Prem Shankar Jha

Although popular perception views the Belt and Road Initiative as an offensive project, it is a defensive venture by China to safeguard its international trade, the source of its growing wealth.

What Lies Behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

This is the first article in a two-part series on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The second one deals with the politics surrounding the BRI. 

China’s prompt withdrawal of its troops and armour from the eastern part of the grey zone around Pangong lake between the Indian and Chinese defined Lines of Actual Control has confirmed the hypothesis advanced in several previous columns on this platform, that its purpose, from the start, was not to nibble Indian territory away in small slices but to force the Modi government to reconfirm India’s commitment to the agreements on Peace and Tranquility in the Border region arrived at in 1993 and 2005.

But, why should China be so intent upon re-establishing a durable peace with India, when this sentiment is clearly not reciprocated by either the Modi government or the Indian populace? The short answer is that China needs the backing of India’s ‘soft power’ to prevent the intensifying struggle for hegemony between it and the United States from spilling over into a war from which no one, least of all China itself, will emerge as a winner.

China also covets deeper economic engagement with India, because, after the end of its Fiscal Stimulus programme, it needs to find new avenues of investment to keep its factories busy and workers employed. India can provide both.

But most defence analysts in India discount these motives and have swallowed the Western view of China as a relentlessly expansionist power bent upon reshaping the international order and establishing its hegemony over the Asia-Pacific, if not the whole world.

However, two books published a year before its May incursion can help us to do get a better view of its motives. The focal point of both is the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), but one looks at China’s motives for establishing it from inside outwards, while the other does the opposite.

Understanding the motive

Bruno Macaes’ Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order suggests that these lie in China’s attempts to avoid the “middle income trap” that, many economists believe, develops when rapidly industrialising, export-led, economies move from the early, low-income phase of their industrialisation to its middle-income phase.

The BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and its ports in and around the Indian Ocean are not therefore offensive but defensive projects, designed to safeguard the international trade that is the source of its growing wealth.

By contrast, Bertil Lintner’s book, The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for the Indian Ocean, examines the tectonic shocks that China’s growing involvement with the littoral states of the Indian ocean under the banner of the BRI is giving to the settled structure of power in the region.

Both books throw much-needed light on China’s motives, but do so from polar opposite directions. 2013 is the pivotal year in both books because it is the year in which the concerns of the West about China’s growing hegemonistic ambitions began to take concrete shape.

Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order (L) by Bruno Macaes’ and The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for the Indian Ocean (R) by Bertil Lintner. Illustration: The Wire/Penguin Viking/Context.

Early in that year, Xi Jinping became the President of China. In the same year, he announced the creation of a Belt and Road, Maritime Silk Road that involved building a string of ports in the Indian Ocean. 2013 was also the year in which the first Chinese nuclear submarine entered the Indian ocean, and when China decided to lease a tract of land in Djibouti and build a naval base there, to support its anti-piracy task force in the Arabian Sea.

The base was built in a record period of two years and became operational in 2016. Since then a Chinese anti-piracy task force has been paying about 10 visits to the port every year but has kept a low profile. Chinese submarines have also made seven more such sorties till 2018, and visited Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan on two of those occasions.

Today there are seven such ports/container terminals being constructed, or on the drawing boards, in the immediate vicinity of India: two in Malaysia, one each in Myanmar and Bangladesh (Chittagong). Two in Sri Lanka (Hambantota and a container terminal at Colombo) and one in the Maldives on Gan island in the far south.

In addition, China has taken up four ports and container terminal construction projects in the Red Sea, and six more down the East coast of Africa in addition to Djibouti, through Kenya and Tanzania to Mozambique and Madagascar. In all, therefore China is now involved in 18 major port and railway construction projects around the Indian Ocean.

What brought about this sudden change in 2013? Lintner is content to give a one-sentence answer: It is China’s overweening desire to “bolster its geo-strategic influence” in the region. This is an uncritical acceptance of what Germany, France and the US (but not the UK) have categorically declared the BRI to be.  Xi Jinping’s lineage — his being the son of a Long March General — fits neatly into the formers’  construction of him as a new Mao Zedong.

The thesis of ‘middle-income trap’

Bruno Macaes’ answer is more fine-grained: the BRI, according to him, has been born out of China’s need to safeguard, and expand, the structure of trade relations that it has built since the 1990s, and upon which its internal stability and prosperity now rests. This need has become especially acute since China’s growth began to slacken in 2011. Macaes attributes this to its having, in per capita income terms,  entered the “middle income trap”.

The middle-income trap is the stage of growth in which rising labour costs start pushing export-led economies out of the most labour intensive sections of the global production chain and forcing them into entering the more technology-intensive middle sections where technology becomes a more and more important component of the final product.The BRI is an attempt to create the infrastructure that China will need in order to move progressively up this chain of production. His chapter on this issue gives the best insight into Chinese thought upon the evolution of its role in the 21st century world, that I have read.

In his analysis, Macaes implies China became fully aware of the middle-income trap only when wage rates rose by 12% a year from 2009 till 2013. This is what trigged the attempt to move up the production chain, which is at the base of the BRI.

His explanation resolves several of the anomalies that the hawks in the strategic analysis community are unable to explain above all its universality of focus: even the 24 projects in the Indian Ocean and the Red sea mentioned earlier, and the three giant railway networks it is building across Central Asia are only a part of the Chinese global outreach, for there are another 60 port and rail/road projects spread across Latin America, Europe and the Mediterranean, of which five are in the USA.

But Macaes’ analysis is incomplete because it does not explain the timing of Xi Jinping’s announcement of the One Belt One Road initiative, (as the BRI was originally called), and his hurry to make it only months after coming to power.

China did not descend into the middle-income trap suddenly, and it certainly was not taken by surprise. As far back as 2002, it had forged a Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Peoples Republic of China. Through 15 subsequent refinements, it had hammered out a free trade agreement whose purpose was to source components for their manufactured exports from the cheapest source.

How far this strategy broke the middle-income trap can be judged from the trade data for the first quarter of 2020. In this quarter, it was ASEAN, not the US or the European Union, which became China’s largest trading partner. What is more significant, while its trade with ASEAN as a whole grew by 6%, its trade with Vietnam and Indonesia within ASEAN grew by 24% and 13% respectively. China’s imports from ASEAN, therefore, include products that incorporate cheap labour and those that incorporate sophisticated technology.

The timing of Xi’s announcement was dictated by the fact that when he came to power, China was in the midst of a crisis such as few countries have had to face in recent times:  The Communist party had reached the nadir of its standing with the Chinese people. Coming on top of almost two decades to gradually rising public disenchantment, the Bo Xilai affair had severely damaged its image.

File Photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters.

As a result, the Party was about to lose its Mandate from Heaven. As if that was not enough, the economy was in a shambles. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao’s 4.3 trillion Yuan fiscal stimulus to counter the impact of the global recession of 2008 had gone completely out of control. In the 27 months of the stimulus from October 2008 till December 2010, the country invested not 4.3 trillion but 24.5 trillion yuan – more than 3 trillion dollars.

China’s production of steel soared to 683 million tonnes in 2011, 45% of the entire world’s output. Newly constructed steel plants had to be moth-balled because there was no demand. The producers resorted to dumping steel on the world market at throwaway prices, incurring the US’ wrath. Under severe US pressure, the Central government cut back 290 million tonnes of this capacity.

Much of the steel produced had gone into construction. As a result, by June 2014, there was 544 million square metres of unsold private housing space, almost half again as much as the space that had been sold till then, in earlier years.

A similar scramble had taken place in the power sector. In the five years from 2009 till 2013, China added 300,000 MW to its coal-based generating capacity, when there was no power shortage in the country. As a result, existing power plants had to reduce their capacity utilisation to below 50% to accommodate the new ones.

When the stimulus finally petered out China’s huge heavy-machine building sector, it found itself virtually without orders. As a consequence, the local governments that owned or partly financed them found themselves not only short of revenue but forced to lay off workers. In China, this is a far more serious issue than in market economies because it strikes at the roots of the legitimacy of the Communist party— at its Mandate from Heaven.

According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, employment fell by 80 million after the end of the fiscal stimulus. But the number may be higher because a large proportion of its millions of migrant workers also did not get letters of re-employment. One of the  BRI’s main purposes has been therefore to provide th

For instance, 190 out of the 290 million tonnes of steel output that China had to cut back had not been authorised by the National Reforms and Development Commission. Xi Jinping was determined to make sure that this did not happen again. That was one of the reasons for his bringing all new projects abroad under the umbrella of the BRI. Only the projects sanctioned by the NRDC could avail of the financial and other assistance that the state was prepared to provide infrastructure projects that could keep these enterprises working and their workers employed.

Its second purpose has been to bring some discipline into China’s investment both at home and abroad. The fiscal stimulus had overshot its mark ruinously because two-thirds of this investment was made by the provincial and prefectural parastatals, with loans obtained from the second tier of banks that had come up after the banking liberalisation of 1998 to 2006, and over which the Central government had little control.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

Read More

Despite the caution expressed by Indian defence analysts, the de-escalation is likely to hold. But, the agreement to withdraw needs political endorsement from the prime minister.

India and China Are on the Verge of Lasting Peace, if Modi Wants It
File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

A policy blunder of the greatest magnitude, a humiliating defeat, and six decades of hiding the truth about what really caused the war between China and India in 1962, has so completely embedded a visceral distrust of China in the Indian mind that whenever there is a turn for the better in our relationship, our media, and the majority of our China-watchers, look for the hidden catch in it first before allowing themselves to believe that our relations might actually start improving.

The reaction of some of our best-known commentators to Beijing’s announcement that China and India would begin a synchronised disengagement on the north and south shores of Pangong lake in Ladakh with the intention of eventually returning to our April 2020 positions, is a case in point. While General H.S. Panag welcomed the development in a recent video interview, his scepticism about China’s intentions was writ large in his words and his body language.

