GP Insights # 408, 5 September 2020
India- China border standoff at LAC: No consensus at sight
During 29-30 August, the Indian Army, in a 'pre-emptive' move, occupied heights in the Chushul sector. According to the defence sources, this move was to thwart the Chinese attempts to occupy and dominate the heights that fall under the Indian side. China, however, stated that the onus of maintaining peace at the LAC lies on India, and demanded the withdrawal of troops from the heights.
During 3-4 September, Chief of Army Staff visited Ladakh and took stock of the situation at the ground level. The Chief of Indian Air Force visited frontline airbases in the Eastern Command and reviewed the level of operational preparedness.
On 4 September 2020, the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met his counterpart Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of the SCO meet at Moscow. Ministers of External Affairs of both countries are expected to meet on 10 September at Moscow.
On 2 September, India banned 118 Chinese applications, stating national security as a reason.
What is the background?
First, the inconclusive military talks and the inability to reach an agreement. Multiple rounds of talks at the military level (Commander and Brigadier-levels) have failed to reduce tensions between India and China. The five rounds at Brigadier-level meetings have ended inconclusively. China demanded troop reduction from heights in the Chushul sector, to which India disagreed.
Second, the failure to implement, what has been agreed. At the initial military-level talks, both reached agreement on disengagement in areas apart from Pangong Tso, one of the main contentious areas. The first phase of disengagement remains incomplete, despite more than ten rounds of talks and negotiations. The PLA continues to occupy areas between Finger 4 and Finger 8 near Pangong Tso. Additionally, intelligence inputs suggest that they now control approximately 1000 square kilometres along the LAC in different sectors. Disengagement failed to restart even after the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China border affairs facilitated talks at the ground level.
Third, the strong political rhetoric. India and China exchanged barbs in the backdrop of the standoff at LAC. Beijing accused New Delhi of towing the US line and falling for the western agenda when the latter banned 118 Chinese apps. India, on the other hand, maintained that it emphasizes peace at the border, but will not allow any country to unilaterally dominate it and encroach upon its sovereignty. Prime Minister Modi also made strong statements when 20 Indian soldiers were martyred in the Galwan Valley.
Fourth, the economic fallout. Since the beginning of the standoff at LAC in May, India has been heavily scrutinizing the products that are manufactured in China and enter India either directly, or via South-East Asia. It hopes to reduce dependence on China and build stronger economic linkages with Australia and Japan through Supply Chain Resilience Initiative. India has also been keenly observing the activities of institutions that teach Mandarin. On the virtual front, it has banned several Chinese apps on the grounds of national security.
What does it mean?
First, military talks have failed; diplomacy is the only way forward. The Ministry of External Affairs emphasized the need for negotiations to break the impasse. The talk at the Defence Ministers' and Foreign Ministers' level at Moscow is a welcome step in this regard. Both countries cannot afford to use military options at a time when the pandemic has destroyed economies.
Second, is India considering pre-emption as an option unlike before? The force deployment at Chushul sector indicates this. It is also firm on not withdrawing from the places at which it had negligible presence earlier. India probably considers this as a strong message to be sent out to China for attempting to change the status quo.
Third, the emphasis on the Quadrilateral Initiative. Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat said that the Quad should become a system to "ensure freedom of navigation and freedom of navigation operations in the Indian Ocean and around… without the fear of any other nation singularly trying to dominate the oceans." It indicated that he targeted China. However, if this signals a change in India's perception of Indo-Pacific and Quad in particular, it needs more clarity from the political leadership. The Indian PM had stressed earlier that "Quad is not a strategy or a club of limited members" against one country.