Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. Fresh LAC Tensions
This week saw a shift in the situation at the India-China border, with a series of events playing out between August 29 and 31. Let’s first unpack what happened on the ground before looking at the diplomacy that followed. First, India’s MoD issued a statement on Monday saying that on the night of 29th-30th of August, the PLA had “carried out provocative military movements to change the status quo” along the “Southern Bank of Pangong Tso Lake.” The Indian army, it added, “pre-empted” these steps, and “undertook measures to strengthen our positions and thwart Chinese intentions to unilaterally change facts on ground.” Interestingly, in the evening the PLA’s Western Theatre Command said that “on August 31, the Indian army broke the consensus reached at the previous multi-level talks between the two sides and illegally crossed the line again near the south bank of Pangong Lake and the Reqin pass, making a blatant provocation and causing tension at the border…China is strongly opposed to the Indian move, which grossly violates China’s territorial sovereignty, seriously undermines peace and stability in the China-India border areas, reneges on its commitments and betrays its loyalty.”
Subsequently, foreign ministry spokespersons of both countries have issued statements, essentially blaming the other side. China called on the Indian side to “immediately stop all provocations, withdraw its troops who illegally crossed the LAC, and refrain from any moves that may escalate tensions or complicate matters.” On the other hand, the Indian MEA said that Indian troops took “timely defensive action”, adding that Beijing must “discipline and control” its frontline troops. That last bit’s right out of the Chinese playbook. Touche. The MEA also made it a point to say that the PLA’s actions came while talks between commanders were underway. Since then, there have been a few more rounds of military talks. In fact, as I write, Mint is reporting that brigade commander-level talks – the seventh in a row of discussions since Monday – are currently underway.
Manu Pubby reports for ET that after the week’s events, “Indian forces have taken positions at strategic heights of Chushul, including Rezang La, Rechin La and near Black Top, to take control of the southern bank of the Pangong Tso. Sources said similar moves have been made all along the LAC in eastern Ladakh. ‘Troops have taken up vantage points in all key areas from Daulat Beg Oldie (in the north) to Chumar (in the south). These deployments are within our side of the border and have been undertaken to keep a check on any movements from the other side’.” Sandeep Unnithan reports for India Today that “the Indian Army, accompanied by special forces, occupied five key features along a ridgeline south of the Pangong lake, Helmet, Kala Top, Camel’s Back, Gurung Hill and Requin La. These five strategic features are in an area India considers to be within its perception of the LAC.” Meanwhile, the Indian Army’s chief visited Ladakh this week, describing the situation as “tensed,” but adding that the situation will be resolved through talks. Also, the Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria reviewed the Indian Air Force’s operational preparedness along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
Another interesting aspect of the developments through this week was the focus on the Special Frontier Force. The public discourse around the SFF started with reports of the death of a Tibetan trooper Tenzin Nyima and the emergence of images showing his body wrapped in the Indian and Tibetan flags. Amrita Nayak Dutta reports that “Nyima was a member of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), an Indian security unit that is primarily drawn from the thousands of Tibetan refugees who now call India home. It was formed in the immediate aftermath of the 1962 war with China, which resulted in a defeat for India. The SFF has played an important role in multiple military operations — from the 1971 India-Pakistan war to the 1999 Kargil battle — but has largely functioned under the shadows. Such is the secrecy around the SFF that a member of Tibet’s Parliament-in-exile reportedly said after Nyima’s death that it was about time India acknowledges the role they play.” A Tibetan activist was later detained in Delhi for protesting outside the Chinese embassy.
Here’s how China’s MoFA’s Hua Chunying responded when asked about the SFF. “I’m not aware of what you said about these “Tibetans in exile” in the Indian armed forces. You may ask the Indian side for this. But I noted some words you mentioned, including “the 1960s”, “CIA” and “Tibetans in exile”. These words prompt us to ponder over the ins and outs of the Tibet-related issues and the role the US has played in this process. China’s position is very clear. We firmly oppose any country providing convenience in any form for the “Tibet independence” forces’ separatist activities. I am also wondering what is the connection between so-called “Tibetans in exile” and the Indian border troops. I hope you can do some in-depth investigation. It will be great if you can share with us any further information and progress in this regard.”
On Wednesday then, the Indian government announced another round of app bans, targeting Chinese products. The ban hit 118 apps, including PUBG, that the government said were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.” The Chinese embassy in India criticised the ban, saying that it “not only harm(s) the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese investors and service providers, but also harm(s) the interests of Indian consumers and the investment environment.” The Chinese Ministry of Commerce, on the other hand, lashed out saying that India was “abusing the concept of national security” and suggesting that it was coordinating with the United States in its actions against Chinese companies.
This was followed by the much-anticipated meeting between Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe in Russia. The meeting lasted some two hours. Wei Fenghe said later that “the cause and truth of the current tension on the border are very clear, with the responsibility lying entirely with India…China cannot lose one inch of its territory…The Chinese military is fully determined, capable, and confident of safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The Indian statement following the meeting said that the two leaders had “frank and in-depth discussions about the developments in the India-China border areas as well as on India-China relations.” Singh, on the other hand “emphasised that the actions of the Chinese troops, including amassing of large number of troops, their aggressive behaviour and attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo were in violation of the bilateral agreements and not in keeping with the understandings reached between the Special Representatives of two sides.” They both apparently agreed to further talks and diplomatic means to resolve the situation. Singh spoke about China working with India to disengage and de-escalate. He added that “that neither side should take any further action that could either complicate the situation or escalate matters in the border areas.”
Finally, here’s an interesting Global Times opinion piece after the defence ministers met. It says: “If both sides want to create a new LAC on their own, and the will of the two major powers were to collide, the result would be disastrous. If both countries use their national power to support this collision indefinitely, it will lead to war, and the scale of the war may not be controlled near the LAC, resulting in a tragic loss of both countries’ power, including the lives of their soldiers. And given the size of both countries’ national power and the current international climate, it is almost impossible to change the status quo on their borders to a large degree. In the end, the two countries will have to return to the general state of the existing LAC. So what are the two sides fighting for? Territory is important, but only if China or India “beats” the other (these are two nuclear states), otherwise the status quo will be maintained. It is surely better for both countries and their people to maintain the status quo by peaceful means than to return to it after a brutal fight.”
It adds: “The problem now is that India has drawn an aggressive line on the border issue, misinterpreting China’s desire to maintain peace and stability on the border as a weakness that can be exploited by threatening to wage a border war “at any cost.” Some in New Delhi also believe that the US’ suppression of China and support for India has increased India’s strategic strength and provided it with additional capital for risky adventure along the China-India border. This miscalculation has led it to a series arrogant and reckless moves on the China-India border issue…We hope that the defense ministers’ meeting will be a turning point for the two countries to come back to the consensus of the leaders’ meeting. Each side will make its due effort to reduce tensions on the border. Indian public opinion is too deeply and widely involved in border issues. The Indian troop has been obviously kidnapped by domestic nationalism. Therefore, in addition to the joint control of the border dispute between China and India, India should also manage public opinion and nationalism, and make the best choice for its country and its people.”