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 Talk: Two sets of talks this week marked the next phase of the standoff between India and China in Ladakh. Earlier in the week Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had said that military-level talks will be held on June 6. Speaking to News18, he also said that the PLA’s presence was sizable and that the PLA had come further than usual. Since then, amid much anticipation, Lt. General Harinder Singh met his Chinese counterpart Major General Liu Lin at the Chushul-Moldo BPM point for what appeared to have been a lengthy dialogue. Sandeep Unnithan reports that the Chinese side was chosen as the location for talks because the PLA had asked for it.
The MEA’s official word after the meeting was that the talks were held in a “cordial and positive atmosphere. Both sides agreed to peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas in accordance with various bilateral agreements and keeping in view the agreement between the leaders that peace and tranquility in the India-China border regions is essential for the overall development of bilateral relations.” There’s no official reaction yet from Beijing.
By some accounts, this was a 7-hour meeting. Snehesh Alex Philip reports in ThePrint that “there were multiple rounds of meetings, including sessions on point of contention in the Pangong Lake where the Chinese have built a bunker and moat-like structure between Finger 3 and 4 to prevent Indian patrol teams from moving ahead. A second source added that India’s demands during the meeting included a return to the status quo as of April.” The reference to April is intriguing, given most earlier reporting had located the starting of tensions to the scuffles of May 5-6. But Commi Kapoor piece in Indian Express this week, which sheds light on what likely happened. “The unusual build-up (of PLA) along the LAC was observed from April 19, and finally around May 1, the People’s Liberation Army moved forward across the barren hilltops. It was only on May 17 that alarm bells started ringing in New Delhi.” The next day Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, NSA Ajit Doval and CDS Bipin Rawat met with Prime Minister Modi to talk about developments, according to the report.
This is likely to be a long-drawn process. Times of India reports that sources are expressing “satisfaction at the positive trajectory” of the dialogue. The sticking point according to the report is Chinese unhappiness with Indian infrastructure development, particularly “a feeder road joining ‘Patrolling Point-14’ in the Galwan Valley to the 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) as well as a bridge in the region.” Bloomberg reports that India’s demands are for new Chinese construction to be demolished and troops to be withdrawn. At the same time, it is reiterating its right to develop infrastructure along its side of the LAC.
Earlier on Friday, we had the first reported dialogue between India and China at the diplomatic level too. Naveen Srivastava, Joint Secretary (East Asia) and Wu Jianghao, Director General in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reviewed ties in a video conference call said the MEA. The statement added that discussing current developments, “they recalled the consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, that peaceful, stable and balanced relations between India and China will be a positive factor for stability in the current global situation.” This piece in The Hindu examines the readouts by both India and China after the talks.
What’s Beijing Thinking?: Of course, there’s much speculation about the Chinese leadership’s thought process amid all this. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cast the events along the LAC within the larger narrative of Chinese aggression. The official Chinese position as stated by the foreign ministry on Friday is that the situation is “stable and controllable. There are sound mechanisms for border-related matters between China and India. The two sides maintain close communication through diplomatic and military channels and are working to properly resolve relevant issues.” Global Times, however, was quick to warn India to “not be fooled by the US. Washington is keen on placing a wedge between countries and drawing countries to its own side.” Another piece warns of India playing “with fire” in terms of Donald Trump’s intention to expand the G7 to include other democracies, including India. Note that Trump and Modi did reportedly discuss the border issue. Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla has “updated” Russian Ambassador Nikolay Kudashev on the “recent developments.”
Anyway back to China. There’s, of course, a distinction between the official view and what Global Times reports. Fire and brimstone are often the currency that the tabloid deals in, and Indian media consumers shouldn’t really find this surprising. But leaving that aside, this Global Times report is worth noting, as comments by Chinese analysts perhaps offer some insight into the thought process there. First, Song Zhongping says “the selection of military officials as part of the delegation for the Saturday meeting indicated that the two sides are expected to work together to resolve the regional tension in a point-to-point manner. Top tactical army commanders stationed near the site are sufficient to raise relevant issues and implement the outcome of the discussions within the region. However, any major China-India border disputes, bigger than the current round of tensions, may require participants at the level of the defense and foreign ministries.” In other words, Beijing is happy to drag this out. Second, Hu Zhiyong says, “the Indian side might have miscalculated the situation, and tried to press China to make compromise by creating troubles amid the COVID-19 pandemic…India has clearly underestimated China’s capability to cope with the COVID epidemic in the country.” Another analyst that echoes something similar is Sun Shihai, principal research fellow at the China Centre for South Asian Studies at Sichuan University. Speaking to SCMP, he said “there are signs and risks emerging that some Indian officials believe they can take advantage of the tensions between China and the US, as Washington is trying to bring India into its Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain a rising China.”
Social media scuffles: The other interesting bit to note about the current situation is the social media disinformation campaigns that are being carried out. So through the week there were controversial video clips and images doing the rounds on Twitter and Weibo. First there was a video showing a Chinese soldier effectively in the custody of Indian troops. The next day images circulated on Weibo and other platforms “showing several Indian soldiers purportedly brought down by PLA soldiers in a fist and stick fight at the Pangong Lake border area,” reported SCMP. The report added that “on the Chinese social media site WeChat, a Chinese soldier posted photos showing a number of Indian soldiers lying on the ground with a group of PLA soldiers standing nearby with sticks in their hands. The photos were accompanied by a Chinese caption saying the Chinese side ‘had just one injury but dozens of Indian soldiers were wounded.’” There were other memes alson on Weibo, which I am not going to perpetuate. But safe to say that through the week, there was no censorship on Chinese social media. That changed, however, leading up to Saturday’s talks. Ananth Krishnan points out that the hashtag “China India border confrontation” at one point in time had 30 million views on Webio. But as we got closer to the talks, the hashtag was censored.