Colonel Ajai Shukla was more forthright in voicing his distrust of the Chinese: “a 10-km stretch between Finger 3 and Finger 8. Indian Army has patrolled this area since the 1962 Sino-Indian war but now cannot enter the zone. ….  China has been granted right to patrol to finger 4. that means LAC effectively shifted from finger 8 to finger 4,” he tweeted (emphasis added.) Others, including some in the political opposition, echoed his scepticism.

Criticising Shukla for creating a ‘false perception’, another Twitter user, ‘Sunny Shikhar’, claimed that “China (whose version of the LAC runs through Finger 4, the fourth of eight ridges coming down to the north shore of Pangong lake) has had a road till F4 since 1999 and a naval Radar base on F6 since 2006. “We patrolled till F8,” he points out, “on the road made by China because they let us, not because we controlled it. Now (under the terms of the disengagement)” China cannot even patrol on its own road between F8-F4”.

I have no idea who ‘Sunny  Shikhar’ is, but if the facts he cites are correct, it means that China has forfeited as much of its claimed right to patrol as India has.

If that is indeed so, then Shikhar’s clarification substantiates Rajnath Singh’s statement in parliament, that both sides have agreed that neither will patrol the intervening area after the mutual withdrawals, till ‘an agreement is reached through future talks’.

China’s 1960 claim line in Ladakh is marked in yellow, the LAC at Pangong Tso is in pink. As can be seen, Thakung, the site of the latest standoff, is inside the LAC but within the 1960 Chinese claim line. Map: The Wire

A breakthrough has been achieved

To say that this has been a crucial breakthrough in the longstanding border dispute would be an understatement. For the agreement is not only an explicit acknowledgement that a ‘Grey Area’ or ‘No Man’s Land’ has existed between the two countries’ conflicting definitions of the LAC, but also marks a formal elevation of this area to the status of a ‘buffer zone’.

The difference between the two concepts is that whereas both Chinese and Indian patrols were entering “No Man’s Land” frequently, and waving placards stating that ‘This is Chinese/Indian Territory, please withdraw’ at each other when they met, now neither side will enter it till the misunderstandings and apprehensions that have arisen between the two countries are cleared through talks.

To a generation that has grown up in the era of the nation-state, this will look like an unsatisfactory resolution of the issue, for don’t all countries need hard, clearly defined, constantly patrolled borders? What our generation can only learn from the study of history is that hard boundaries replaced porous border regions, or belts, only in the era of the nation-state which first took shape after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and attained its full, malignant form with the widespread introduction of passports as recently as in the 1880s.

For reasons best known to itself, China has been studiously avoiding giving India its maps of the Ladakh-Aksai Chin area ever since the 1993 Agreement was signed. But it has been equally reticent about this in 15 out of the 24 border agreements it has signed. This has created unease in other countries as well, and has vindicated the belief among China watchers here and in the West, that Beijing is following a salami-slicing strategy to acquire more and more territory in Ladakh.

But we need to be as wary of preconceptions and prejudices imported from the West as we are of the inexplicable reticence of the Chinese. For the unalterable fact is that if the disengagement that has now begun at Pangong is completed without any hitches, a similar process is likely to take place all along the LAC, at least in the Western Sector. If that takes place, a de facto border belt, as distinct from a de jure border line, will come into being between the two countries in the Himalayas, in an area that China considers vital to its security, but for reasons totally unconnected with India. That has the potential to finally bring to our countries the lasting peace that both have been seeking ever since they signed the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility in 1993.

Such historic breakthroughs are usually made at the highest political levels. What makes the present disengagement very different, perhaps unique, is that it has emerged almost entirely out of an intense, and continuous discussion between the two military commands, with no overt intervention by the political leadership.

Since June last year, there have been nine well-publicised conferences between the corps commander of the 14th corps stationed in Leh, and his Chinese counterpart from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Western Theatre Command. But, behind these, there have been between 25 to 30 meetings, many of them online or telephonic, at every level from battalion to brigade to division commander, to answer questions, allay suspicions, and clear misunderstandings that could have led to flare-ups of the kind that so nearly happened on the South Bank of the Pangong Tso when our forces’ foiled the PLA’s attempt to establish its presence opposite Finger 4 in late August by pre-emptively occupying several commanding heights over the area.

That confrontation was the closest China and India came to war, but it showed to the Chinese that India was building up its forces around the lake in earnest, and that any more covert attempts to establish advantageous positions to use as bargaining chips in future negotiations would be met with military force. It, therefore, acquired for the Indian Army a respect that had previously been lacking in the PLA.

Two other factors reinforced this: the first was the Indian Army’s resolute reinforcement of its troop strength, including artillery and armour, throughout the killing winter months. The Chinese were, of course doing the same, albeit outside the Indian definition of the LAC, so they fully understood India’s determination not to give any more ground.

The second was the army’s preparation of launchpads at places where it had the advantage of terrain, from where it could capture ground inside China’s definition of the LAC if the PLA crossed a Lakshmana Rekha into our territory. These preparations sent a clear signal that, should the PLA be tempted to try any more salami slicing of territory in Ladakh, it would become an extremely expensive operation.

But as the tragic Galwan incident (triggered by a Chinese soldier from a newly inducted unit manhandling Colonel Babu) showed, muscle-flexing can be a dangerous strategy if it is not backed up by confidence-building measures that reassure both sides that the promises being made will indeed be kept.
Indian Army vehicles moving towards the Line of Actual Control (LAC) amid border tension with China, in Leh, Sunday, September 27, 2020. Photo: PTI

The crucial ingredient

This is the crucial ingredient in the negotiations that has brought China and India from the brink of war to the brink of peace. For, as of February 2020, the army commander of Northern Command has been Lieutenant General Y.K. Joshi, who has served four tenures at various levels in Ladakh, from brigade commander to army commander in Leh, to the chief of staff of the Northern Command, based in Jammu, and finally Army Commander in February 2020.

What may have been far more important from the point of view of confidence-building is that from 2005 till 2008, General Joshi served as India’s defence attaché in Beijing, and developed a good working knowledge of Mandarin when he was there.

Since the formal talks held so far have been at the corps commanders’ level, General Joshi had to work with the Leh Corps Commander Lt General Harinder Singh, who did a creditable job in the first six rounds of talks despite not having served previously in the Himalayan Theatre, his specialty having been in counter-intelligence.

But on October 15, when General Singh was replaced by General P.G.K. Menon, who had served as a  brigadier in the Leh-based XIV corps some years earlier, India finally had a negotiating team that had the necessary knowledge of the terrain and a far better understanding of its Chinese counterparts and was, in turn, understood better by them.

On the Chinese side, although one can at most hazard a guess, it would seem that President Xi Jinping also made a crucial change at the top of the Western Theatre Command that has helped to bring about the present agreement. On December 18, he replaced General Zhao Zongqi with General Zhang Xudong. Relatively little is known here about General Zhang, but General Zhao had headed the Western Theatre Command during the 2017 Doklam standoff. He could hardly not have been miffed at the way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed a victory of sorts – what the hyper-nationalist section of our media hailed as ‘a draw’ when the PLA withdrew itChinese and Indian Army troops. Photo: PTI/Filess bulldozers from the ridge where the confrontation took place. President Xi may therefore have been advised that after that searing experience, General Zhao would be the least suited person to take the risk that a negotiated withdrawal entailed.

Chinese and Indian Army troops. Credit: PTI/FilesChinese and Indian Army troops. Photo: PTI/Files

The full story of how the disengagement was achieved will only be available decades later, when official documents get de-classified, if at all they ever are, but what cannot be denied is the magnitude of the achievement. By agreeing to create a buffer zone around Pangong, the two commands have opened the way to the settlement of the seven decade-long border based upon a new, ‘post-national’, concept of an international border. They have therefore taken the first essential step towards a lasting peace between China and India.

But the peace is tenuous, and will not last if Modi and his policymakers do not give it an explicit and public endorsement. For, the Chinese have developed an almost neurotic, and well-founded, distrust of Modi’s sudden, radical and secretive changes of policy towards China and the US, since his government came to power.

This is because in all of the 25-30 less formal interactions that have taken place in the lead up to the agreement, the single, almost neurotic, refrain from the Chinese side has been “will your government live up to the commitments we have chalked out”. The anxiety arises from their lack of understanding of the adversarial way in which democracies function. They are therefore extremely sensitive to the statements of sundry government and opposition political leaders, and to the overt hostility to China they see displayed almost daily by TV anchors and the defence analysts they hear and read in the Indian media.

The nervousness of the Chinese has increased as the two sides have inched closer to an understanding. The Indian interlocutors have therefore had to spend as much as half of the time at each meeting convincing their Chinese counterparts to disregard this ‘democratic noise’ and concentrate on what the government is doing and not saying.

Generals Joshi and Menon have succeeded in conveying the needed reassurance, but if the current agreement is even to last, let alone become the foundation of a final resolution of the border issue, it absolutely needs political endorsement from Prime Minister Modi himself.

This is because it was Modi who, without any prior discussion with his foreign office, and possibly even his national security adviser Ajit Doval, made an unannounced, volte facefrom the long term strategic cooperation with China that had been the policy of all previous governments since 1993, and joined the US-led bid to ‘contain’ China in the Indian Ccean, but also the South China sea.

He did this only 11 days after hosting President Xi in a state visit to India that could have restored China-India relations to where they might have been, had the 1962 war not taken place.

Today, Modi has an opportunity not only to do this, but do it without loss of face. All he has to do is restore all the economic and digital ties with China that he broke so abruptly in May after the Chinese occupation of the grey zone at Pangong lake. The rest will follow.

Read More

Modi needs to be told that while the Indian armed forces may be capable of holding their ground when attacked, they simply cannot hold on to each and every inch of the 3,000 km-long Line of Actual Control.

What Narendra Modi’s Enigmatic Silence Means to China


Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi at the SCO summit in Qingdao. Credit: PMO


Beijing’s sole English language newspaper, the Global Times, is not an official mouthpiece of its foreign ministry. But it is also not an ‘independent’ newspaper. Ever since its English version was launched in 2009, it has reflected not only official policy but also official thinking.

