India-China Defence Minister's meeting: New Delhi sends firm message to Beijing on border row
The message was conveyed by Rajnath Singh during a meeting with Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu on the sidelines of SCO Defence Ministers' meet in New Delhi
Chinese Defence Minister General Li Shangfu visited India for the SCO Defence Ministers’ meet, held in New Delhi on April 28. He held discussions with his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh.
The statement from India’s Ministry of Defence read: “The Raksha Mantri categorically conveyed that development of relations between India and China is premised on prevalence of peace and tranquility at the borders. He added that all issues at the LAC need to be resolved in accordance with existing bilateral agreements and commitments.”
It was also reported that the two Defence Ministers did not shake hands, which is customary, as also India rejected the Chinese proposal to resume military to military engagements. The Chinese Defence Minister hinted that the current deployment be accepted as the new LAC. The Chinese statement, as per the Global Times, quoted its defence minister mentioning, “the border issue should be placed in a proper place in bilateral ties,” and “urged to bring the border situation under normalized management,” which India rejected.
Earlier, China was missing from the Y20 pre-summit meeting held under the aegis of the G20 in Ladakh. Over 100 delegates from 30 countries attended the meet. China and Pakistan had protested conducting of G20 meetings in Ladakh and Srinagar, which India ignored. The presence of a large number of delegates only reinforced India’s claim that the territory is a part of India and not disputed as claimed by Pakistan and China.
In March end, India held the ‘Research, innovation initiative, gathering’ of the G20 in Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, a region China claims as part of Southern Tibet. It was also well attended, though boycotted by China. Frustrated, a week later, China released a third list of names for 11 places in Arunachal, which India countered. It was a desperate China seeking to keep the Arunachal issue alive.
Last year in December, Indian troops blocked attempts by the Chinese PLA to intrude into Indian territory. On December 09, 2022, Chinese troops attempted to intrude into the Yangtse area of the Tawang Sector as they had done in Ladakh. Indian troops, having advance information, were prepared and in the ensuing hand to hand combat not only pushed the Chinese back but also captured a few, whom they later released.
The Chinese had come prepared with drones and video cameras to record their troops occupying Indian territory, however, they ended up with mud on their faces. After the embarrassment, China released a statement accusing Indian troops of crossing the LAC. It is possible that videos of the Chinese being battered and fleeing are with India, suppressed for the moment.
A video of an earlier encounter where the Chinese were similarly pushed back appeared on social media. Since the encounter, China has stopped releasing doctored videos of the Galwan clash, possibly fearing that India would publish actual videos on the Yangtse clash, which could end up as an embarrassment.
In Ladakh, where the troops clashed in May 2020 at Galwan, heavy deployment continues. The earmarking of buffer zones has prevented both sides from patrolling their respective claim lines.
Infrastructure development continues ensuring that Indian forces can deploy rapidly to stem any salami slicing attempt by China. The Indian deployment matches the Chinese ensuring China cannot attempt any further transgressions.
To send a firm message to China as also rejecting its claims over Arunachal, the government has adopted multiple initiatives. Border villages are being developed as tourist hubs with homestays, treks, camping sites and others in near vicinity.
Commercial landing grounds for helicopters in forward locations have been created to enhance tourism and integrate local society. There are plans to promote organized adventure treks to locations of second world war plane crashes as also where major battles of the 1962 war were fought.
The Vibrant Village Programme, launched recently, is being monitored by the PMO directly. The intention is to prevent migration of population from border regions, cement Indian claim and integrate society, apart from providing additional sources of revenue.
To enhance facilities for remote villages the government has announced construction of 50 mini hydropower projects for the region. All this and much more was announced when Home Minister Amit Shah visited Kibhitoo near Walong in the Lohitpur sector in early April, to which the Chinese objected.
The government has also launched the 2000 Km long Arunachal Frontier Highway, a project which will run alongside the LAC and cost the exchequer Rs 40,000 crores. It was initially proposed in 2014. In all, Arunachal will gain three new highways, Frontier Highway, Trans-Arunachal Highway and the East-West Industrial Corridor Highway. China's objections to these projects have been ignored.
Simultaneously, the government has begun providing 5G connectivity for all border villages by constructing new towers. These moves are changing the landscape, pushing development and cementing Indian claims, which ultimately enhance defence preparedness.
Further, rubbing salt into the Chinese wounds, the government has officially invited the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal. Every visit of the Dalai Lama to the region has led to Chinese objections. His visit is bound to influence Tibetans fighting for freedom across the border.
To send a firmer message to China, Prime Minister Modi on April 20 inaugurated the two-day Global Buddhist Summit in New Delhi, attended by over 170 foreign delegates representing 30 countries.
There were no representations from China though invitations had been sent to the East Asian country-based Buddhist organizations. This summit followed the SCO conference on ‘Shared Buddhist Heritage.’
India is steadily pushing back against China. It is sending a firm message that it is capable of ensuring defence of its territory and any Chinese attempts at salami slicing will be countered. Development of infrastructure and opening border regions in Arunachal for tourism cements India’s claim. Refusal to enhance diplomatic ties unless sanctity of the border is restored only adds credence to Indian intent.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping expected to visit India twice in the coming months, for the SCO and G20 heads of state meeting, the ball is in Beijing’s court. All eyes will now be on the expected bilateral between EAM S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Qin Gang when the two meet on the sidelines of the SCO Foreign Ministers meet in May in Goa.
***The writer is a security and strategic affairs commentator; views expressed are his own