’India-China disengagement has to be there but can’t happen with emotions high’

  • Disengagement between Indian and Chinese troops have to take place to defuse tensions, but it cannot be done in the current atmosphere with emotions running high among soldiers after their face-off on 15 June

Elizabeth Roche
Updated21 Jun 2020
Indian and Chinese troops had clashed in Ladakh on Monday in which a Colonel and 19 other Indian Army soldiers were killed. Photo: AFP
Indian and Chinese troops had clashed in Ladakh on Monday in which a Colonel and 19 other Indian Army soldiers were killed. Photo: AFP

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark on Friday that there has been no intrusion into Indian territory in Ladakh by Chinese troops could have been prompted by the government’s realization that India is not in a position to take the land occupied by China in Aksai Chin, including their intrusions in 1980s and 1990s, said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Disengagement between Indian and Chinese troops have to take place to defuse tensions, but it cannot be done in the current atmosphere with emotions running high among soldiers after their face-off on 15 June, he said in an interview with Mint. Some extra steps like new confidence building measures will be required for this, he added. Edited excerpts:

The Galwan incident is seen as a major turning point in India-China relations. Would you agree? And where does one go from here?

I partly agree because we have had a more serious incident 1967 where the death toll was very high and the mobilisation was also very high. In contrast, in the Galwan incident we haven’t seen much of action or mobilisation so the Galwan incident is not the first turning point – we have had 1962, then 1967 and now this.

This incident is shocking to say the least because of the kind of brutality involved -- barb wire bats and the nails etc. This is not in sync with China and India saying they are civilisational states and responsible states, who abide by international law which also includes humane treatment of soldiers. This is touching the nadir in bilateral behaviour towards each other. Of course in war everything is fair but we are living in 21st century. Where do we go from here? We could see a recurrence of this incident on a bigger scale. The disengagement process agreed to has to be there but that cannot be done in the current atmosphere of the pent up feelings among the troops being so high. Disengagement can’t be done as we think, extra steps will be needed by political leadership or the military leadership in announcing unilateral measures of withdrawal or the implementation of a new set of confidence building measures. If it continues like this, there are chances of a limited conflict.

Trust was always an issue between India and China. It will be more so after the Galwan incident right?

The confidence building measures that we had concluded are to prevent conflict – the ones reached in 1993,1996, 2013 – structurally they are not for building trust. The underlying tensions that generate mistrust have not been resolved – which is territorial dispute resolution. But that is not happening. We have had 22 rounds of talks at the level of Special Representatives since 2003 and many rounds before that at other levels since 1981. So about 40 years we discussed dispute resolution. So there is something fundamentally wrong with bilateral relations. These are not normal ties like say between France and Germany, Mexico and Brazil. At Chumar where there was an incident (in 2014), was not a problem area 10 years ago, today both sides make regular patrols there. So the problem is not only unresolved disputes but also the burden of adding others. Our engagement policy with China has failed to generate trust that is again because territorial dispute resolution has not happened.

Prime Minister Modi has invested a lot in building ties with China – the Wuhan and Chennai Summits. The Galwan incident has obviously had an impact on this. Will India look at this kind of engagement at the highest levels any more? What about the agreement that differences will not be allowed to degenerate into disputes?

That depends on disengagement process. If it is smooth and if the troops go back to pre-April position, then we could have another such another informal summit. But it will not have the same bonhomie that we saw in Wuhan or Chennai. There will be circumspect in the background of Galwan.

What happens to the agreements and the understandings reached between India and China in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 now? What happens to the mechanisms established to sort out the border issue? Is there anything one can salvage from them?

We do not know. Even though they could announce in public that we have normalized but behind the scenes I suspect the competition will continue.

Does India have any means – economic, military, diplomatic -- to to deal with China? Is the Quad an option for instance? Does India hold any cards that it can play here to make it tough for China?

There are several actually – one is to enhance conventional and strategic deterrence levels on border. For example, India deployed Brahmos regiments in Arunachal Pradesh so its relatively quiet. Possibly we will deploy these in Ladakh as well. Brahmos is considered to be one of the best cruise missiles – that will have deterrence ability. India landing a C-130 transport aircraft in DBO (Daulat Beg Oldie) is deterrence. So first is if we have robust deterrence level, they will not venture into adventure like Galwan. Second is economy China is growing at 1.2 % according to IMF and we are growing at 1.7%. We don’t know if these are accurate. But we have seen that the US-China decoupling has led to relative decline in China. Even if (Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe) Biden wins, the tariff wars appear to be a bipartisan consensus. Decoupling is to stay for a long time to come. China is dependent on external trade and that is not happening, their economy is expected to nosedive. In this context, they want to export and India has 400 million middle class. That is why they are pushing for RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) with the assumption that India will open up to Chinese goods but that is not happening. My hunch is that in the background of Galwan, 5G will not happen and if the boycott of China goods gathers momentum there will be further decline in trade.

At the diplomatic level India is participating in multilateral institutions. India traditionally has good relations with US, EU, Japan, etc with whom China has problems. This was reflected in the World Health Assembly where China had to climb down by saying we agree to impartial investigation into origins of covid-19.

One question on Prime Minister Modi’s statement on Friday that “Neither anyone has intruded into India...” and the subsequent clarifications?

I think the government is now feeling that there is no way India can take the lands occupied by China in Aksai Chin including their intrusions in 1980s and 1990s as well – Khurnag (Pangong Tso lake) when we withdrew troops to meet counter insurgency operations. Today the government realizes that there is no way you can take back these lands which is why the prime minister said they did not intrude into our lands.

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