When the June 15 clash took place at Galwan and, presumably, took the lives of Chinese soldiers too, the Chinese government went out of its way to highlight responsible voices in the Chinese social media that were asking for moderation in the face of a tide hyper-nationalist condemnation of India. Its comment on the meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, published on Friday, September 11, was equally positive.

“The joint statement and five-point consensus reached by both Chinese and Indian foreign ministers in Moscow on Thursday evening,” the Global Times reported, “marked a substantial step in cooling down the current border situation, exceeding the expectations of most international observers and creating favourable conditions for a possible future meeting between the leaders of the two countries…”.

In India, the foreign policy analyst M.K Bhadrakumar, a former diplomat himself, also came to the same conclusion: “A joint statement wasn’t anticipated after the talks… In diplomatic terms, a joint statement signals that a “critical mass” developed through the three-hour discussion between the top diplomats”.

In their joint statement to the press, the two ministers had agreed that both sides should take a cue from their leaders’ consensus and not allow differences to become disputes; quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tension; abide by all the existing agreements and protocol on China-India boundary affairs; maintain peace and tranquility in the border, and as the situation eases conclude new confidence building measures to maintain and enhance peace in the border areas.

The relief was palpable in both capitals, but not unmixed with misgivings: “The successful implementation of the joint statement,” the Global Times concluded, “depends on whether the Indian side can truly keep its word. Given the country’s history, it is possible that the joint statement will end up as merely ‘paper talk’.”

Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, put it even more bluntly: “We should not only observe what India says, but also what it does. For a country like India, the most important thing is how it acts. In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao held important talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before signing a joint statement by the two governments, in which both sides declared the establishment of a strategic partnership to promote peace and prosperity.”

“The two governments also signed the Agreement on the ‘Political Guiding Principles for Resolving the Boundary Issue between China and India’, in which they pledged to reduce armed forces and maintain peace. However, since Modi assumed power, the Indian government has totally neglected  (the second part of)  this joint statement. China has kept its word, but the Indian side has provoked the recent border clashes,” Hu concluded.

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (right) and external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Moscow, Russia, September 10, 2020. Photo: China Daily via Reuters


Hu Zhiyong’s remarks echo the misgivings that several China watchers, including the writer, have come to, for he too has emphasised the inextricable exchange built into the agreements China and India have signed since 1993: that as the strategic cooperation between China and India grows, the precise demarcation of the LAC will lose its salience in the relations between the two countries.

In effect this would mean that China would keep the parts of Aksai Chin it already has, but cease to claim another 100,000 sq. km in the Himalayas – something that it had already ceased to do after Premier Wen Jiabao’s meeting with Manmohan Singh at Hua Hin in 2009.

This would be a win-win outcome for both countries. Beijing has immediately acknowledged the interdependence between military disengagement and renewed cooperation on strategic and economic issues.

Sun Weidong, its ambassador in Delhi has immediately urged that ‘as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work on new confidence building measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas’.

Pointing, as the two foreign ministers did, to the series of consensuses reached by Modi and Xi at their recent meetings, and highlighting their ‘basic judgment’  that China and India are partners rather than rivals, he stated: “We need peace instead of confrontation; we need to pursue win-win cooperation instead of a zero-sum game; we need trust rather than suspicion; we need to move our relationship forward rather than backward.

So all that was needed was a few words from Modi, if not of outright endorsement then at least  appreciation for his foreign minister’s achievement. But ten days have passed since the Moscow meeting and not a single such word has passed his lips.   Instead of addressing the first session of parliament in six months himself, Modi delegated this  not toJaishankar, but to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh .

In his 25 minute, 2,000-plus word statement, Singh did not mention the five-point agreement at Moscow, and did not  move one jot away from the earlier official line that it is only China that had shown a  flagrant disregard for its obligations under the 1993, 1996 and subsequent agreements, and that India is utterly blameless.

What is more, Modi has already changed China’s recent actions in Ladakh into a domestic political issue by seeking a parliamentary resolution to laud the Indian army’s sacrifices in the Galwan Valley. By doing this he has also pre-empted criticism from the Congress party, for any reminder by it that it was the UPA under Dr Manmohan Singh, that brought China- India-relations from wary hostility to  the brink of partnership, will be twisted by BJPs media machine and tame TV channel anchors into a  criticism of the army and callousness towards its jawans.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh speaking in the Rajya Sabha. Photo: Screengrab/RSTV

It should not, therefore, come as a surprise that the tone of comment on Sino-Indian relations in the Global Times has changed. On September 15, Hu Jixin, the editor in chief of the Global Times wrote a signed article titled, ‘China ready for Peace, and War’.

Two days later, in an article titled, ‘India’s sincerity key to ending conflict before winter,’ a writer warned Chinese readers once again, citing Chinese experts as saying: “By continually going back on their word, India is wasting the opportunities and high expectations that China has for peacefully settling border tensions before winter.”

“Their attitude to agreements has disappointed China, but China has not stopped its efforts to solve the crisis in a peaceful manner,” experts said, calling for India to show their sincerity at this time as well”.

Army Chief M.M. Naravane interacts with the troops while reviewing operational situations on the ground after the stand-off in the region during his visit, in Eastern Ladakh, Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Photo: PTI

“…but with China it will not end well”

Prime Minister Modi has been able to get away with such perennial grandstanding in India, but with China it will not end well. The Chinese have studied Modi and concluded that he is not a reliable partner.

As Hu Zhiyong told the Global Times, “Given the country’s sluggish economy and poor epidemic control, the Modi government may continue to try and stir up border tensions to deflect the public’s attention. These border tensions are used as chips to fool the public”.

Without a drastic change in Modi’s approach, therefore, a war in the Himalayas next spring is becoming a real possibility. Beijing has been preparing for the worst ever since the 73-day stand-off on the Doklam plateau in 2017.

Satellite photos taken in January 2018 showed that the Chinese had not vacated the area, but erected several permanent military posts, a few helipads and new trenches not very far from where the two Armies had faced off. About 1,800 Chinese troops had stayed in the area through the bitter  winter.

In the following year Beijing began to reinforce the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) western theatre command (WTC) which decides PLA deployments on the Himalayan border. Apart from reinforcing its ground forces, it changed the order of despatch of its fifth generation ‘stealth’ fighter aircraft, the J-20, and put the western theatre second after the eastern theatre, instead of fourth (after both the northern and southern theatres), as it used to be.

In 2019, it sent its first “brigade” of J-20s to the WTC Air Force. A Chinese Air Force Brigade has 24 aircraft. But the WTC Air Force also has several varieties of older combat aircraft as well. In all China has around 2,150 combat aircraft.

Since 2018, the WTC has been conducting training exercises for both its ground and air forces, ‘in actual battle conditions’.

They were conducted in June this year at the height of the Ladakh confrontation and widely shown on Chinese television. It showed the movement of several thousand paratroopers of the WTC Air Force wing with supporting armour and artillery from Hubei province, more than 3,000 kilometres, commandeering every kind of civilian road rail and air transport,  to “an undisclosed location” in the “plateaus of north-western China.”

The J-20 air superiority fighter plane. Photo: Wikipedia

India’s military capabilities have also developed substantially. The PLA probably hasn’t forgotten the battle of Rezang La in 1962 where 300 Indian Jawans, knowing that they faced certain death, still fought to the last bullet and almost the last man, and killed an estimated 1,300 Chinese soldiers. So it knows that a full scale war in the Himalayas will be enormously expensive.

But Modi also needs to be told, firmly and unequivocally, that while the Indian armed forces may be capable of holding their ground when attacked, they simply cannot hold on to each and every inch of the 3,000 km-long Line of Actual Control.

The Chinese can choose their time and place of attack and they will do so where India is weakest. In addition to that, their advantage of terrain and vastly superior logistics virtually preordain the result of any pitched battle in the Himalayas. India will lose and thousands of lives will have been sacrificed in vain.

And all this will be over a war that the Chinese government has said repeatedly, and Wang Yi reiterated in Moscow, simply doesn’t want.

Read More

China undoubtedly triggered the current confrontation but has acted the way it has because it believes India is no longer abiding by the agreements which allowed the bilateral relationship to prosper until Modi changed course.

The Key Issue Dividing India and China Today is Not the Border
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi (right) and external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar have bought their two countries a reprieve from the drift towards war but will this be enough? Photo shows the two ministers on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Moscow, Russia September 10, 2020. China Daily via REUTERS

The protracted talks between  Foreign Ministers Jaishankar and Wang Yi in Moscow have gained China and India a reprieve. Before they began our two countries  were poised on the knife edge of war. Now they have moved back.  Something has been gained: a reassurance before the eyes of the  world, that neither country wants a war and that both will reactivate long dormant mechanisms to maintain a more constant contact with each other as they search for ways to find a solution from which they can  both emerge as winners.

But is such there such a solution? and if Beijing and Delhi can’t find one how long will the reprieve last? A close look at the content of the talks shows that the prospects for a lasting peace are not good. This is because  the core of the problem has remained untouched:  Wang Yi urged that the two countries should put the border dispute into cold storage and concentrate on intensifying our cooperation on the many global issues where  we share a common interest or perspective. China he said, views India as a partner , not an adversary.

Jaishankar  was equally keen on a détente but insisted that the starting point had to be a return by Chinese troops to the positions they occupied had occupied in April. Nothing less would be acceptable to his government.  So we are back at the question that has prevented a de-escalation of the confrontation since June: who will blink first?

Neither country wants a war. But Modi has never done so in his entire life and is unlikely to do so now. Xi Jinping is reported to be equally adamant, but possibly for different reasons. So there is no guarantee that war  will not break out at some time in the future, in the way that  most  wars in history have begun —  from the misjudgement by one protagonist of the likely reaction to its threats or inducements by the other.

The most we can therefore realistically hope for is that, as happened in the Doklam confrontation, the approach off winter at 5,000 metres plus will be made the excuse for disengagement now and that both countries will use the time that gives us for cooler reflection on how we have managed to get from a near-fraternal relationship six years ago to a point where millions in each country are baying for the other’s blood.

