China’s deceptive strategies create doubts about its commitment to peace
China has violated all the existing agreements on maintaining peace and tranquility and border management
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Moscow on September 10 was not expected to achieve a breakthrough, given that the meeting of the two Defence Ministers that preceded it did not yield any tangible result. That Wang Yi could come with a mandate more flexible than that of the Chinese Defence Minister was unlikely. Nonetheless, the two Foreign Ministers were able to produce a joint statement as a sign of some progress.
However, given China’s deceptive strategies one cannot be sure about its commitment to peace. If it did not want a conflict it would not have made its adventurous moves in Ladakh, unless it grossly misjudged India’s capacity and willingness to resist. Now that India has shown its determination not to be cowed down, most tellingly exhibited by its occupation of heights south of Pangong Tso and also to its north, China faces a dilemma. It cannot back down because that will durably change the equation between India and China, damage China’s assiduously cultivated larger than life image, and expose its bluff about winning a war without fighting. But if it initiates hostilities it will suffer heavy casualties and that without a clear victory, which, besides proving very costly for its image, will raise questions about the wisdom of staking its military prestige on a conflict in such a remote area. India’s enmity would have been earned permanently. International repercussions of a China-India conflict would be long lasting for China’s foreign policy, besides making the security dynamics in Asia very complex.
Given the opposite ends from which the two sides are addressing the roots of the present situation in Ladakh, a meeting ground was bound to be most difficult to work out in a joint statement. The main objective seems to have been to disengage the two forces in close proximity to each other so that the risk of a mis-step by one side triggering a wider conflict is avoided. Around this central objective some padding has been done to give seeming substance to the statement. The reference in paragraph 1 to both sides “not allowing differences to become disputes” is pro forma, with little relevance now that a serious dispute has arisen on the ground because of differences. That both “agreed that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side” can be construed as a realisation by China that a conflict with India is not in its interest, but it can also be diplomatese to convey that China is not wedded to a conflict.
They “agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions”. This crux of the joint statement leaves many questions in the air. The Corps Commanders of both sides as well as senior commanders below have met several times on disengagement, but without much result. Our Army says that even while talks on disengagement were being conducted, Chinese troops have tried to gain tactical advantage in places. If the military is to resume dialogue with a firm political direction to reach an agreement, the details have still to be worked out depending on requirements of equal and mutual security based on the ease of access to forward areas by the two forces in view of differences in terrain and ground infrastructure on both sides. This is a very complex exercise.
Neither side will easily give up the advantageous positions it holds, the level of distrust being exceedingly high. India will expect the Chinese to withdraw from Depsang and the northern bank of Pangong Tso to earlier positions. In return, the Chinese will want us to withdraw from the Kailash Range heights, which if India vacates will be most difficult to retake if the Chinese occupy them thereafter. It is not clear what quickness of disengagement means, and even more so what is meant by “maintaining proper distance”, as “proper” is a very imprecise term. So is the call to ease tensions. This kind of vague direction is not going to be helpful in military negotiations.
De-escalation being the other objective, it was agreed that both sides shall abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on boundary affairs, maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters. But then, China has violated all the existing agreements on maintaining peace and tranquility and border management. What guarantee is there that they will not do this again?
The agreement to continue the dialogue between the Special Representatives and within the framework of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs (WMCC) merely amounts to keeping the doors of a dialogue open, with no new commitment taken. The agreement that as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures begs the question that if the old CBMs have not worked there is no guarantee that new ones will unless the fundamental issues relating to the border are addressed. China is even baulking at clarifying the LAC as agreed to in 1996.
The joint statement is structured around dis-engagement and de-escalation, with no call to restore the status quo ante, which will depend on very complex negotiations subsequently, with uncertain results.
(The writer is former Foreign Secretary of India; views expressed are personal)