While Rajnath Singh shared a platform with his Chinese counterpart in Moscow, the border is still hot. India must not budge
China had probably not anticipated that India would continue with its robust defence of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) instead of blinking after Galwan. Or that it would need to pump in more resources and troops in Ladakh, where it has so far used perceptional differences on what should be the border on the ground to usurp land. It certainly had not bargained for India ramping up its border infrastructure and its soldiers meeting it eye to eye in mountain warfare. Or expected its unilateral adventurism to be challenged. But more importantly, it realises that an Asian split between its top two powers would only damage it strategically, politically and economically. And that its imperial dream of Asian domination would be unrealised if India increasingly gravitates towards the US and the West, pushing the world to unipolarity. Already, the combined Indo-US strategy to challenge Chinese access to their technology market is a precursor of a longer-term hit on its digital monopoly. And if China doesn’t have a transactional relationship with India and engages with it somewhat, then it would be difficult for it to convince smaller Central and Southeast Asian nations to accept its overlordship in the region. Already some of these nations are part of the US-India axis in stalling Beijing’s designs in the Pacific. Perhaps that explains why the Chinese side conveyed its keenness to have a meeting with India on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) session in Moscow. And following the ban on Chinese applications, its spokesmen struck a reconciliatory note and resorted to soft diplomacy, referring to the cultural assimilation that has seen Rabindranath Tagore, yoga and Bollywood occupy centrality in Chinese life. The SCO provided the platform for Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s first meeting with his counterpart Wei Fenghi after the Ladakh standoff. And though India has emphasised that it would like to settle the border issue within the framework of diplomacy and dialogue, the fact that Chinese troops are still stationed within our artillery range in the south of Pangong Tso should remind us that the dragon still has a forked tongue and can spew fire. Singh, of course, set the tenor at the ministerial meeting itself, saying non-aggression and trust were the key to regional peace and stability. Clearly, the message is it cannot be business as usual.
Perhaps China is hoping that this heavy duty presence and its continued aggressive pile-up along the LAC would compel India to cede some ground at the talks table. Its rhetoric that India is being provocative points to an assumption that its presence there has always been legitimate, though this has never been a point of dispute since the 1962 war. It has now significantly enhanced its presence in the Depsang area, closer to the Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip. This shows that the Chinese will never reconcile to losing the strategic advantage in Ladakh because of the DSDBO road that allows India troop parity in this sector. Besides, China wouldn’t want the Indian shadow over the Karakoram, particularly between Gilgit-Baltistan in the west (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), where China is heavily invested in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and Aksai Chin in the east. So India must stay the course and insist on status quo ante. Post-Galwan, it has already yielded some ground by agreeing to pull back from old observation posts and creating a buffer zone. This would let the Chinese mobilise easily unmonitored. The 1993 agreement signed during the Narasimha Rao-Jiang Zemin era made it absolutely clear that both sides would scale down troops at the LAC to a “minimum level” as a confidence-building measure and strengthen bilateral ties by looking beyond the boundary arc. That has only resulted in our trade dependency on China without any let-up in its hegemonic intentions. India is already more vigilant in the Indian Ocean region, with our Navy watching every movement along the Malacca Straits, a key strategic and economic transit corridor for China. It has got more active in the Quad initiative with US and Japan and begun using its international goodwill as a nation that respects “rule-based order” to build a case against China’s “wolf warrior” tactics. And it must add the boundary question to negotiations, insist on marking the LAC on the ground. We must also join the global chorus against Tibet or Xinjiang, something that riles up China no end and could be used as a bargaining chip. This counterweight would work better than just relying on the US, which beyond the point of internationalising an issue, wouldn’t stay invested as it is too remote for its domestic concerns. Russia, which wants the SCO to work, so that it can fob off the preponderance of the US and the West, is compromised by heavy Chinese investment in its infrastructure and gas lines. It does need India to counterbalance itself against Chinese heft but cannot force China’s hand on the border issue. Already, it has classified the standoff as a matter of bilateral concern between both countries. Russia is keeping itself updated about the sensitivities involved and the fact that Singh decided to attend the RIC meeting and the Moscow Victory Parade despite the COVID pandemic is indication of the strategic depth India attaches to Russia. The latter acknowledges India’s insistence on sticking to defence deals despite US pressure. Will it be able to convince China about a need for status quo in the interest of a multi-polar world? A tall order really. India needs to watch out for its own interest.
Saturday, 05 September 2020 |Pioneer