China is undoubtedly the country that has triggered the  confrontation. But it should be apparent to those not numbed by  hyper-nationalism, that it has  not done so simply to grab a sliver of additional territory in the Himalayas , whose economic  value to it is less than negligible. If  we can give credence to the statements of the foreign office in Beijing and the Chinese embassy in Delhi  it has done so because India is no longer abiding  by the understandings upon which the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Areas, and its subsequent elaboration in 2005, were signed, and has therefore ceased to be a reliable treaty partner.

China’s  change of tactics in Ladakh is therefore designed to force a reconsideration of relations between our countries. Whether we  return to peace or continue to drift towards war will  therefore depend upon whether we  can reassure China that we have  every intention of honouring the  existing agreements not only in letter but also in spirit.

What is difficult to understand is Modi’s enigmatic silence. Had he called Xi Jinping on the hotline in May, Foreign Minister  Jaishankar and hs counterpart,  Wang Yi,  would have reached the concusions they arrived  at at least three months ago. What is more , their talks  would have taken place within a framework of discussion already established by their leaders,  instead of in the policy vacuum that exists today.

Had Modi done so he  would not have been breaking protocol,  or weakening India’s position by displaying undue anxiety, because the two leaders had already agreed , at Astana in 2017 ,  to meet frequently to discuss strategies and resolve issues,  and had done so  twice already at Wuhan in 2018, and Chennai in 2019.

We can only speculate on the reasons why Modi chose not to do so? But his omission has turned  the gamble he is taking now into a carbon copy of the  one  Pandit Nehru took when he ordered the   army  to push the Chinese off the Thagla ridge in 1962. This is that if India stands firm and continues to match Chinese troop build-ups in the area with its own, China will  withdraw rather than fight India and incur the opprobrium of the world.

This is not a gamble that any leader of a country should take. Two clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers so far have been immediately controlled. But this unstable equilibrium will not last if  Delhi  is not able to identify, and address,  the concerns that   made China change the rules of the game, and find ways to ameliorate them. These  can be deduced  by revisiting the 2005 Agreement on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question and examining how far Modi’s  India has strayed from them  .

The Agreement contains 11 clauses, described as ‘articles’. The key phrase in the  first article: “The differences on the boundary question should not be allowed to affect the overall development of bilateral relations… “ is  a tacit admission that,  as of 2005, the Chinese  government  had not been able to get over hurdles to the delineation of the boundary placed by one or more power centres within it. Its refusal, or inability, to provide China’s maps of the region to reconcile with India’s maps – a pre-requisite for boundary demarcation — suggests that the hurdle was the Peoples’ Liberation Army. The 2005 agreement’s purpose, therefore, was to prevent its objections  from becoming roadblocks  to widening  cooperation in other areas. Implicit in this  was the assumption that as the areas of Sino-Indian  cooperation on global political and economic  issues increased,  these internal reservations would automatically weaken and disappear.

Three other Articles  spelt out the key sensitivities of both sides that needed to be kept in mind if cooperation on global issues was to deepen:  ‘The two sides will give due consideration to each other’s strategic and reasonable interests, and the principle of mutual and equal security. ( Article iv);  The two sides will take into account historical evidence, national sentiments, practical difficulties and reasonable concerns and sensitivities of both sides, and the actual state of border areas; (Article v), and  “In reaching a boundary settlement, the two sides shall safeguard due interests of their settled populations in the border areas (Article vii). The first two spelt out China’s concerns, the third India’s concern over the status of Tawang.

Today, 15 years later, China has, by and llarge,  kept its side of the bargain, but after rapidly deepening  strategic cooperation under the UPA[1], India   has completely reversed its policy under Modi and the BJP,  and gone  out of its way to trash the Indian side of the bargain.

Here is a brief account of how thoroughly he has  done so: Exactly a week after  Xi Jinping’s  State Visit to India in September 2014, Modi went to the US to attend the UN general Assembly, but also visited the White House and, apparently without any prior  discussion with the foreign office, completely and unconditionally aligned India with the US in Asia–Pacific region.  Less than four months later, on January 25, 2015, he and Obama,  who had hastened to Delhi to be the chief guest at the Republic day parade, announced a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia -Pacific and the Indian Ocean, whose immediate purpose, minus the fluff, was to assert freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

In February 2016, India  sent four warships to join a US-Japan task force for three months to assert freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea. In the same  period  the US Consul General in Calcutta visited Itanagar and declared that, as far as the US was concerned,   Arunachal Pradesh was ‘indisputably’ a part of India. Weeks later Modi gave permission to not only the  Dalai Lama but also to Robert Verma, the US Ambassador to India to visit Tawang  for the annual Tawang festival. This was a deliberate waving of a red rag before a bull, for i China had originally claimed all of Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang, and had only stopped doing so after Wen Jiabao’s meeting with Prime minister Manmohan Singh at Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2009.

China was, at first,  reluctant to let its relationship with India worsen. It  therefore reacted with  notable restraint.  When the US Consul General made his statement Beijing contented itself with saying : “China and India are wise, and capable, enough to deal with their own issues and safeguard the fundamental and long-term interests of the two peoples. The intervention of any third party will only complicate the issue and is highly irresponsible.”

When Indian ships joined the US-Japanese task force in May it again refrained from criticizing India directly and accused the US, instead, of following a ‘divide and rule’ colonial policy towards the two Asian giants. Asked to comment, all that an unnamed    senior official of the Chinese foreign office was willing to say was “When there is some trouble in the South China Sea, India is worried. When Indian ships participate in maritime exercises in the South China Sea, of course China will show concern.”

It was only after Richard Verma’s visit to Tawang for the monastery’s annual festival that  Lu Kang, a foreign office spokesperson said in Beijing on October 24,2016 “China is “firmly opposed” to the U.S. diplomat’s actions, which will damage the hard-earned peace and tranquillity of the China-India border region… Any responsible third party should respect efforts by China and India to seek peaceful and stable reconciliation, and not the opposite”.

The statement was mild, and carefully avoided using language that could be construed as a warning to India. But Beijing’s use of the phrase “Peace and Tranquility” should have rung warning bells in South Block because language is of paramount importance in diplomacy. “The use of that  precise phrase, the heading of the 1993 agreement,  was China’s first reminder that India  was flouting solemnly entered agreements with it. If Delhi went  any further down that road China would  consider the agreement to have been abrogated.

South Block  would doubtless have heard them, but Modi either did not listen, or did not care. For between 2016 and 2018 India signed two  defence- related agreements with the USA , the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), whose goal is to enable the two countries’ navies to coordinate all their actions whether in disaster relief or in defence. Only one more agreement, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA)  remains to be signed to make inter-operability of the two defence forces complete . Had Covid not struck the world, that too would have been done earlier this year.[2]

It has also joined enthusiastically in Operation Malabar, an annual naval exercise that had been a tepid affair in the days of the UPA;  held three of its exercises in the Bay of Bengal, and actively campaigned to bring South Korea and Singapore into the original ‘Quad’ of the US, India, Japan and Australia.  One of the war games in Operation Malabar is the closing of the  Malacca straits through which 80 percent of China’s oil imports and 40 percent of its exports flow.

India has also modernised its naval and air bases in the Andamans and, in a tit-for-tat with China,  is seeking to build a port at Subang in Indonesia at the mouth of  the Malacca straits and,  supposedly,  exploring the possibility of a similar venture in Vietnam to create a pressure point at the entrance to the South China Sea. Since  the confrontation in Ladakh began,  speculation has been rife that  India is making these investments  to check the rise of China’s influence  in the Indian ocean region.

The above description shows how far Modi has taken India  from the solemn commitments it made to China in 1993 and elaborated in 2005. It therefore gives us little reason  to expect a lasting peace in the future.  The most that the  Jaishankar–Wang Yi meeting has given us therefore is Time —  a reprieve from conflict, that will last through  winter. If the  Modi government does not use it to reassess where the country’s  national interest truly lies,  put it ahead of party interest, and give China a credible assurance that his government  intends to abide by the commitments its predecessors  entered into,  not only in letter but also in spirit, then another war in the Himalayas will become a winnable bet.



Read More

The Pulwama attack had faded from public discourse after the 2019 elections. So why are moves afoot to bring it back into the limelight again?

Pulwama, China and Atmanirbharta: Is Modi at the End of His Tether?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh arrives to take part in the 74th Independence Day celebrations, at Red Fort in New Delhi, Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. Photo: PTI

A decade, or just seven years ago, I would have treated the recent Hindustan Times’ ‘exclusive’ that the “Pakistani government” had been “directly involved” in planning, training the perpetrators, and executing the February 2019 Pulwama attack as a scoop.

But with the PIB’s accreditation (that gave special correspondents unfettered access to officials) withdrawn from the four most important ministries; with CCTVs recording everyone who goes in and out of a government office, and with officers a reporter wants to see having to come to the reception to receive her or him, I am left with no option but to consider the report as a government plant.

This suspicion is reinforced by a propaganda video inserted as an advertisement on YouTube videos, which I personally saw several times on August 14 and 15. I don’t know who paid for or sponsored the advertisement but it refers repeatedly to the Pulwama suicide attack and carries parts of an interview with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar in which he describes Pakistan as a difficult neighbour that has used terrorism as a diplomatic tool, and refused to normalise relations with India despite several overtures by New Delhi.

The Pulwama attack had faded from public discourse after the 2019 elections. So why are moves afoot to bring it back into the limelight again?

The answer is obvious: it is because Bihar is going to the polls in October, and the single largest contingent of migrant workers, who suffered the most from the sudden lockdown and denial of facilities to travel home in March, belong to that state. With nothing to woo them with, Modi has found himself at the end of his tether and fallen back on the tried and tested weapon of hyper-nationalism.

This may be why the version of the Pulwama attack that the NIA has leaked has gone beyond the accusation that Modi and defence minister Arun Jaitley had made in February 2019, that “Pakistan had orchestrated the attack on the convoy in Pulwama”.

