on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to resolve the problem at his level with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

This is a reasonable conclusion to reach, considering Jaishankar in his video conversations achieved nothing and was unlikely to accomplish much in the luncheon meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on Sept. 10, and neither did the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval who video-conferenced with Wang on July 5. If anything, there’s every possibility that Wang is playing Doval off against Jaishankar. Because policy- and decision-making processes in the Government of India are famously stove-piped and coordination is nonexistent. The NSA and EAM, on separate tracks negotiating with the same Chinese interlocutor, may further differently nuanced aims and agendas. That’s a situation Wang is bound to milk.

Whatever gains the Indian Army may register in eastern Ladakh could thus be squandered by Messrs Doval and Jaishankar at the negotiating table.

Postscript

As predicted, the extended S Jaishankar - Wang Yi pow-wow in Moscow that reportedly concluded well after midnight, India-time, produced zilch in substantive terms. Keeping in mind Russian sensitivities and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s determination to see the two not end their meeting with nothing, the Indian and Chinese minister reached a laboured five-point agreement that far from brightening the prospects of peace, may have set the scene for more military exchanges in eastern Ladakh. Depending on what transpires, and however the intensity and scale get ratcheted up by the forward units of either side, we may yet have full bore hostilities.

Consider the five points. The first point repeated the tired line of “not allowing differences to become disputes” – Jaishankar’s signature tune. The second, cleverly from the Chinese point of view, puts the onus on the military-level talks – yes, the same patience-sapping talkathons conducted in Moldo-Chushul by the XIV Corps commander Lt Gen Harinder Singh and Major General Liu Lin, PLA in-charge of the southwestern border sector, and at less senior levels — to reach a modus vivendi and “quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. The third point features the Indian government’s insistence that both sides “abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs” starting with the 1993 peace and tranquillity agreement “in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters” — though the 1993 accord is nowhere mentioned. In the fourth point, they agreed that the military-to-military interactions continue, on parallel tracks, with the Special Representatives level talks and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination or WMCC meetings. And the final point, putting cart before the horse, voiced the unwarranted hope that the two countries “expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures”.

That the five-points mean little was stressed by Wang who, in response to Jaishankar’s saying that India “would not countenance any attempt to change the status quo unilaterally” and expressing his desire that bilateral ties resume their earlier “largely positive trajectory”, reiterated China’s “stern position” on the situation in the border areas. He emphasised “that the imperative is to immediately stop provocations such as firing and other dangerous actions that violate the commitments made by the two sides”, adding that it is also “important to move back all personnel and equipment that have trespassed” and the “frontier troops must quickly disengage so that the situation may de-escalate”. Meaning, that Beijing will not compromise a whit on its stance that because Indian troops violated the LAC, they’d have to withdraw to obtain peace premised on Delhi accepting the new LAC secured by the PLA. This frontally contradicts the Indian government’s goal articulated by Jaishankar June 17 of restoring “the status quo” as existed in Ladakh in April 2020.

It is clear though what the Chinese strategy is in the non-military sphere. It is to sow confusion with a plethora of negotiations — each negotiating channel, at least on the Indian side, getting in the way of every other, and seeding a mess that Indian official and military circles will be preoccupied with, even while Beijing conveys the impression of progress being made, however haltingly, in this or that or the other channel. As mentioned earlier in the article, at the apex level Wang Yi is discussing ways to resolve issues simultaneously with Jaishankar and with the NSA, Ajit Doval. Why Delhi agreed to this twin-apex track in the first place many years ago is not a mystery. In theory, the National Security Adviser in the PMO has the ears of the Prime Minister — the only person in the Indian system who counts — and is the channel the PM can use for directed intervention bypassing the bureaucratic maze in the MEA. So far, some 22-23 sessions of the Special Representatives level talks have been held with nothing to show for them. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the NSA is a Mandarin-speaking China expert or not. Doval was preceded as Special Representative by Shivshankar Menon — NSA to Manmohan Singh, and former Foreign Secretary, who cut his diplomatic teeth in China. It made no difference — there are no results.

That China nevertheless is happy plugging for multiple active negotiating streams suggests they serve China’s purpose, not India’s. It is time Delhi called a halt to this farce of negotiations, and restricted all negotiating with the Chinese to a single forum, a unitariness of command Beijing has achieved by making Wang the go-to guy even as on the Indian side there’s a whole bunch of people mucking up the works. So, the negotiating strategy needs to be sorted out.

Updated to follow the outcome of the bilateral Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Moscow on Sept. 10.

Bharat Karnad is Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Policy Research and author, most recently of, ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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