Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. India-China Ties
It’s increasingly clear that the India-China standoff in Eastern Ladakh is now going to continue for the long haul, unless of course, things get worse before winter sets in. Reuters reports that the Indian army’s stocking up for a winter deployment. But let’s first look at official statements. First, India’s Defense Minister spoke in Parliament this week. The statement said that China had violated past agreements, and outlined the different points where tensions have arisen, although curiously didn’t mention the Depsang plains. But here’s what’s noteworthy. He talked about the five-point plan agreed upon by the two foreign ministers, saying “The two have reached an agreement that, if implemented sincerely and faithfully by the Chinese side, could lead to complete disengagement and restoration of peace and tranquility in the border areas.” And then there was a lot of reference to troops being “capable of serving at forbidding altitudes with scarce oxygen and in extremely cold temperatures” and an acknowledgement that “we are facing a challenge in Ladakh.”
Strangely, a day after Rajnath Singh’s remarks, Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan in a written reply to an MP’s question informed the Lok Sabha that India’s ties with China have not worsened in the aftermath of the border tensions. And even stranger was the Home Ministry telling the Rajya Sabha that no infiltration had taken place along the India-China border in the past six months. Anyway, responding to Singh’s remarks the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that “the Indian side is the first to violate bilateral agreements and important consensus, make provocations with illegally border-crossing, unilaterally change the status quo of the border area, and fire shots to threaten the safety of the Chinese border troops. What is pressing now is that the Indian side should immediately correct its mistake, disengage on the ground as soon as possible and take concrete actions to ease the tension and lower the temperature along the border.” Wang Wenbin added that India should “put the differences in the proper place in bilateral relations, prevent them from escalating into disputes and avoid taking actions that may escalate the situation.”
It’s still unclear when the two sides will be engaging in the proposed Corps commander level talks. Indian officials say that this is because Beijing has not reverted on the date. This was something that the high-level China Study Group discussed in a meeting on Friday. The Indian Express reports quoting an unidentified official that “the immediate concern at the moment is the friction points, particularly those that have a situation of face-off or eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. The thrust of the talks is going to be on disengagement on these points. Once developments are achieved on these, larger things will be talked about.” Rajat Pandit’s TOI report talks about the weather and lack of oxygen already taking a toll on soldiers, with some PLA troops having been evacuated on stretchers already. And this is going to get worse. Also this week, fresh details were reported about an earlier incident of firing in Eastern Ladakh. Indian Express reports that this took place on the north bank of Pangong Tso, and was far more intense – with 100 to 200 shots being fired – than the firing of warning shots in Chushul. Officially, both Indian and Chinese sides have acknowledged only one firing incident which took place on September 7 at Mukhpari in the Chushul sector. Deccan Chronicle reports a third and bigger firing incident on September 8-9 when Indian troops occupied higher positions overlooking Chinese posts on the ridgelines of Finger 4. Chinese troops were also trying to come near Indian positions and both sides fired more than 100 rounds.
Things have been reasonably calm it seems since then. Manu Pubby reports for ET that while talks are awaited, no aggressive manoeuvre has taken place over the past week though soldiers remain dug in. His report also suggests that an MEA representative might be part of the talks. More evidence of both sides prepping for the long haul is this Reuters report this week that as per Indian officials Chinese troops have been laying a network of optical fibre cables in Ladakh, suggesting that they are digging in for the long haul. Such cables, which would provide forward troops with secure lines of communication to bases in the rear, have recently been spotted to the south of Pangong Tso, a senior government official said.
Finally, let’s focus on Depsang. Sushant Singh notes in this piece that it was missing from Rajnath Singh’s speech. He writes that the “Chinese have stopped Indian patrols from accessing five patrolling points in the area since May…Indian soldiers have effectively been blocked from going up to the traditional ‘limit of patrol’ line near the Line of Actual Control because of the presence of Chinese troops at a key point in Depsang 18 kilometres inside the LAC known as Bottleneck/Y-Junction. While Indian military patrols being denied access to such territory is significant, more worrisome is the fact that the army has always identified this area – including Trig Heights and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) – where it finds itself most vulnerable in Ladakh. For decades, the army’s annual war-games in Udhampur have flagged it as the most important area of concern, devising plans to tackle the major Chinese challenge that would put India at a huge strategic disadvantage.” Rajat Pandit in TOI cites an unidentified senior official as saying that Depsang was an “old lingering issue” that should not be “equated or conflated” with the “new flashpoints” in Pangong Tso-Chushul, Gogra-Hotsprings and Galwan Valley area this year. So I guess that means the PLA had been blocking Indian patrols in Depsang well before 2020?
Anyway, briefly let’s examine Chinese discourse on all the developments. SCMP’s Minnie Chan reports that the PLA at the border raised its combat readiness to the second-highest possible last week. The last time readiness was this high was in 1987. What this means is more weapons and troops were deployed to the front line, and training exercises were ramped up for commanders, officers and soldiers. The report adds that the PLA has four grades of combat readiness. The first level is used only when military leaders are convinced an armed conflict is inevitable. Global Times’ Hu Xijin pushed back against Rajnath Singh’s statement about Chinese casualties. Beijing appears to be acknowledging Moscow’s mediation role in a way. Antara Ghosal Singh’s new piece for India Today captures the Chinese discourse in greater detail. She writes that after the recent escalation, while Chinese state media was seemingly “beating the war drums, many within China are of the opinion that China’s India policy at this juncture is lacking strength and its military deterrence against India is increasingly proving ineffective. The questions doing rounds among Chinese strategic circles are that despite India’s ‘all-out attack’ vis-a-vis China (political-economic-military) post the Galwan Valley incident, why has the Chinese government still not taken ‘equal’ and ‘reciprocal’ countermeasures on ground against India? Why is China still talking about ‘resolute opposition’ but not announcing immediate counter-attacks? Why are the diplomats of both countries still exchanging goodwill? Looking at the trend, some Chinese strategists conjectured that the Chinese government is either avoiding conflict, or it is secretly and intensively planning a counterattack against India.”
Moving away from the boundary issue, some other key stories to note. First, Chinese technology conglomerate Tencent is said to be planning to invest $62.8 million in Flipkart, according to a report by business intelligence platform Paper.vc. India’s Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Sanjay Dhotre told Parliament in a written reply this week that there was no plan to exclude Chinese companies Huawei Technologies and ZTE from 5G network infrastructure contracts. The Indian government is reportedly putting together a Rs. 25,000 crore plan to reduce the chemicals sector’s dependence on China. A report claims that Delhi Police arrested freelance journalist Rajeev Sharma for passing sensitive and classified information to Chinese intelligence. Sharma has been arrested along with a Chinese woman Qin Shi and her Nepalese associate Sher Singh. The Press Club of India has expressed outrage, criticising Sharma’s arrest. Also this week, the Indian Express reported that Shenzhen-based Zhenhua Data Information Technology with links to the Chinese government and CCP was monitoring over 10,000 Indian individuals and organisations in its global database of “foreign targets.” The Indian government has since set up an “Expert Committee” under the National Cyber Security Coordinator to study revelations. Zhenhua says that it is a private firm with and its partners did not have any background in the Chinese military or the Chinese government, and that its operation was not illegal or unreasonable.