According to the newspaper’s informant, the chargesheet, which will be ready by the end of this month, will prove that “Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its proxy, Jaish-e-Mohammad, planned and executed the state-sponsored attack, for which highly-trained terrorists were sent to India”.

A damaged CRPF vehicle being taken away after the Pulwama attack. Photo: PTI

More disturbingly, “that Islamabad i.e the elected civilian government, was also in the know of the attack. It claims that ‘strong technical, documentary and material evidence have been collected, apart from experts’ reports and evidence shared by foreign agencies, which prove that the Pakistani government was directly involved in the attack, aimed to create unrest in India”.

The strength of these extremely serious accusations will be known only when the chargesheet becomes public. But the calculated leak has raised a host of questions that, one is sure, Modi would have preferred to remain buried.

The first is, why now, when we are in a standoff with China that is inevitably bringing it and Pakistan closer together? Why bring forward their marriage, instead of seeking ways to postpone, if not prevent it?

The second is, why give your opposition within the country a chance to rake up issues and ask questions whose answers can only hurt you? For the fact is that even if everything the NIA chargesheet reveals is well founded, it will still not explain why Modi, who knew that a serious attack in Kashmir was imminent, did nothing to prevent it, either by warning Pakistan against it in advance, or by putting troops in Kashmir on high alert, and taking steps to minimise their exposure.

Let us take these sins of omission one by one: One week before the suicide attack, which took place on February 14, the Pakistani army suddenly moved to battle stations in Kashmir. This is a huge movement that could not but have been reported to Delhi and Srinagar. There could have been only one reason for making this extremely expensive and, as the radio chatter in the Pakistan army showed, unpopular move, in the dead of winter. Pakistan had planned, or had got to know of, a major attack that was imminent in Kashmir, and felt it necessary to be ready for a reprisal attack by the Modi government.

Analysts in Indian military intelligence leaned towards the view that Islamabad did not get to know of this attack till February 7, because it had received no information about any such impending move from its sources till then. But it could also be because Islamabad had been kept out of the Jaish-ISI loop till the last moment.

Whatever the truth may have been, by the evening of February 7, there was absolutely no way in which Delhi would not have been aware of Pakistan’s sudden action.

It could have been a coincidence, but the very next day, February 8, an intelligence note, marked “extremely urgent” was circulated to all branches of the Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, the Indian Army, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Jammu and Kashmir Police. It warned of a large scale attack using IEDs or improvised explosive devices.

Four days later, on February 12, i.e two days before the attack, the Jammu and Kashmir police shared another vital intelligence input. It was a 33-second video on Twitter of a similar car bomb attack on soldiers in Somalia uploaded by the Jaish-e- Mohammad. J&K police had also prepared a dummy video to explain how militants might carry out such an attack. These inputs too were shared during a meeting held on the same day and all the security and police formations were fully alerted.

On February 12, two convoys with 70 trucks carrying 2,500 soldiers were stuck in Jammu because of heavy snowfall on the Banihal pass. The home and defence ministries both knew from bitter experience that the security forces were at their most vulnerable when they were on the road. So they regularly took elaborate precautions.

The site of the Pulwama attack. Photo: PTI/Files

These included sending road opening parties (ROPs) ahead to inspect the road for buried IEDs and to secure every road crossing before the convoys passed. Even had they not received the warnings of an imminent attack they would have known that such a large convoy (70 buses) would be a tempting target. So the CRPF asked the home ministry to allow it to fly the soldiers into Srinagar.

Inexplicably, the request was denied. It is inconceivable that the home ministry took this decision on its own, without referring it to the Prime Minister’s Office. If this reading is correct, then does it not make whoever took the decision not to let them go by air just as guilty of the deaths of 40-plus jawans as Adil Ahmad Dar, the suicide bomber?

This culpability is highlighted by the fact that five days after the Pulwama tragedy, the central government lifted the ban on airlifting its troops to Kashmir.

The only explanation for the timing of the latest leak to the HT is that it is designed to keep the fires of hyper-nationalism in which the BJP has thrived, warm in the run up to Independence Day and after. Modi had to speak to the people from the Lal Qila. By then he had made up his mind to counteract the immense setback to his popularity caused by his mishandling of the COVID-19 lockdown by painting an alternative, glowing view of India’s future – a future in which there would be jobs aplenty because of the emphasis on Atmanirbharta or self-reliant growth.

Indian army soldiers rest next to artillery guns at a makeshift transit camp before heading to Ladakh, near Baltal,
southeast of Srinagar, June 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

But China was on our border and refusing to go back to its pre-May 5 positions. And the China-Pakistan axis was growing stronger by the day. Thus the flames of hyper-nationalism needed to be stoked to keep the Modi myth alive till Atmanirbharta, hopefully, began to deliver results.

The Pulwama attack remained its best instrument for doing so. But a year and a half after it took place, tempers have cooled and questions have begun to be asked about why the attack had not been averted. So when the NIA chargesheet enters the public domain, there will be one acid test of its integrity. This will be whether it gives a full account not only of the warnings the government got and did not act upon, but who took the decision not to act and why.

If it does not do that it will only harden the suspicion that the government took no action because it wanted to let the attack take place in order to harvest the wave of anger that would follow.

Read More

Going forward, it is essential that each side understand its opponent.

A Tragedy has Been Averted but the Danger for India and China Persists

Victor Gao and Prem Shankar Jha

A tragedy has been averted: Chinese troops that had entered the disputed  areas that lie between the Indian and Chinese definitions of the Line of Actual Control, have pulled back from three of them. Indian troops have done the same.

But the military build-up in their base areas outside the intermediate “grey” zone  continues.

If the talks between Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi do not yield fruit, it  is certain to increase. The clouds of war have therefore only lifted: they have yet to disperse.

Galwan and Dhola – The similarity between 2020 and 1962

To appreciate how close we came to a war last month, we only need to  remind ourselves of how the 1962 war began. Officially, it began when the Chinese attacked Dhola post, not far from Tawang, in the eastern Himalayas on October 20, and ended with a China-declared unilateral truce on November 21. In reality, it began 10 days earlier and, like the conflict in the Galwan valley on June 15, it too started over a cartographic dispute.
How this dispute arose is described in detail in the still proscribed Henderson-Brooks Report of 1963, but can now be downloaded from the internet. In August 1962, Eastern Command informed Delhi that one of its patrols had reported that the tri-junction of Bhutan, India and Tibet marked on the McMahon line did not fall on the Himalayan watershed, as McMahon had intended it to do, but four miles south of it .

McMahon Line, Original Map of the North-East Frontier.
McMahon Line, Original Map of the North-East Frontier.

The Ministry of External Affairs took this up with the Chinese government, presumably suggesting a rectification, but Beijing did not agree. So in September, Delhi decided to correct it on its own, established the Dhola post at a point between the two locations, and manned it with  a platoon of soldiers. This post was immediately surrounded by 600 Chinese soldiers with the obvious intention of starving the defenders out.

A stalemate ensued during which both sides sent more troops to the area. The first skirmish took place in early October and went the way of India. On October 10, therefore, Delhi asked the army to ‘evict the Chinese from the Thagla ridge’. What followed is history and need not detain us here.

The situation that developed at Patrol Point 14 in the Galwan valley on June 15 is similar to the one that had developed at the Dhola post 58 years earlier. On June 15, it was only the stringent protocols designed to prevent armed conflict, put in place after the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border region, that  prevented the savage hand-to-hand fighting  that took place  from tuning into a bloodbath. Had those protocols not been in place,  India and China may well have been in the middle of another fratricidal war today.

Who needs another war?

Neither country wants, needs, or indeed can afford, a war in the Himalayas now. So as talks at the diplomatic level begin, it has become imperative for civil society in both countries to  understand what brought us to the brink of war and how we can get back to a durable and mutually beneficial peace.

More specifically, we need to understand why the Chinese chose to occupy these particular stretches of the LAC; why the PLA stayed broadly within the limits of China’s definition of the LAC and, having gone so far, why it has now agreed to move back from three of them and thin down its presence in the other two.

Plains in Ladakh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

The topography of the region answers the first question. The Depsang plains are the closest point on the Chinese LAC to Daulat Beg Oldi. DBO is situated on a finger of land west of the Karakoram range, at only 13 kilometres from the Karakoram Pass, and a little more than 200 kms from the  Khunjerab pass through which the Karakoram highway, which  links China to Pakistan now,  passes.

Till only two years ago, for all but a few months in summer, Daulat Beg Oldi was linked to  the rest of Ladakh only by air. But following the completion of a 450-metre bridge across the Shyok river, it is now linked by an all-weather road. DBO also has an airfield now that can take Antonov and C-130 Hercules cargo planes. Finally, it is barely 120  kilometres – six minutes in a modern fighter plane – from G219, China’s strategic link road between Xinxiang and Tibet.

Pangong lake, at the other end of the road, is 134 kms long and G219 skirts its  eastern shore just as the road to DBO skirts its western edge. It therefore provides a swift route for moving large numbers of troops, artillery and armour from deep inside Tibet to places from which they can cut off the road to DBO within hours. Occupying the heights above finger 4, can give the PLA the capacity to interdict any Indian counter-attack on Chinese landing craft in the lake. A similar dominating position in the heights above the Galwan valley can  give the PLA a second choke point from which to target  the road from Ladakh to DBO.

Daulat Beg Oldi shown in the northernmost part of Ladakh (1988 CIA map).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

These are strategic deployments of the kind usually made in anticipation of war. So why, after having made them, did China take care to remain within its broad definition of the LAC and agree to talks? The only rational explanation is that its purpose was not to annex the land but to force the  Modi government into a dialogue to clear the misgivings and distrust that its abrupt change of foreign policy in 2014 had sown in Beijing’s mind.

This was underlined by China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, who has stated repeatedly since the confrontation began that China’s goal is to forge a strategic partnership, not rivalry with India. It was also echoed by the foreign office’s spokesperson  in Beijing: “The Indian side should not have (sic) strategic miscalculation on China. We hope it will work with China to uphold the overall picture of our bilateral relations.”

