Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom from an Indian interests perspective.
I. Firing & Five-point Plan
It’s been a week of back and forth in the India-China relationship. The week began with a series of alarming events. China’s Western Theatre Command spokesperson Zhang Shuili said (Mandarin statement) that Indian troops “illegally crossed” the LAC along the southern bank of Pangong Tso on September 7. The statement added that “Indian troops brazenly made gunshot threat to the patrolling troops of PLA frontier defense force who came forwards for negotiations, and the Chinese border guards were forced to take countermeasures to control and stabilize the situation.” He called it a “grave military provocation” and demanded that India “withdraw cross-line troops right away, strictly restrain its frontline troops, earnestly investigate and punish the personnel who fired shots.”
In response, the Indian Ministry of Defense said that “at no stage has the Indian Army transgressed across the LAC or resorted to use of any aggressive means, including firing. It is the PLA that has been blatantly violating agreements and carrying out aggressive manoeuvres, while engagement at military, diplomatic and political level is in progress. In the instant case on 07 September 2020, it was the PLA troops who were attempting to close-in with one of our forward positions along the LAC and when dissuaded by own troops, PLA troops fired a few rounds in the air in an attempt to intimidate own troops. However, despite the grave provocation, own troops exercised great restraint and behaved in a mature and responsible manner…The statement by the Western Theatre Command is an attempt to mislead their domestic and international audience.”
Reports in the Indian media inform that Indian troops now enjoy strategic hold over Reqin Pass and Spanggur Gap in the hills in the Chushul sector. But there’s been some debate over Black Top. Some earlier reports informed that the SFF had captured Black Top. StratNews Global’s Nitin Gokhale’ reports that Black Top is not under Indian control. Perhaps, this bit from Lt. General HS Panag’s piece this week helps explain the confusion.
He writes: “Our armed forces have secured all tactical heights on the Kailash Range from the south bank of Pangong Tso to Tsaka La that include Helmet, Black Top, Gurung Hill, Magar Hill, Mukhpari, Rezang La and Rechin La. All these areas are on the Indian side of the LAC and were sites of intense battles in China-India War of October-November 1962. China also recognises the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in these areas, except in the area of Black Top, which it claims is east of its claim line.”
His assessment for the future is grim: “As the stronger power, it would be difficult for China to swallow the bitter pill and opt for a diplomatic solution to agree to status quo ante April 2020. Our gains in the Chushul Sector are tactical in nature. The Chinese preemptive gains in Depsang, Galwan, Hot Springs-Gogra-Kugrang and north of Pangong Tso place it in a position of advantage to make strategic gains in a limited war in terms of territory in Daulat Beg Oldi, Hot Springs- Gogra – Kugrang and north of Pangong Tso. The tenor of Chinese statements is belligerent. We should be prepared for a violent reaction.”
Amid this, BJP leader Ram Madhav decided to attend the funeral of Tibetan Commando Nyima Tenzin. He tweeted about his attendance, only to later delete the tweet. That, along with the extensive media coverage of the funeral, was something that Beijing would surely have noted – although one can debate the wisdom and even utility of such signalling.
Amid all this the messaging from Beijing’s media outlets, and not just Global Times, continued to escalate. There’s a lot more talk about war than there was say a few months or even weeks ago. For instance, here’s Global Times’ English editorial on September 8: “We must warn India seriously: You have crossed the line! Your frontline troops have crossed the line! Your nationalist public opinion has crossed the line! Your policy toward China has crossed the line! You are over-confidently provoking the PLA and Chinese people – this is like doing a handstand on the edge of a cliff!”
Then as Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar prepared for a meeting with China’s Wang Yi in Moscow, for the first time since all this began in April-May, Xinhua put out an aggressive commentary. It said: “The Chinese military is absolutely determined, capable and confident in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Not an inch of China’s territory shall be lost. It is critical for India to learn from history and make sure the reckless provocations will not be repeated…The Chinese side has called for setting eyes on the big picture of China-India relations and regional peace and stability. Now the key to resolving the tension rests on the Indian side. It is time for the Indian side to wake up to reality, take a responsible attitude toward the bilateral relationship and stand on the right side of history.”
Another Global Times editorial, although not specifically about India, does essentially address India. Hu Xijin writes: “Chinese people don’t want war, but we have territorial disputes with several neighboring countries encouraged by the US to confront China. Some of these countries believe that the US support provides them with a strategic opportunity and try to treat China outrageously. They believe that China, under the US’ strategic pressure, is afraid, unwilling or unable to engage in military conflict with them. Thus they want to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. Considering that there is also the Taiwan question, the risk of the Chinese mainland being forced into a war has risen sharply in recent times. Oftentimes, the less we want war, the more prominent the above-mentioned dilemma becomes. Chinese society must therefore have real courage to engage calmly in a war that aims to protect core interests, and be prepared to bear the cost. In that way, China’s comprehensive strength can be effectively transformed into a strategic deterrent against all kinds of provocateurs.”
