The India-China military standoff has entered its sixth month with no signs of tensions easing. With China refusing to yield, troops of both countries look set to stand deployed even during the winter months in Ladakh. China showing scant sensitivity to Indian concerns, former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal suggests that India needs to retaliate in an appropriate manner.
He also says that the course of US policy on China after 3 November presidential polls will have a bearing on how India handles China. Edited excerpts.
The joint statement after the seventh round of military talks between India and China had a positive tone to it but no breakthrough. What is your assessment of the progress since the 10 September meeting between the two foreign ministers in Moscow?
The fact that joint statements are being issued can be viewed positively. But then, if meetings were to end without any joint statement it would imply that no minimum common ground could be found and an impasse had occurred. Neither side wants to give an impression that the talks have broken down. They want to keep the channels of communication open, failing which the chances of stumbling into an armed conflict increase. On the five points agreed by the Foreign Ministers no visible progress is evident. No disengagement has taken place. At the sixth round of military talks it was agreed not to position more troops on the border, but with 40 to 50,000 troops already massed, the need for more can be dispensed with.
What is the reason for the stalemate? There is also no mention of a return to status quo ante if you look at the most recent statements from the military and diplomatic talks. Why is that?
China has committed aggression. It seeks to change the ground position in its favour by occupying contested areas patrolled by Indian forces until now. It seeks to impose its own version of the LAC (Line of Actual Control) by force. It now talks of the 1959 that even (former prime minister Jawaharlal) Nehru had rejected. India cannot accept this loss of claim on its own territory, and hence the stalemate. The immediate need is to disengage if a conflict is to avoided, as in Pangong Tso area, the forces are in very close proximity and, given what happened at Galwan and the changed rules of engagement on our side that now permit use of fire-arms for self-protection, things can go out of hand. Restoring the status quo ante can be realistically discussed only after disengagement takes place and is followed by de-escalation.
So you are saying chances of another violent clash cannot be ruled out?
This is a genuine concern. It appears that in north Pangong Tso the forces are in close proximity, and to the south they are within hearing distance. After what happened at Galwan our mistrust of China has grown exponentially. In south Pangong Tso the Chinese had tried to use primitive tactics of using nailed bats etc to dislodge us from one of our positions and shots seem to have been fired there and in north Pangong Tso too as well , according to reports. Any impulsive act under pressure by either side could result in a much bigger clash than in Galwan Valley because of use of fire-arms. The Chinese will be cautious to avoid this, so will we, but the risk is there, and hence the emphasis on disengagement, which is not a simple process, let it be said.
Both the militaries look set to spend the winter on the heights in Ladakh. Is that your assessment too?
We are running out of time. Once the passes close towards end-November redeployment of forces to summer positions will no longer be possible. Recognising this, the Indian side has made preparations for winter deployment. A huge operation of stocking fuel and provisions, arranging winter clothing and tents has been under way in very difficult conditions. We should now expect the forces to pass the winter at these extreme heights. This show of determination on our side sends a strong message to the Chinese who too will feel the pressure of winter deployment. The Chinese have dug themselves in an unviable position and forced us to respond.
At the last Quad meeting (6 October in Tokyo), India did not mention China by name. Neither did Japan nor Australia. The US was the only one who called out China’s actions. Was this an opportunity lost for India to come out strongly against China’s aggressive behaviour?
Formal statements apart, Quad is in reality intended to counter the rising Chinese threat. For diplomatic reasons there is reluctance to publicly project Quad as China-directed, although the Chinese view it as such. Japan and Australia have huge economic stakes in China and want to constrain its ambitions through pressure, not open confrontation. US, which sees China as a strategic adversary, and which has become an issue in presidential election, explains why it is vocal about Quad developing a security framework. Although India is cautious in its statements, its participation in Quad at ministerial level is a signal in itself. With border negotiations going on with China for a non-military solution, India would want to avoid complications. There will be enough opportunity for India in the future to call out China for its aggressive conduct.
Is India being too sensitive to China’s core interests still? Isn’t it time for a rethink? And linked to this, do you agree with US Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun that India and the US have been too cautious?
Yes, in the face of China repeatedly rejecting constitutional changes in J&K and not recognising Arunachal Pradesh, India’s response seems timid. If China constantly undermines our strategic interests internationally and regionally and uses military pressure on the border in repudiation of all existing border agreements, India has to retaliate. China defines its core interests unilaterally, but for others to recognise those interests requires reciprocity. China is an elephant in the room as a result of US policies, not India’s. India stood up to China at Doklam and is doing so now in Ladakh, whereas US did not push it back in the South China Sea. China’s territorial claims on India derive from its occupation of Tibet, which requires us to modify our existing policy over Tibet.
Coming back to the Quad meeting, there was no joint statement after talks. Without a joint statement, was the group able to portray unity or alignment in views?
US would have pressed for a joint statement with an explicit reference to the China threat, need for a security framework and China’s responsibility for Covid-19. Trump’s electoral needs would have needed a robust statement. Quad agenda covers other areas too, whether connectivity, humanitarian and disaster relief cooperation, health care and counter-terrorism, and this broader Quad agenda was highlighted in India’s statement. The emphasis in country statements may have been different but they were not conflicting with each other. India has supported regular Quad meetings, marking its commitment to the group. A united front is being built against China but at a pace that will depend on China’s future policies and actions.
How do you see the “Quad” evolving in the coming years? Do you see it acquiring a military dimension? Do you see other countries — New Zealand, Vietnam or Indonesia — joining the“Quad” group?
President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to make China a pre-eminent power will not change. China is concentrating on areas that enable achievement of that goal: a lead in the development of new technologies, control over critical raw materials and connectivity tied to the Chinese economy. He cannot step back without repercussions both at home and abroad. China needs to break out of the first island chain for which it is building its navy at a pace not seen historically. A stronger Quad will be an obvious response. Quad members emphasise ASEAN centrality so as not to divide Asia, but the need is to co-opt key ASEAN countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia. With China spreading its tentacles in the Pacific, New Zealand could join. Quad has a military dimension already, with the trilateral US-India-Japan Malabar exercise that Australia may join.
The US under President Donald Trump has been very vocal on China. Do you think one of the reasons why India is not calling out China is because we are unsure what US policy towards Beijing will be after the November elections?
What US policy on China will be after the coming presidential election will certainly have an impact on how India will handle China. However, we have issues with China that have no relationship with US-China relations. These existed when US-China ties were strong. The issues are China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia to which India is an obstacle, its occupation of Tibet, claims on Indian territory, building Pakistan strategically against us, the CPEC, undermining us in our neighbourhood, opposing our membership of the NSG, protecting Pakistan on terrorism etc. Of course, US pressure on China serves our interests. We are partners in countering China’s maritime threats in particular.
Do you see any change in world opinion vis a vis China after the pandemic spread and its aggressive behaviour towards its neighbours?
Yes, China is now seen as an aggressive, expansionist power by the US in particular, and Europe too is increasingly conscious of its systemic differences with China, the threat it poses to European unity, lack of reciprocity on trade and distaste for its authoritarian model. There is a backlash against its Belt and Road Initiative in parts of Africa. China’s debt trap policies have been exposed in Sri Lanka. Western countries and Australia are closing doors on 5G. China’s treatment of the Wuhan virus, disowning all responsibility, and its wolf warrior diplomacy have alienated the public in many countries. Its aggression in Ladakh has consolidated its negative image. This is helping us with some of our neighbours, in Maldives in particular. Our providing a submarine to Myanmar is a significant breakthrough, balancing China’s sale of two submarines to Bangladesh