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SOURCE: The Tribune

Soon after disengagement from the Pangong Tso Lake in February during which India generously surrendered its vital ground on Chushul heights for the Chinese vacating the Fingers area, it was clear even to the blind that for the PLA, it was the end of disengagement from friction areas, despite commitment to follow up within 48 hours after the 10th round of talks to address other friction areas. Fifty days lapsed before the notional 11th round was held. The PLA had drawn curtains. Editor of Global Times Hu Xijin wrote gratuitously that India should be happy with Chinese withdrawal from Pangong Tso.

The PLA added it hoped India could ‘cherish the positive trend in de-escalation’ but did not acknowledge the remaining unresolved friction areas. The statement came from the Western Theatre Command, Chengdu, not the usual MoD in Beijing.

State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi continued to harp on ‘rights and wrongs of last year’s crisis’ (blaming India) adding that the boundary dispute which was left over by history was not the whole story of India-China relationship, suggesting that it needed to be decoupled from bilateral relations. Wang has echoed China’s standard line: both sides are not a threat to each other but an opportunity for development; both should help not undercut each other and intensify cooperation instead of harbouring suspicion. Wang is insisting: “Now that withdrawal in Pangong Tso is over, bilateral ties can resume.”

Besides squandering its trump card on the Kailash range, India’s self-inflicted injuries are couched in denial: “Not an inch of ground has been lost” (COAS General MM Naravane and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh); and “no PLA on Indian territory” (Prime Minister Narendra Modi). The Chinese could not have hoped for a more generous adversary. Their official version of casualties at Galwan was: four Chinese martyred due to action by a foreign army (not India). The altered version was necessary to avoid generating nationalistic feelings.

If India wavered over the PLA intrusions, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar steered its politico-diplomatic posture with a firm and steady hand. He has consistently called for complete disengagement from all friction points — term Restoration of Status Quo Ante (RSQA) May 5 2020, not used — and made clear that peace and tranquillity in border areas is the basis of normal relations. Jaishankar’s international reiteration on this was on May 5 at a Global Dialogue in London: “It is not realistic to have good relations in other domains when there was tension on the border. I can’t have friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border and then say, let us have a good relationship…it is not realistic.” The soured relations were overtaken by President Xi Jinping’s first message to Modi in 14 months of providing help during the catastrophic spike in Covid-19 pandemic in India which was followed by Wang’s telephone call on April 30.

One year on, the lessons from Ladakh could be termed as under:

  • The Chinese succeeded in intelligence and operational trickery through multiple intrusions from Depsang to Demchok, promulgating the 1959 claim line further west. China has created buffer zones on Indian territory 18 km deep at Depsang and blocked patrolling by occupying Bottleneck and Y-junction. Most significantly, it inveigled India into vacating the critical Chushul heights dominating the Chinese launch pads.
  • The primacy of Chinese threat over Pakistan’s has finally been accepted. This has enabled the rebalancing of forces and strategic reserves across the new LAC front and by year-end will likely minimise the Pakistan challenge.
  • The Chinese have effectively demonstrated their classic policy of two steps forward, one step back.
  • India’s delayed force deployment, non-use of kinetic force sans counter-intrusions failed to obtain the vacation of PLA intrusions like it did in Depsang (2013), Chumar (2014) and Doklam (2017).
  • India’s key response has been politico-diplomatic: you (China) cannot have normality in bilateral relations while amassing troops along the border.

The Chinese have raised the stakes: “There has been some wavering and back-pedalling in India’s China’s policy because of which practical cooperation between the two countries has been affected”, hinting that India’s active participation in Quad would harm its coveted strategic autonomy. India has to create counter-coercion strategies on land and in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The priority must be to build credible deterrence in the eastern Indian Ocean from the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands to Malacca Straits against the Chinese blue water navy already active in IOR. Another area of concern is the Chinese military build-up in Tibet: a new military base opposite Bhutan; an airport at Yadong opposite Nathu La and new military facilities in Chumbi valley near Sikkim. Xi’s grand plan of 2017 of building villages in another country’s territory — these have come up wholesale in Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and Nepal.

Amish Mulmi, in his book All Roads Lead North (2021), mentions Chinese encroachment in September 2020 in Limi valley in Humla, which was confirmed by a Nepali lawmaker but denied by the government.

Last month, in a minor breakthrough, Chinese and Indian policymakers engaged in a Track-II dialogue between Ananta Aspen Centre and the Chinese Reform Forum, Beijing, at New Delhi. Any false hope of restoration of status quo ante May 5 was dispelled by the Chinese interlocutors who provided no explanation for troop mobilisation and indicated no appetite for settling the boundary question which they recommended be best left to the next generation. Some glimmer of hope and dialogue was seen from the future summits of BRICS (India takes over the chair from Moscow in February), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Russia-India-China conclave. India can keep China out of 5-G trials and 55 apps but de-coupling on trade $86.6 billion) is unthinkable as are replacing the existing medical supply chains. China is the only country that has been able to secure itself from the pandemic and will leave India more economic ground to catch up.

The ultimate insult China inflicted on India was ignited last month on Chinese social media by the Political and Legal Affairs Committee linked with the Communist Party of China. The debate mocking India’s mishandling of the pandemic compared it with its own deft management, showing in two parallel images: a rocket launch in China and a cremation ground in India with the caption ‘China lighting a fire, India lighting a fire’.

According to General Naravane, the RSQ ante May 5, 2020, will take a long, long time. Jaishankar believes it could go the Sumdorong Chu way which took 10 years and laments that the “1988 consensus has broken down”.