I am not a fan of reading much into GT, particularly its English version. But here are some pieces in the Chinese version over the past few days that are interesting. First, here’s Fudan’s Zhang Jiadong arguing that the best choice for India and China is a “competitive partnership.” He says that India’s China policy has adjusted in the following three ways since 2014: “First, it (India) is getting closer to the United States and Japan, and it does not rule out the possibility of raising India-US relations to the level of a quasi-alliance; second, it has become tougher on China in border disputes, and is actively implementing a “new forward policy”; third, India is more proactive in playing the “Taiwan card” with China. These significant policy changes have intensified tensions between India and China and some neighboring countries, and border confrontations, conflicts and even more extreme incidents have also occurred from time to time.” Here’s Lou Chunhao from CICIR warning that India must learn lessons from 1962. I am paraphrasing, but he says that in 1962, no one came to India’s aid; second, India must not misinterpret China’s restraint; third India must not be blindly self-confident and overestimate its own combat capabilities.
Anyway, amid all this Jaishankar and Wang met in Moscow. The meeting ended with a joint statement that contained a five-point proposal. The five points essentially emphasised that “both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.” It added that both sides should “avoid any action that could escalate matters” and that they should “continue to have dialogue and communication through the Special Representative mechanism on the India-China boundary question. They also agreed in this context that the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs (WMCC), should also continue its meetings.” Importantly, it also said that “the Ministers agreed that as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to conclude new Confidence Building Measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas.” Interestingly, there’s no mention of restoring the April-May status-quo ante or blaming each other.
Later in the week, the Indian MEA issued another statement about the conversation between Jaishankar and Wang Yi. That came after the Chinese side issued a statement saying that Wang told Jaishankar that the two countries need to put the border issue and differences “in the proper place in bilateral relations.” China’s MoFA’s statement also says that as per Wang, “the most urgent task is to immediately stop shooting provocations and other dangerous acts that violate promises, withdraw all cross-line personnel and equipment, disengage contact as soon as possible, and promote the relaxation of the situation. The MEA’s version of the talks says that:
“EAM underlined that since the resumption of Ambassadorial level relations in 1976 and holding of boundary talks since 1981, India-China relations have developed on a largely positive trajectory. While there have been incidents from time to time, peace and tranquility has largely prevailed in the border areas. As a result, India-China cooperation also developed in a broad range of domains, giving the relationship a more substantive character. While the Indian side recognized that a solution to the boundary question required time and effort, it was also clear that the maintenance of peace and tranquility on the border areas was essential to the forward development of ties. The recent incidents in eastern Ladakh, however, inevitably impacted the development of the bilateral relationship. Therefore, an urgent resolution of the current situation was in the interest of both nations.”
It adds: “The immediate task is to ensure a comprehensive disengagement of troops in all the friction areas. That is necessary to prevent any untoward incident in the future. The final disposition of the troop deployment to their permanent posts and the phasing of the process is to be worked out by the military commanders.”
Apart from this there was another statement from Wang Yi about the commonalities that China, India and Russia share. China’s MoFA’s readout says that “Wang Yi noted, there are always some doubts about the prospects of cooperation among China, Russia and India, but first of all, the three countries have extensive and profound common interests and ideas, which can be summarized as the following seven fronts at least.” These are that each of them supports multi-polarization, multilateralism, international law, opposes interference in internal affairs, supports globalisation, is committed to national revitalisation, and strengthening global governance.
All this is wonderful, and the five-point plan was also reported widely in Chinese media. But before you get too optimistic, take note of this commentary in Global Times Chinese after the reports about the 5-point plan. It says: “Facts show that it is difficult for China to keep India rational on such important issues as the border through persuasion alone. Our strong use of strength is essential. The costs of India’s gambling on the border issue must be increased. Along with diplomatic efforts, we need to be truly prepared to completely defeat the Indian illusion through military actions when those efforts fail.” And note this story by Snehesh Alex Philip, which talks about the PLA moving ahead while talks were taking place. And this from Manu Pubby:
“China has amassed over 50,000 troops and a range of aircraft and missile systems across the Line of Actual Control but the top level of the Indian government assesses that the threshold for a conflict has still not been reached though India is prepared for any eventuality. While recent events like attempts to approach Indian forward posts and push back troops located at strategic heights are being watched carefully, there is a view that Chinese actions were more akin to ‘pinpricks’ and the current deployment of the PLA is not geared for tactical action, though they could well build up to an armed conflict on the border. India has also clearly conveyed to China that any attempt to breach the perimeter around its forward posts along the LAC will be treated as an act of hostility which will get a professional Army response.”