The press release by the Ministry of External Affairs at the end of the 13th round of the India-China corps commanders meeting held on October 10 was explicit in declaring that “the situation along the LAC had been caused by unilateral attempts of Chinese side to alter the status quo and in violation of the bilateral agreements.” It put the onus squarely on the Chinese side to “take appropriate steps… so as to restore peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the Western Sector.”
The statement is noteworthy for being one of the few times that New Delhi has directly accused China of bad behaviour outside of the context of major provocations such as the Galwan clash in June 2020, or the Chinese attempts to unilaterally change the status quo on the south bank of the Pangong Tso on August 29-30, 2020. Other instances include Minister of State in the MEA, V Muraleedharan’s replies to questions in the Rajya Sabha in February and the Lok Sabha in February and March, as well as Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla in a speech at the end of June. Both would refer to Chinese attempts over the last year to unilaterally alter the status quo in Ladakh.
A major change in tone and tenor is evident especially if one compares the latest statement with one from just a year ago at the end of the seventh round held on October 12, 2020. That statement was, in fact, a joint one with the Chinese that characterised discussions as “constructive” (twice in the space of a single paragraph), as “positive” and as having “enhanced understanding of each other’s positions”.
It is also worth recalling that just two days after Galwan, the Indian side would begin the process of mellowing its statements. The readout of the phone call between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted India’s “protest… in the strongest terms” and called on the “Chinese side to reassess its actions and take corrective steps”, but it would also call on “troops of both sides” to “abide by the bilateral agreements and protocols” and to “not take any unilateral action”.
Thus, from accusing the Chinese of unilateral action, it appeared that the blame — or responsibility — was now going to be shared by the Indians, too. Similarly, a week later, in the statement of the 15th Meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, the Indian side “conveyed its concerns on the recent developments in Eastern Ladakh, including on the violent face off in Galwan Valley” but “emphasised that both sides should strictly respect and observe the line of actual control” (emphases by the author).
In July 2020, the statement after the meeting of the two Special Representatives would omit any reference to Galwan altogether and repeat “both sides should strictly respect and observe the line of actual control”. The first joint statement by the two military commanders at the end of the sixth round in September 2020 would also call on the “two sides… refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground”, (emphases by the author).
What explains the diffidence, or at least, inconsistency in Indian statements so soon after Galwan?
Perhaps, the Government of India imagined that toning down the language at least publicly would encourage Beijing to hasten the process of de-escalation, and disengagement at the LAC. This is not surprising at all — because the current government has made the same mistake before.
Following the 70-day-plus standoff at Doklam in Bhutan in mid-2017, when Indian security agencies and the Indian public should have been preparing for the inevitable next clash with the Chinese, the government diverted attention, and its scarce diplomatic resources into organising the theatre of the ‘informal summits’. China used the opportunity to hoodwink India, and prepare for its next provocation — its transgressions in eastern Ladakh duly followed a short six months after the second informal summit had concluded near Chennai. All of this was predicted.
Assuming it portends a significant shift, what explains the return to a strident tone in the Indian statement following the 13th round of bilateral military talks?
For one, Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane has pointed out, a “large-scale [troop] build-up has occurred and continues to be in place” on the Chinese side, which is being sustained by an “equal amount of infrastructure development” suggesting that the PLA “are there to stay”. Note, also reports of recent Chinese transgressions — of over 100 PLA soldiers crossing into Barahoti in Uttarakhand in August damaging infrastructure on the Indian side as well as of another 200 soldiers crossing into the Tawang sector in Arunachal Pradesh in early October. It would appear that the Indian side has finally come around to publicly acknowledging that the Chinese are negotiating in bad faith — again something that had been predicted.
India’s reasons also cannot be any increased confidence in assistance from the United States or the Quad. As important as these engagements are, New Delhi’s experiences — including not least, how the end of the US intervention in Afghanistan played out — should be cautionary enough.
Could it be then that the contradictions of India’s China policy over the past few years have grown too big to ignore within India’s security establishment?
How for instance, are we to square the government’s participation in two ‘informal summits’ even as the Chinese Party-State relentlessly increased its economic and political influence in each of India’s neighbours at New Delhi’s expense? Or how do we justify long-winded BRICS joint statements with China as a party while Indian troops contend at “at great heights and most inclement weather conditions” with the PLA?
If indeed, there is a rethink underway on the government’s approach to China on the LAC, it is about time. It would be prudent to stay the course the Indian statement on the 13th corps commanders’ meeting appears to set, and for New Delhi to resist the temptation to ever again obfuscate, and confuse, the public.
Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.