India and China are likely to renew official talks soon to resolve the issue of intrusion by China into Indian territory. The two countries had on July 6 agreed to de-escalate and disengage after a brief skirmish in June but are yet to make much headway even after meetings between military commanders of the two sides.
The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination, led by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, on July 6 signed the agreement and calmed tensions. India has had limited success in taking back its territory since then. The talks may be held as early as Friday, though there was no official confirmation from either side.
As the aggressor, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has the advantage of occupying since April-May largely undemarcated Indian territory in several areas of Ladakh in India’s northernmost tip. Still, the two sides have so far kept the situation from getting out of control.
Reports suggest as many as 40,000 PLA troops are still stationed at Ladakh. India too has increased its military and air force presence to defend the area. India is beefing up its supplies of weapons and materiel to hold its positions through the bitter Himalayan winter.
Strategic affairs experts say China is unlikely to exit without achieving its objectives, which it has not spelled out. Retired military generals and diplomats with an understanding of China say disengagement will not happen in a hurry.
‘They’ve come in with a purpose and are delivering a message. It could be tactical advancement or the so-called salami-slicing, or a strategic message [of] don’t act against our interest,” said a New Delhi-based analyst, adding that China is behaving like any other hegemon that does not want its weaker neighbors to ally with a bigger power against it, in this case the US.
Some say China is taking advantage of India’s dire situation. The pandemic, lockdowns and subsequent economic slowdown have significantly weakened it.
Others point to China’s desire to strengthen its position along the highways to Pakistan in order to gain vantage positions on higher ranges to monitor and potentially destroy India’s highways running up to northern Ladakh and Siachen Glacier. The area is strategically critical for India. That possibly explains China’s disinclination to vacate, say observers.
“The Chinese would be happy with the status quo as they are already sitting in what we consider to be Indian territory. They have only carried out minimal disengagement,” the Hindustan Times quoted retired Lt Gen DS Hooda as saying. “The government now needs to start thinking what to do next to break the deadlock. The ball is in India’s court.”
India wants the two countries’ respective troops to return to to their April 2020 positions. Former army generals even advocate a limited skirmish to push out the Chinese, or occupy its rival’s territory elsewhere to give New Delhi a bargaining chip and boost public morale.
It would also be a preferred option for many in the Indian Army, which dismembered Pakistan to help create Bangladesh in 1971, and threw Pakistan out of Kargil in 1999 despite the disadvantage of having to fight an enemy occupying higher positions.
The killing of 20 Indian soldiers by China without a commensurate Indian retaliation has also dented Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s carefully crafted strongman image. Some question his subdued reaction, saying it does not befit India’s size, strength and potential.
“Imagine if India – instead of restraining its forces and hoping against hope that the PLA would retreat – had dealt with China’s incursions in early May,’’ Brahma Chellany, an outspoken geo-strategist, tweeted. “Imposing costs on the aggressor would have averted newer intrusion.’’
Some analysts say India should actively align with the US and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes Japan and Australia, and change its soft stance on Taiwan. India, as a big importer of Chinese goods, should inflict on it some economic costs, suggest others. Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar also called for a change in the country’s strategic approach.
“The era of great caution, the era of greater dependence on multilateralism…that era is to a certain extent behind us,’’ said Jaishankar on Tuesday. “If we are to grow by leveraging the international situation, then we have to exploit the opportunities out there. You cannot do that by saying, ‘I’m going to stay away from it all and when I find it useful, I’ll step out.’ Either you are in the game or you are not in the game.”
To be sure, India is facing an economic slowdown, dealing with the third-highest number of Covid-19 cases globally, and is being put on the back foot by an aggressor. It will have to push its way out.