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Business News/ News / India/  ‘Border tussle has debunked the myth of asymmetry in power’
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‘Border tussle has debunked the myth of asymmetry in power’

A skirmish is still possible. In Moscow, a temporary peace was agreed on. A complete pull back of Indian troops is not likely, says Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor, Chinese studies, JNU

Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor, Chinese studies, JNU.Premium
Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor, Chinese studies, JNU.

The temporary truce that India and China seem to have worked out after a meeting of foreign ministers—S Jaishankar and Wang Yi—in Moscow last week does not guarantee no conflict will break out. The potential of a clash is still strong, says Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of China studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. India holding on at the border for four months in the face of China’s much vaunted military and economic might has shown that the asymmetry of power argument does not hold any more, he adds. Edited excerpts from an interview:

The meeting between Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi produced the first joint statement between India and China since the start of this crisis in May. How do you view this development? Is this the start of a process leading to a thaw, perhaps?

The points mentioned in the joint statement are bland but they are welcome as they ease tensions. There was no real expectation of an outcome from the Jaishankar-Wang Yi talks; the outcome was a surprise. What tipped the scales in terms of a joint statement coming through, is not clear. We have seen an armed stalemate for four months, with India-China ties on the edge. We have seen pictures of rocket launchers, tanks in China all ready to unleash their power against India, they were showcasing militarism. The Chinese have also made many diplomatic statements that can be described as coercive. These have come from their ministry of foreign affairs, their defence ministry, their Western Theatre Command, from the editor of Global Times, Hu Xijin. The different Chinese statements have appeared interventionist, prescriptive and coercive. Now, the Chinese side seems to have climbed down and changed tack suddenly. What I see is temporary peace.

What do you think prompted this change from the Chinese side?

It could be (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s intervention. In the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Russia and China have equal standing. The Chinese cannot say no to Russia because they are heavily dependent on Moscow for policies and coordination in relation to US, EU and Indo-Pacific. The (Chinese) climb down could also be due to the onset of winter. The temperatures in Ladakh at those heights can go to minus 40C and that is not conducive for human safety, forget preparing for a war. We have had a stalemate in Ladakh for four months now and these were the summer months. If you don’t have a result for your mobilization in summer, how can you expect it in winter? The question of success or failure comes with a big question mark in mountain terrain. India has a competitive advantage in mountain warfare—you saw what happened in Galwan valley (15 June, 2020). India came across as a formidable adversary. The Indian mobilization has been effective. It was reflected in the visits of Prime minister Narendra Modi and others to Ladakh; the defence minister (Rajnath Singh) was there and the Indian army chief (Manoj Mukund Naravane ) was there. From China side, we only know of a visit by the Chinese foreign minister (Wang Yi) to Tibet. At least, that is the only one made public. On the Indian side, the military was given a free hand, which bolstered their effectiveness, unlike previous governments, which intervened in military operation. This has emboldened the armed forces—there are no pressures on the military. There is coordination at various levels. All of which has helped the Indian Army put up stout resistance. Yet another reason for China to change its mind could be its ongoing tussles in South China Sea, East China Sea (with Japan over Senkaku islands), its battles with the US and Australia (on the diplomatic, trade and other fronts). If they face reverses on the Indian front, then it will have cascading effect in the Taiwan Straits as well as South China Sea, the East China Sea and all the other fronts I just mentioned.

Did India’s use of the Special Frontier Force with recruits from the Tibetan community in India have anything to do with Chinese changing their mind? Also does it signal a change in India’s Tibet policy?

India taking commanding heights on the top of five features to the south of Pangong Tso I think may have contributed to China changing its position. I say that because India taking commanding positions on those features tilted the balance in favour of India. The operations to secure the heights on those features were undertaken by the Special Frontier Force (SFF). The taking of those heights could lead of interception of Chinese forces—giving India a tactical advantage. Indian forces can intercept Chinese convoys moving from Chushul to Demchok through the valleys below. That is a definite disadvantage for China. So in that sense, yes, the SFF deployment may have had a role to play. Has India changed its Tibet strategy? I don’t think we can say that. The SFF operations have so far been on the Indian side of the line of actual control (LAC). We don’t know if they were employed out of Indian territory in Tibet. We know that the SFF played a role in the 1971 India-Pakistan war then again in the 1999 Kargil war. This is the first time we have seen them being deployed on this scale in a situation with China.

India and China have had so many agreements in the past that haven’t worked. What makes you think that Friday’s joint statement will work even if in bringing temporary peace?

There is no guarantee that this will work. This can also be thrown out. It all depends on the ground reality. A skirmish is still possible. A temporary peace was effected in Moscow with the possible intervention of Russia. The only guarantee of permanent peace is a border settlement, for which we don’t have a solution. I say temporary peace because winter is approaching and that, as I said earlier, is a constraining factor. There will not be a complete pull back. Indian troops will be present in Ladakh even if there is a pullback.

So what you are saying is that we will have a Siachen kind of situation— where troop presence is maintained throughout the year—in Ladakh vis-à-vis China, too?

Yes. There will be soldiers manning heights and other areas. Or technology will be used for surveillance. Either way, the dynamics of the LAC management will undergo a change. There will be increased militarization of the LAC at least in Ladakh, which has become eye of the storm.

Against all this, what kind of a future do you see for India-China relations? The events this summer seem to have reset all equations.

Foreign minister Jaishankar has said that unless there is disengagement of troops, India will not develop bilateral relations. China’s position is, let us focus on developmental partnership—investments in infrastructure and other areas. Clearly, there is a gap between the two sides. India’s position is that Chinese troops have to withdraw to April 2020 positions. I think that is unlikely to happen. So we are likely to see an India-China relationship that is adversarial, difficult and complicated. The Chinese are not likely to vacate lands they have occupied and they will not climb down from that position. So what I see is that there will be photo ops at BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) meetings and SCO meetings, but India-China summits like we saw in Wuhan (in 2018) and Chennai (2019) are unlikely if there is no compromise.

One thing I would like to add here is that what this tension on the India-China border has shown is that the “asymmetry in power" argument does not hold now. There was this argument that India being a $2-trillion economy and China being five times that meant that China had a major advantage. They have a much stronger military force, much bigger economy, bigger military spending etc so India is no match for China—that myth has been busted. Concerted action on the part of India has yielded results.

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Published: 13 Sep 2020, 12:15 PM IST
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