But what does China mean by ‘strategic miscalculation’ and  ‘strategic partnership’? In the second part of this article, we will examine this crucial dimension of the current crisis in the bilateral relationship against the backdrop of wider region and global security dynamics.

Victor Gao was the English language interpreter for Chairman Deng Xiaoping, from 1984 to 1988. (In this photo he is seen interpreting for Chairman Deng and US Vice President Walter Mondale in Beijing in 1984.) He is currently chair professor, Soochow University and vice president, Centre for China and Globalisation. The CCG is ranked 94th among the world’s top think tanks.

Prem Shankar Jha is a columnist for The Wire, former media adviser to V.P. Singh when he was prime minister and  former Editor of the Hindustan Times. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle (2009) and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India dominate the West ( 2010).

Note: In an earlier version of this article, a zero was dropped while describing the distance from the Khunjerab Pass to Daulat Beg Oldi. The sentence should have read “little more than 200 km” and not “little more than 20 km”.

Read More

If the two leaders succeed in taking a broad view of the bilateral relationship, the current border crisis can not only be transcended but turned into an opportunity.

LAC Tensions to Fester Till Modi, Xi Revive Prospects for India-China Strategic Cooperation
File photo of preparations made ahead of the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meet at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu in 2019. Photo: PTI

Victor Gao and Prem Shankar Jha

This is the concluding instalment of a two-part article on the continuing military standoff between India and China. The first part was published on July 23, 2020.

Beijing’s repeated use of the word ‘strategic’ is the key to understanding its military posture in Ladakh. In its view, India’s recent actions in the Asia-Pacific region had invalidated the underlying premise of India’s foreign policy upon which the 1993 and subsequent agreements with China had been based. This was that India would use  its ‘soft power’ to minimise conflict in Asia and the west Pacific, and create a multipolar, rule-guided, world order in opposition to the US goal of creating a unipolar world. This was also India’s stated goal then, and indeed throughout the Cold War. So this commitment was formalised by the creation of BRICS in 2009, and was made explicit in its Delhi declaration of 2012.

China’s misgivings began to grow when, within months of his coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacificwhich obliged its signatories to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; became a ‘Major Defence Partner’ of the US; sent a flotilla of warships to join a US-Japan task force in the South China Sea;  and began regularly hosting operation Malabar in the Bay of Bengal, one of whose war games is the closing of the straits of Malacca through which 40% of China’s exports and close to 90% of its oil imports have to pass.

When India  also signed the Military Logistics Supply Agreements with the US and  Japan and began working on one with Australia, China could no longer ignore the fact that under Modi, India did not feel duty bound to abide by the tenets of  Panchsheel, which are reiterated in  the first paragraph of the 1993 Border Agreement.

Why China wants a strategic partnership

For China, this was hugely disturbing because, unlike Britain in the 19th and the US in the 20th century, its prosperity and growing  hegemonic power did not stem from its dominance of global manufacture but from its dominance of global trade. In some categories of consumer goods, China accounts for over 90% of US imports, and nearly 20% of the EU’s total imports – probably amounting to more than half of its consumer goods imports –  come from China.

But that is only one half of what accounts for China’s pivotal place in world trade. The other half is that  an increasing proportion of its exports  contain components and raw materials that China imports from other ASEAN countries, Australia and South America. This complex web of connections,  maintained by sea,  air and digital communication, can survive only in conditions of peace. War is therefore anathema for China, because it will itself be the first casualty.

Maintaining peace has, however, become more and more difficult as the US has become aware of the speed at which China is converting its growing economic power into hegemony, through investment of its foreign exchange surpluses in developing countries. This awareness had remained dormant in the US through the ‘roaring nineties’ and the ‘dotcom’ boom  of the early 2000s, but sprang to life after the financial crash of 2008 because China’s economy powered on, seemingly unaffected by the global crisis.

Within months of its onset, therefore, analysts had begun to credit China’s immense demand, especially for raw materials, for the early end of the recession that had set in after the crash, and to talk of the US and China as the  G-2.

US reaction – ‘Containment’

President Obama reacted to the implied threat to US hegemony with his ‘pivot to Asia’ in November 2011. Its purpose was to ‘contain’  China by strengthening its neighbours but it soon became apparent the strengthening being referred to was mostly military. As a result,  by 2016 China found itself  encircled by a large number of US military installations and bases stretching from Japan through Okinawa, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand, to Australia.

China was acutely aware of the destruction that that these could unleash upon it. It had seen how a single American warship, acting without any legal backing from the UN, had destroyed nearly all of Gaddafi’s air force and radar installations in Tripoli by unleashing more than 132 Tomahawk missiles in a single night.   It was also aware that the version of Tomahawk missile that is standard equipment on US warships has a range of nearly 1,600 kms. So the 12-mile exclusion limit for territorial waters enshrined in the UN-drafted Law of the Sea  no longer offers any protection against annihilation.

China responded by building an airport on the disputed Fiery Cross reef in the middle of the South China Sea with material dredged up from the ocean floor,  and  declaring the South China Sea a part of its core security area in which it wants prior notification of the passage of non-commercial craft. This has  ratcheted up the tension another notch. Since then, there have been annual confrontations between US-led task forces and Chinese naval vessels  in the South China sea.

If not defused, such military confrontations tip over sooner or later into war – cold or hot. To avoid this, China turned to BRICS, and particularly to India with its immense ‘soft power’ for support. In two momentous meetings, between Manmohan Singh and its new president, Xi Jinping, at Durban in 2013, and between Prime Minister Singh and Premier Li Keqiang in Delhi in 2013, China  sought to consolidate  a long term strategic partnership with India. To remove hurdles in the way, President Xi Jinping  offered ‘an early settlement’of the border dispute in the Himalayas.

Enter Narendra Modi

That was the point at which the UPA government fell, the BJP came to power, Modi turned two decades of patient bridge building with both China and Pakistan on its head, and made India a partner of the US in its  effort to ‘contain’ China.

Despite that huge setback, China did not give up on India. Instead it turned to its Belt Road Initiative to continue binding the two nations together. The  BRI had assumed supreme importance for China not only because it promised to provide a number of  escape hatches through which China could carry on its international trade in the remote contingency that its sea routes out of the South China Sea and through the  Malacca straits got blocked. But more immediately and urgently, the BRI became important because it offered a way to stave off the severe recession that was enveloping its  machine tools and other engineering industries after the fiscal stimulus programme it had launched in 2008-9  to fight the global recession came to an end in 2013.

The problem it faced was  exceptionally severe because the planned fiscal stimulus – with a budgeted investment of 4 trillion Yuan ($586 billion dollars) – ended up creating huge excess capacities in steel, power generation, roadbuilding and construction, and an even more crippling excess capacity  in the heavy machine building industries that produced the equipment these projects needed.

The resulting unemployment was largely hidden, because the Communist Party ensures that there is virtually no unorganised labour force in the county outside the fringes of agriculture.  So prolonged unemployment for the workforce is not an option for the government because it will cost the party its Mandate from Heaven. Xi Jinping therefore turned to the BRI, and to a  massive redirection of domestic investment into the western  and border regions, in its 13th Five Year Plan. Both programmes were therefore outcomes of domestic politico-economic concerns, and not of the inherent expansionism of “the Middle Kingdom” that western defence analysts keep harping upon.

How Modi cut off India’s nose to spite China’s face

India’s capacity to absorb new investment in infrastructure and make it yield quick returns is greater than that of the seven next largest  countries involved in the BRI put together. While the combined GDP  of these seven countries – Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Malaysia – was $2.1 trillion in 2015, India’s GDP was $2.256 trillion.

China had hoped that India, with its huge need to modernise its antiquated road, rail and ports infrastructure, would fill the order books of China’s basic and heavy engineering industries for a decade. Therefore, when Modi opted  out of the BRI in 2017, it was an even bigger blow than his sudden abandonment of equidistance in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, even that is not the end of the story. The reason Modi gave for refusing to send even a representative to the  inaugural conference in Beijing in 2017 was China’s refusal to formally recognise Gilgit as a part of India illegally occupied by Pakistan. This gave Beijing even greater cause for alarm because it showed that Modi would respect neither history nor the commitments of its  predecessors if it suited his whim or fancy. For, in its view, not only had the people of Gilgit nothing in common with the Kashmiris of the valley, but, since 1889, the area had been ’leased’ to the British to protect against foreign (i.e Russian) invasion.

In 1947, therefore, when the British terminated their lease and ‘returned’ Gilgit to Maharaja Hari Singh, a section of the local population revolted and declared itself for Pakistan. Gilgit therefore took no part in the Kashmir war, and the question of retaking it never arose in the meetings of the defence committee of the Indian cabinet in 1947 and 1948.

What is more, the Simla agreement of 1972 and the Delhi agreement of 2005 had both explicitly accepted the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir as the de facto border between the two countries. The Modi government’s perversity therefore sowed the suspicion that it would feel few qualms about reneging from the 1993 agreement with China too, if that suited its purpose.

The effective abrogation of Article 370, the bringing of Ladakh directly under Delhi’s rule, and the near simultaneous publication of a new map of India that shows Ladakh and the whole of Aksai Chin as a Union Territory may have been the straw that tipped the scales in favour of sending a warning to India via the PLA.

Turn crisis into opportunity

The acid test of statecraft is the ability to turn crisis into opportunity. India and China can do this today in a manner that makes them both winners. The talks now going on will not serve their purpose, if they do not address the core anxieties of the two nations. Since the signal of growing disquiet has come from China, it is India that needs to take the lead in doing this.

The most important reassurance China needs is that the Modi government’s frequent claims to Gilgit and PoK are nothing more than theatre  for its domestic audience –  full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. This is supremely important for China because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through Gilgit, envisages an investment of $68 billion, which will  not only be the largest component of the BRI by far, but also China’s  most important escape hatch for continuing its trade and ensuring its supply  of oil,  should some future western coalition decide to blockade the seaways out of the South China sea.

