Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. The Slow Disengagement
Ground Situation: Another week and another round of talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders, but disengagement is still some way away. What’s more, Beijing doesn’t seem to be saying much at all. This was the fourth round of talks between Lt General Harinder Singh and Major General Liu Lin. Dinaker Peri and Ananth Krishnan report for The Hindu that the talks on Tuesday in Chushul went on for 15 hours as both sides worked to finalise details of the next phase of disengagement. The report adds that this round of talks’ focus was to work out details of the second phase of disengagement from the stand-off areas, especially Pangong Tso, and also pullback by the massive Chinese troops, tanks, artillery and air defences along the LAC, which violates the boundary agreements aimed at maintaining peace and tranquillity on the LAC.
So what did the two sides say after the talks? China’s MoFA on Wednesday said: “the two sides achieved progress in further disengagement between border troops as well as easing the situation at the western sector of the China-India boundary.” SCMP reports that a former Chinese diplomat to India, who asked not to be named, said it would be difficult for both sides to agree on troop withdrawals, especially after they had sent in reinforcements. The diplomat is quoted as saying: “the Indian side has insisted they want to restore the ‘April status quo’. It would be difficult for China to accept that because from Beijing’s point of view, it was the Indian side that unilaterally upset the status quo in the first place, causing this whole dispute.”
The Indian army released a statement on Thursday, saying the commanders “reviewed the progress on implementation of the first phase of disengagement and discussed further steps to ensure complete disengagement.” The army added: “The two sides remain committed to the objective of complete disengagement. This process is intricate and requires constant verification. They are taking it forward through regular meetings at diplomatic and military level.” India’s MEA also termed the process “complex,” adding that “at specific points to re-deploy towards their regular posts on their respective sides of the LAC” and that “mutual re-deployment should not be misrepresented.”
Snehesh Alex Philip and Nayanima Basu report for ThePrint that the two sides will give each other a fortnight for further disengagement before carrying forward the ongoing formal military talks. The report says that the next commander-level meeting will happen only after the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs’ meeting scheduled next week. The story also cites an unidentified source as saying: “The Chinese have moved forward from their peace time locations by about 20-25 km. They have moved back by about 2 km and need to move back further. We expect them to go back to peacetime locations. However, it is not going to be quick. We will observe for the next 12 days or so before further military talks.”
In ET, Rahul Tripathi and Manu Pubby report that “initial verification by Indian agencies of the ongoing disengagement process in Ladakh has shown that Chinese troops continue to occupy tactically important locations at key friction points in Hot Springs, Pangong Tso and Depsang Plains.” The report adds: “While the number of Chinese troops has thinned down at many places, the simultaneous verification exercise indicates a mismatch between Chinese claims and the ground position at some places, said sources. At Patrol Point-15 (PP-15) near Hot Springs, for instance, verification has shown the presence of Chinese tents and structures, at least 2 km inside the Line of Actual Control (LAC).” There are two other bits in the report worth noting. First, the intrusion at Depsang, which is near a place called the ‘Bottleneck’, which is on the Indian side of the LAC and where Indian patrolling is hindered. And second, the fact that Indian forces are unable to “mount vigil beyond Finger 2-3 (along Pangong Tso) due to the strong presence of Chinese troops in Finger 4-5.”
Indian Express’ Sushant Singh writes that so far India has not raised the Depsang issue in the commander-level talks. This he argues “has raised concerns within a section of the security establishment that the continued Indian silence on Depsang could result in a new status quo being created in the strategically important area, where Chinese would have effectively shifted their actual control of the territory 18 km to the west. It would deny India access to a significant part of territory close to the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airfield and bring the Chinese much closer to the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-DBO (DSDBO) road.” The report quotes two unidentified officials, one from the army and one from the intelligence establishment. The latter says that “India has chosen to stay silent on Depsang as the area has been contested between the two sides for years, and that Indian patrols have not accessed these areas since 2017.” The former says this is untrue; “India has been patrolling up to its patrolling limits in Depsang regularly.”
All of this was reportedly part of the discussions of the government’s China Study Group, which met on Wednesday. CSG is a secretary-level grouping which includes the foreign secretary, home secretary, defence secretary, and the vice-chiefs of the three services, along with the chiefs of the Intelligence Bureau and R&AW. Army chief General M.M. Naravane and Lt. General Singh appraised the group about the ongoing process. The meeting was attended by external affairs minister S Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Shishir Gupta’s report in HT on the CSG meeting offers a rather different view of disengagement. He writes that the “PLA has withdrawn beyond its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Patrolling Point 17 (Hot Springs) with all its tents, vehicles and material. Even at Gogra, PLA has a very thin presence of around 30 PLA troopers in forward locations, and timelines have been set for a total withdrawal by this weekend.”
Finally, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh visited Ladakh, addressing troops along Pangong Tso. His speech was delivered at the Lukung post near Pangong Tso, around 43 km by road from the Finger 4 area. There was a show of weaponry and exercises by the forces during the visit. However, here’s what Singh had to say: “Whatever talks have happened so far, the matter should get resolved… but to what extent it would be resolved, I cannot guarantee. However, I want to assure you that not an inch of our land can be taken by any power in the world.”
PLA-linked Cos & Naval Drills: While all this continues, Siddhant Sibbal reports that the Indian government is looking to target Chinese companies that are believed to have links with the PLA. The report says that “7 Chinese companies under the scanner are Xindia Steels, Xinxing Cathay international, China electronic technology group, Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, SAIC motor corporation.” This IANS report sheds more light on what these companies are doing in India. Meanwhile, Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is clearly chuffed with his APP ban decision, talking about 200 new Indian mobile APPs, making India a mobile manufacturing hub by surpassing China and data sovereignty. Reuters reports that Chinese companies such as ByteDance have been asked by the Indian government to answer 77 questions about their apps that have been banned by New Delhi, including whether they censored content, worked on behalf of foreign governments or lobbied influencers.
Meanwhile, the Indian Navy conducted a drill near the Andaman & Nicobar Islands with several warships, destroyers, frigates and submarines taking part. Reports also inform that India is also planning to fast-track plans for deploying additional military forces apart from developing requisite infrastructure in the strategically located Islands. At the same time, MEA’s Anurag Srivastava spoke about the South China Sea in his weekly briefing. He said: the “South China Sea is a part of global commons. India has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the region. We firmly stand for the freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in these international waterways, in accordance with international law, notably UNCLOS.” All of this, of course, comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China in the region.
Finally speaking of the US, there were a bunch of comments from Washington on the India-China issue. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that President Trump wants to “do everything possible to keep the peace for the people” of India and China. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the press: “India has been a great partner. They are an important partner of ours. I have a great relationship with my foreign minister counterpart. We talk frequently about a broad range of issues. We talked about the conflict they had along their border with China. We’ve talked about the risk that emanates from China, Chinese telecommunications infrastructure there, you’ve seen the decision they made to ban some several dozen Chinese software firms from operating inside of the country on phones of people operating inside of India…Democracies, free nations of the world, will push back on these challenges together. I’m very confident of that.” Also, Congressmen George Holding and Brad Sherman, co-chairmen of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, sent a letter to India’s Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu, criticising China and condoling the loss of lives in the Galwan clash.
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