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Indo-China talks had to collapse The Excelsior 20 Oct 2021
The 13th round of Indo-China talks ended inconclusively. There was no joint statement issued, instead both sides released independent statements accusing the other. The Indian statement read, ‘The Indian side emphasised resolution of the remaining areas would facilitate progress in bilateral relations. The Indian side, therefore, made constructive suggestions but the Chinese side was not agreeable and also could not provide any forward-looking suggestions.’ The Indian statement also linked resolution of the border to bilateral ties. Till date this had only been discussed between foreign ministers.
The Chinese military spokesperson, on the other hand, accused India of, ‘persisting in its unreasonable and unrealistic demands, which added difficulties to negotiations.’ It added, ‘(China made) tremendous efforts to ease and cool down the border situation and fully demonstrated its sincerity.’ The Global Times in an article of 11 Oct stated, ‘India had proposed returning to the pre-April 2020 positions in the western section along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which is totally unreasonable for China.’ It aimed to send a message that China will not readily jump on India’s demands.
The Global Times article added that India despite a ‘sluggish economy and lingering COVID situation’ is challenging China as it ‘sees the winds blowing in its favour with China locked in a serious confrontation with the US.’ There has always been a fear within Chinese strategic circles that India could exploit a US-China confrontation and reclaim its lost areas of Aksai Chin. Further, close India-US ties have always irked China. India, as a part of the growing QUAD has added to Chinese concerns.
The last winters were the first time Han Chinese soldiers remained deployed in Ladakh. There were reports of daily evacuations due to medical problems. Even within the Chinese military hierarchy there have been medical casualties due to harsh weather conditions. China never declares its medical fatalities though reports indicate they are large. With a conscript army having 33% turnover each year, the troops which would have to spend winters in Ladakh would be largely fresh, implying similar problems as in the previous year. This would be in vast contrast to trained and experienced Indian soldiers.
This stalemate implies that with the next round being some distance away, forces on both sides would remain deployed for the coming winters. The Indian side has concluded its rotation of troops as also completed its winter stocking. It is prepared for the long haul. The only silver lining is that talks have not been called off but put aside for multiple reasons.
Prior to the current round of talks there have been senior level changes on the Chinese side. The Chinese Western Theatre Commander, General Wang Haijiang, has been newly appointed. South Xinjiang Military District head, who traditionally leads the Chinese side, has not been appointed, since the previous incumbent was promoted. As per reports talks led by an officer in an officiating capacity. Hence, there were vague comments issued as the Chinese commander was neither aware nor responsible for the region. To defend its flaws, China blamed India and began releasing videos of Galwan.
In addition, was the Tawang incident where large numbers of Chinese troops who had crossed to the Indian side were temporarily detained, an embarrassment for the Chinese. Though, for India, the two commands, where the incidents occurred are different, for the Chinese, they remain the same Western Theatre Command.
Added to the above incidents was the Indian decision to enhance firepower capability in Ladakh by moving a regiment each of K9 Vajra Self-Propelled guns and 155mm M777 Howitzers. When questioned on this, the Chinese spokesperson stated in Beijing, ‘China opposes any arms race in the disputed border areas for the purpose of competition over control.’ China would also be irked by Indian infrastructure development program as the under construction Zojila tunnel would open 365 days connectivity to Ladakh, which could overcome the Chinese advantage of rapid movement of troops.
Within China there is pressure mounting on Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Chinese economy is slowing, company debts are on the rise, the much-touted Belt Road Initiative is filled with bad loans, the CPEC is facing a series of attacks and the scenario in Afghanistan is nowhere as conducive as China had expected it to be. Internal protests are increasing due to failure of development giants and power shortages, displaying public anger. This has compelled China to adopt an aggressive approach towards its neighbours to build nationalistic fervour and divert minds from internal failures. In addition is the CCP’s key conclave in Nov as a prelude to its next year’s party Congress which could clear an unprecedented fourth term for Xi Jinping. Currently, China can take no chances.
China even exploited the anniversary of the Galwan clash hoping to build nationalism. It published a chapter in textbooks for elementary school children on Galwan stating it won the war. China has still to declare its true casualty figures in Galwan as it fears an internal backlash. Its offensive manoeuvres against Taiwan and displaying a firm stance in Ladakh is a means of projecting Xi’s determination to regain all Chinese claimed territories and portraying him as the most powerful Chinese ruler in history. Globally, resolving the balance areas of dispute with India would signify no gains in its attempt to coerce India as also a limped withdrawal to pre-April 2020 positions.
The current stalemate is an attempt by China to save face and delay resolution till the end of the CCP Congress next year. It is aware that it cannot succeed in a military action against India, thus would prefer a stalemate. Simultaneously, it needs to ensure that India does not exploit any US-China or China-Taiwan clash, hence large-scale construction of troop habitat continues in Tibet close to the LAC. As stated earlier, there is no breakdown in talks. However, further progress will be delayed. India needs to be patient and continue pushing without changing its end state. Finally, development of infrastructure as also maintaining additional force levels in Ladakh must continue.