A second way to reassure Beijing would be to lift the various bans on Chinese apps, the import of Chinese goods, the banning of  Chinese investment, and the termination of ongoing contracts that PM Modi has decreed since June 19. Since trade with India accounts for only 2.4% of China’s exports, but 14% of India’s imports, this is hurting India more than China. But the far more dangerous message that Prime Minister Modi has unwittingly sent is that since he feels no obligation to respect minor international economic commitments, it would be folly to expect him to uphold major political ones. If that impression is allowed to sink in, then for Beijing force will remain the only alternative.

The least politically sensitive way to repair relations would be for India to join  the Belt Road Initiative. Estimates of how much money China has pledged for the BRI vary. According to the US Council on Foreign Relations, China has so far committed $200 billionto projects in 60 countries. But its experience has been mixed. Since China is offering finance in the form of low interest loans and not grants, many smaller countries have over-leveraged their projects and been forced to sell off equity in them to China when demand projections have turned out to be too rosy and they have been  unable to service their debt.  In sensitive projects like the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, this has looked far too much like an engineered take-over of a strategic asset, and has made several  countries shy away from projects in which they had initially welcomed Chinese financing.

China has been trying to persuade India to join the BRI since well before its inauguration, because India has the financial reserves and markets that can ensure a more balanced funding of projects, and the deep, unsatisfied demand that  guarantees immediate returns on investment. By not doing so, Prime Minister Modi has only cut India’s nose to spite China’s face. This would be a good time to correct that error. Revisiting the BRI in the discussions being held now would therefore be the surest way of cementing peace in the Himalayas.

Victor Gao was the English language interpreter for Chairman Deng Xiaoping, from 1984 to 1988. (In this photo he is seen interpreting for Chairman Deng and US Vice President Walter Mondale in Beijing in 1984.) He is currently chair professor, Soochow University and vice president, Centre for China and Globalisation. The CCG is ranked 94th among the world’s top think tanks.

Prem Shankar Jha is a columnist for The Wire, former media adviser to V.P. Singh when he was prime minister and  former Editor of the Hindustan Times. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle (2009) and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India dominate the West ( 2010).

Read More

National Security Conversation

Read More

f political pusillanimity dressed up as jingoism wins out again at the All-Party meeting on Friday evening, it could turn into tragedy.

India and China Need to Dial Back the Tension
Map of the Galwan Valley region. Credit: Google Maps

It is 1962 all over again. India and China are heading for war, and this time it is not an insecure defence minister (Krishna Menon) and a gung-ho army chief who had never seen a shot fired in action (B.M. Kaul) who are driving India towards it. This time, it is a bunch of retired army officers, many of whom have not even served in the Ladakh region, egged on by television channels that see in the tragedy in Galwan valley an opportunity to increase their TRP ratings and increase their revenues in the future.

The dominant narrative has it that the hand-to-hand fight in the Galwan valley on June 15 took place because the Chinese never intended to honour the disengagement agreement reached on June 6 and were pursuing their seven-decades old policy of slicing off whatever territory they wanted in the Himalayan region. So when a small Indian contingent set off up the Galwan river to confront them and demand that they withdraw, the Chinese responded by ambushing it and killing 20 of our jawans, including their colonel.

What this narrative ignores is that both sides have differing perceptions of where the line of actual control (LAC) runs. In some areas, the lines overlap, creating a grey zone to which both sides lay claim and where the two armies have developed rules of engagement that occasionally come unstuck.

That is why the army’s official statement on the incident was matter of fact:

“During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties on both sides. The loss of lives on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of the two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”

The MEA’s first statement on June 16 blamed the incident on Chinese attempts to alter the status quo: “On the late-evening and night of 15th June, 2020 a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there.”

On June 17, the MEA’s readout of external affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s conversation with his Chinese counterpart went one step further,

“The Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC,”, the MEA spokesperson said. “While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

While the increase in the temperature of India’s official statements is noticeable, so is the careful calibration. Regrettably, the electronic media is showing no such restraint. Virtually every channel except NDTV has been ending its programmes by forcing political dignitaries from both the Congress and BJP to choose between advising caution and thereby condoning the death of the Indian soldiers, and demanding a reckoning from China.

Needless to say, nearly all party representatives on TV agree that China has to be taught a lesson, and that the best way to do this is to break every international trade agreement and convention India has signed, drive every Chinese product and every Chinese company out of the Indian market and be prepared for war.

The storm of jingoism that the media has created has already forced Prime Minister Modi to abandon some of his initial caution and say that India will give “a befitting reply to provocation”. It has also given him an opportunity to merge his atma-nirbharta (self-reliance) campaign, conceived to divert public attention away from the failure of his COVID lockdown, with the clarion call to nationalism which has served him so well before. Should he now decide to ‘stand up to  the Chinese dragon’ it is difficult to see any political party that will have the courage and strength to oppose him and advise caution.

War is therefore only one fatal misstep away.  Should that step be taken, India will once again be embroiled in a conflict that, given the nature of the terrain, it cannot possibly win.

What happened at Galwan

The only way the government can avert this is by telling the public everything that had been decided on June 6 and June 13, set the record straight about what happened at Galwan on June 14-15, and hope that better sense will prevail. This, to the best of my knowledge, is what happened:

At the corps commander-level meeting on Saturday, June 13, the two sides had agreed to withdraw their forces to a distance of two kilometres from where they were then. Where the Chinese were then, both in the Galwan river area and above Pangong lake was not indisputably on the Indian side of the LAC but on the Chinese side as defined by them, and thus in the grey zone. At Pangong it was the ridge above Finger 4 of the lake. In the Galwan valley it was at a point the Indian army called PP (Patrol Point) 14. The Indian definition of the LAC was some distance east of the Chinese  at Pangong, and pretty much contiguous with it at Galwan except at a few places.

It is important to make this clear because at no point, except for the location of one little tent, did the Chinese try to “slice off” any fresh territory, as TV anchors are claiming. Everything they did was within their understanding of the de facto LAC established after the 1962 war and accepted in principle by both countries in the Agreement On Peace And Tranquility In The Border Regions, of 1993.

This is also true of the Chinese military build-up at various points in Aksai Chin since May. In fact, the support base of the troops in the Galwan valley is 40 kms to the east, beyond even the Indian definition of the LAC in the area. This is equally true of the support bases for the build up at Pangong lake and the three other points in Ladakh.

When the 14th corps headquarters realised on June 15 that the Chinese had not only not begun their withdrawal as stipulated in the agreement, but had set up a tent on the Indian side of PP14 and a fresh observation post on the Chinese side, it sent a detachment to remove the tent, and request the Chinese to withdraw from the observation post in line with the agreement of June 13.

Indian soldiers removed the tent on the 15th. The same day, Col Babu and his men proceeded to the observation post at the China-defined LAC, reaching there at 4 pm. When he asked the Chinese why they had set up the observation post after the June 13 agreement, he was given the possibly disingenuous answer that it was to make sure that  the Indian troops were withdrawing to the stipulated distance first, before doing so themselves. As of now, one can only speculate on how this discussion turned into an altercation and then into the lethal battle that followed. Suffice it to say that the Chinese were prepared to fight with improvised weapons, and a tragedy ensued  that can end by changing the course of Indian, and possibly world history in the months and years to come.

China tamps down rhetoric, somewhat

The Chinese government has made it clear that it does not want the incident to derail China-India relations any more than they have already been derailed in the past six years. To do this, it has, in addition to its official statement on Wednesday, resorted to its unofficial mouthpiece on foreign policy, Global Times, to cool tempers in China and send a message to India that it does not want a war.

In an article titled “Chinese netizens call for restraint and reason in wake of China-India border clash”, the author, Chen Xi warned his readers against the wave of xenophobia that was sweeping China and highlighted message after message that did the opposite:  “Some Chinese netizens took to social media Twitter to state that the incident should not undermine the common development of the two countries” .

He particularly  singled out one from a Chinese netizen who calls himself  Hubei_Peasant: “I really hope friends and comrades don’t provoke Indian people on Twitter or engage with any bad-faith provocations. It tarnishes what soft power we have left, and any inflammation of Indian public opinion is contrary to our interests. Silence is golden”.

China has sent a second signal by agreeing on June 17th to release 10 soldiers whom they had captured at the observation post.

While the soldiers were indeed freed within 24 hours of the agreement, some hardening of the Chinese stand was evident too by June 18 with the Global Times editor putting out a video and tweet warning India not to underestimate China’s resolve.

China’s aims

In all this, there is a question that needs answering: If Beijing is not following a policy of cloaking incremental expansionism in subterfuge, and genuinely does not want the conflict to escalate, why did its soldiers do what they did in Galwan, bringing the two countries to the brink of war?

There is one other possible explanation: It has been apparent for some time that China’s sudden hardening of stance over the boundary issue is designed to warn Delhi against reneging on  the implicit and explicit understandings that have  sustained peace in the border region since 1993. Foremost among these is the maintenance of equidistance from all power blocs in the post Cold War world.

India has gone back on this in  the past six years. It has signed an agreement with the  US to force freedom of navigation in the south China sea, sent warships to join a US-Japanese task force to do so; joined Operation Malabar with the US and Australia – one of whose “ war games”  is the closing of the straits of Malacca through which 90 percent of China’s imported oil passes; and signed three military logistics agreements with the US that have made India a de facto military ally of the US in a future war.

Had Modi stopped there, China might not have reacted. But he has also reneged on past understandings with China over Indian non-intervention in its construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through Gilgit, and on the understanding reached with Pakistan by two Indian prime ministers,  Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, that the LOC in Kashmir will be turned into a ‘soft border’ between the two countries, thereby leaving the CPEC alone.

Under Modi, India reneged on this understanding  not only in words but deeds, for in 2018 he made China’s acceptance of India’s claim to Gilgit a precondition for signing the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). By doing this, he literally cut off India’s nose to spite China’s face, because the Chinese  were depending upon India’s insatiable need to modernise its  infrastructure to fill the order books of the  huge ‘mother machine’ heavy industries that  were lying idle after its 2009-14 domestic fiscal stimulus ended.

