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
Let’s begin with a new incident at the border. Indian media reported on Friday that a Chinese soldier was apprehended by the Indian Army at the southern bank of Pangong Tso in eastern Ladakh after he transgressed across the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. The PLA Daily soon confirmed the report. It said that “Due to darkness and complicated geography, a Chinese soldier went missing on the China-India border early Friday morning. China informed India as soon as the incident occurred, and sought help from the Indian side. After two hours of searching, the soldier was found, said the frontier force. The Indian side is waiting for the order to return the soldier…India should return the soldier immediately, to help de-escalating of the border tension between the two countries, and uphold regional stability.” I don’t think too many would buy that argument. Nevertheless, the Indian side has also confirmed the report. A statement from the Indian Army said that “The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) soldier is being dealt with as per laid down procedures and circumstances under which he had crossed the LAC (Line of Actual Control) are being investigated.” For the time being, there are no details of further talks at any level between the two sides. India’s MEA’s spokesperson this week reiterated old talking points. No clear dates or forward movement.
Meanwhile, reports in Indian media say that the PLA has deployed 30 to 35 tanks in front of Indian posts opposite Rezang La, Rechin La and Mukhosri locations. At the same time, the Indian Defense Ministry’s annual report says that Indian forces are prepared for any “eventuality.” It added that troops “continue to be deployed on these heights. Advance Winter Stocking (AWS) and winter preparations for the enhanced strength has been completed and troops are well entrenched to counter any misadventure by Chinese forces.” Also, Amrita Nayak Dutta reports for ThePrint that the Indian Army the Army is looking to keep two strike corps for the mountains facing China as part of a larger restructuring plan. The report adds that “defence sources said two existing strike corps — I Corps and 17 Corps — will be slightly restructured to focus on the northern and eastern theatres respectively, to tackle any threat from China. The restructuring is likely to be implemented by this month.”
Ajai Shukla’s piece on this is a really good read. He writes: “Last month, without fanfare, Army Headquarters (AHQ) issued written orders for a change in operational role for one of its mechanised strike corps. While the Ambala-based 2 Corps and Bhopal-based 21 Corps would retain their role as tank-heavy forces, equipped and trained to advance deep into Pakistan in wartime, the third strike corps – the Mathura-based 1 Corps – was to become a mountain strike corps that would strike into Chinese territory from Ladakh. The two infantry divisions in 1 Corps will soon begin changing their training patterns and operational plans to conform to their new role. Meanwhile 1 Corps’ third division – the Hisar-based 33 Armoured Division, which is not suited for mountain warfare – will become a reserve force, with which AHQ could exploit an advantage or restore an adverse situation.”
Towards the end, he discusses the role of the 17 Corps. This “was raised almost a decade ago as the first mountain strike corps for the north-eastern border with China but, given troop and funding shortfalls, it was charged with a role in both the eastern and western sectors. Now, with 1 Corps responsible for a strike role in Ladakh, 17 Corps will be free to focus on striking key Chinese vulnerabilities in the eastern sector, such as the Chumbi Valley opposite Sikkim.”
Moving on, there appears to be some sort of a breakthrough on the issue of the Indian sailors stranded in ships off Chinese ports. There are two ships -MV Jag Anand and MV Anastasia – carrying Australian coal that are involved in this. 23 Indian sailors on the MV Jag Anand and 16 others on MV Anastasia. Earlier in the week, Ananth Krishnan reported for The Hindu that India’s Ambassador to China Vikram Misri with China’s Vice Foreign Minister. New Delhi asked for approval for crew change. Subsequently, TOI reported Union Minister of State for Ports, Shipping and Waterways Mansukh Mandaviya as confirming that this has been agreed to, and crew change will take place on January 14 for the 23 Indian sailors.
Finally, a couple of interesting stories to note. First, Indian students enrolled at Chinese universities will have to continue with online learning for the foreseeable future, as flights remain blocked. Second, China expressed “deep concern” at India’s FDI rule changes at the WTO this week during an Indian trade policy review at the organisation. It wasn’t the only one that had issues with Indian trade policy changes. Last, Emmanuel Bonne, the diplomatic advisor to French President Emmanuel Macron, who was in India this week, spoke about China’s actions at the UN and in the maritime domain. “When China breaks the rules, we have to be very robust and very clear and this is the sense of our naval presence in the Indian Ocean,” he said. Here’s more: “On direct threats to India, we have always been very clear. Whether it be on Kashmir, we have been very supportive of India in the Security Council, we have not let the Chinese play any kind of procedural games. When it comes to the Himalayas, just check our statements, we are perfectly clear. What we say publicly, we say to the Chinese also privately, there is no ambiguity.”