The end of Article 370

Mod did not stop there. Not only did he and defence minister Rajnath Singh state more than once  that India will take back every inch of its territory including PoK and Aksai Chin.

Following on from the abolition of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and its division into two union territories, India released a new political map in November 2019.

Like all official Indian maps, it shows neither the line of control with Pakistan nor the LAC with China and did not alter the external boundaries of India in Ladakh in any way. Its purpose may have only been to remind the faithful of the BJP’s great achievement in eliminating Article 370 and breaking up Jammu and Kashmir into two but its release may have also been misunderstood by the Chinese. This was not the first time New Delhi was reasserting its stand that Aksai Chin is a part of India. But when the airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi – barely 20 kms as the crow flies from the Karakoram Pass –  has just been been repaired and a fairly good modern road linking it to Pangong,  Durbuk and Leh has been completed, Beijing may well have convinced itself that Modi could no longer be relied upon not to try to put a spoke in the CPEC project.

China’s sudden decision to unilaterally define the LAC, by militarising its side of it, is therefore a political message. A return to the status quo ante required political discussions, and these had begun at both the diplomatic and military headquarters level. But military commands do not explain the political rationale of the orders they give to soldiers on the ground. The Chinese troops at Galwan were no doubt told to hold their territory without using firearms until they received further orders. That they made elaborate preparations to do so, including damming rivulets to provide water for the use of water cannons, is now apparent.

Col. Babu and his men were similarly not kept in any political loop. They too had been given simple orders: clear the tent, find out what the Chinese are up to and persuade them to withdraw as per the June 13 agreement.  The rest is now history. If political pusillanimity dressed up as jingoism wins out again at the All-Party meeting on Friday evening, it could turn into tragedy.

Read More

From China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise of the 1993 Agreement: going back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed at the height of the Cold War.

Are China and India Going Back to 1962?
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands as they visit the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, Hubei province, Photo: China Daily via Reuters.

China’s near-simultaneous incursion into two areas of Ladakh, one of which it has recognised in the past as being on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control, has caught the government by surprise. The media, especially television, has reacted with its usual mixture of incomprehension and bravado, but fortunately, both the Army command and South Block have exercised a mature restraint. Apart from rushing reinforcements to the two areas of Chinese incursion – the Galwan river valley and Pangong lake – the Northern Army command has continued to try and resolve differences through flag meetings between progressively higher levels of command in both armies.

Unlike similar confrontations in the past, these are unlikely to bear fruit. The reason is that, from China’s point of view, India has reneged upon a fundamental, albeit tacit, premise upon with the 1993 Agreement on Peace and Tranquility in the Border Regions, was based. This is that, with the end of the deep freeze in relations that had existed since 1962, China and India would go back to the strategic cooperation on international issues that had existed between them at the height of the Cold War.

A man walks inside a conference room with Indian and Chinese flags in the background. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/File

That premise remained valid so long as India, under both Congress and BJP-led governments, maintained a policy of equidistance from power blocs and deepening economic engagement with all. It became explicit during a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference at Hua Hin, Thailand in 2009. The meeting was triggered by a period of rising tension between the two countries over Delhi’s permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang, in what Beijing then frequently referred to as South China.

To the Indian media’s uncomprehending surprise, it was China that took the initiative to hold the meeting. India did not withdraw its permission to the Dalai Lama but so managed his visit that it did not become the international spectacle that China had feared. Delhi’s unqualified success in allaying China’s long term anxieties both over immediate border issues and India’s continued adherence to its policies of equidistance laid the base for the strategic cooperation that China was seeking. This became apparent in the content and tenor of the annual meetings of BRICS, at Sanya, in China, in 2011, and more  unambiguously at Delhi  in 2012

At Delhi, in a joint statement that was twice the length of its predecessor, the member countries voiced the most comprehensive criticism of the failures of the West that had been articulated by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War. It demanded that the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, be respected. It condemned the attacks on Libya and Syria, and warned that the threats to Iran “must not be allowed to escalate into conflict”. And it explicitly called for the establishment of a multi-polar world order.

At the Durban meeting of BRICS the next year, Xi Jinping, who had replaced Hu Jintao as president of China, accelerated the development of Sino-Indian cooperation by stating explicitly that it was his intention to settle the border dispute ‘as early as possible’, instead of the previous formulation of ‘gradually over time’.

Modi’s China policy 

Unfortunately, when Xi came the following year to discuss long term strategic cooperation and possibly suggest some form of closure to the border dispute, Narendra Modi had replaced Manmohan Singh. Instead of taking up the reigns where Manmohan Singh had dropped them, Modi turned the visit into a Gujarati tamasha designed to enlarge his own image, and discussed nothing of consequence. This was because, less than a fortnight earlier, he had met President Brack Obama in Washington, sacked his foreign secretary, committed India to signing three comprehensive defence agreements with the US,   aligned India with the US on the key issue of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on which the US and China had come close to conflict, and invited Obama to be the state guest at the next Republic Day.

In spite of all these disquieting developments, China pulled out all the stops to welcome Modi during his return visit to China in June 2015. Xi took an entire day out of his calendar to spend it with him in Xian. Prime minister Li Keqiang spent in all 13 hours with him. The joint statement issued after the visit began by acknowledging “the simultaneous re-emergence of India and China as two major powers in the region (emphasis added)”. But aside from that, it was barren of content.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) guides Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to a meeting room in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, May 14, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A year later, in May 2016, Modi ended China’s seven-year bid to enlarge its strategic cooperation with India by sending four Indian warships to join a US-Japan task force for nearly three months in the South China sea. The sole purpose of this exercise was to foil China’s bid for hegemony over this maritime region by enforcing the maritime border limit of 12 nautical miles enacted by the UN Conference on the  Law of the Sea.

The subsequent rapid deterioration of relations has been described by me in earlier columns and will take too long to describe. Suffice it to say that China avoided blaming India directly, preferred to accuse the US of playing a ‘divide and rule’ game to create a schism between the two countries, and waited to see if time, or the next general election, would bring about a change of policy.

When, to the delight of the US, Modi also brusquely rebuffed every enticement by China to send at least a representative to the inaugural Belt Road Initiative (BRI) conference in Beijing, China put its relations with India on hold till the next elections. One suspects that the BJP’s second victory ended that and made Beijing start looking for an alternative policy towards India.

The sites for confrontation are not a random choice

Only against this background does the current Chinese military action make any sense. Its choice of Pangong lake and the Galwan river region as the sites for confrontation is not random. For Pangong lake is the starting point of a road India completed two years ago that runs along the west side of the Shyok river past its confluence with the Galwan river to Daulat Beg Oldi.

From a cartographic point of view, this gives the road considerable strategic importance. The Galwan river starts in the south of Xinjiang, and runs a long way through a narrow valley before joining the Shyok river in the Nubra valley. It could therefore become an access route between Xinjiang and  Ladakh.

The valley is an old flashpoint. In May 1962, overriding the objections of the Western Command, Army HQ in Delhi ordered it to set up a post on the Galwan river. The Western Command advised against supplying the post through a land route and urged that this be done only from the air, but New Delhi overruled it once more and ordered it to use the land route.

When it was set up in July, it was immediately surrounded by 70 or more Chinese soldiers. The Chinese forced the supply columns back, day after day, for four days and withdrew only after 12 days. In October, when the Sino-Indian war began, the Chinese overran Galwan in hours. 33 of its 68 defenders were killed, and the rest taken prisoner. As the Henderson Brooks report pointed out, this was part of the Forward Policy adopted in November under defence minister Krishna Menon in November 1961, which became the trigger for the 1962 war.

After the Chinese withdrew again, the Indian army could have left the valley alone as part of a no man’s land between the two countries. The 1993 agreement gave it an added reason for doing so. But the Chinese had, over the years steadily expanded their claim to the Galwan valley, and the surrounding region, so to pre-empt further changes the army had set up a post once more. In the last year, it had been building a road to connect it to the Pangong-DBO road.

Daulat Beg Oldi sits at the foot of the Karakoram range on its eastern side, but only a short distance away from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through the Karakoram pass. This seems to have become a  source of unease for the Chinese military, so much so that in 2013, three weeks before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to India, a Chinese platoon had penetrated 10 km into Indian territory to create an incident there. At that time, there were only a few buildings there, but recent satellite photos show that it too has been expanded into a substantial forward base with a large number of sheds and buildings.

Pakistan and China flags. Photo: Reuters

None of these three recent developments poses any military threat to China. The Pangong-DBO road is a supply road for light vehicles similar to the ones that now link every Chinese outpost on the other side of the LOAC.  The connection across the Shyok to the Galwan post is a footbridge. The post itself has no more military capability now than it had in 1962.

Similarly, Daulat Beg Oldi is a jumping off point to nowhere because, although only a short distance from the Karakoram pass, any military action there would involve a war with both Pakistan and China.

No sane government in India, or for that matter any country, would take on two powerful adversaries at the same time. But Modi has been harping upon Pakistan’s illegal occupation of two-fifths of Kashmir, and opposing the creation of CPEC ever since he has come to power. So DBG too has acquired a strategic significance to China because it is now convinced that it faces a government that not only does not respect the commitments made by its predecessors, but is driven by the impulses of a prime minister who has made a habit of leaping before he looks.

The purpose of China’s choice of this particular area for its intrusions is therefore clear. Although it has not formally abrogated the 1993 agreement, it believes that the Modi government has thoroughly undermined the underlying premise upon which it was based. It has therefore gone back to the age-old strategy of minimising potential risks when faced by a potential enemy.

But, as China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, has made clear, the door back to 2014 is not closed.    It lies in rediscovering “our strategic mutual trust”. These are not idly chosen words. They require a rediscovery of our common strategic aims, as were enunciated in BRICS’ Delhi declaration, and a rebuilding of mutual trust. If that does not happen, then China will treat the 1993 agreement as no longer binding and do what it feels is necessary to safeguard its long term best interest.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

Read More