War is what happens when language fails, wrote the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. But while the distance between Leh and Moscow is 3,869 kilometres, India and China grappled with words in Moscow this week to avert a war, at least for the time being.
But if early signals emanating from Moscow, where the foreign ministers of the two countries met on the sidelines of the SCO (Shanghai Coopeation Organisation) summit, are an indication, neither side will relax the vigil on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) any time soon.
The meeting followed close on the heels of the meeting between the two defence ministers, again in Moscow, where China took a belligerent stand and had blamed India for the tension on the LAC, reminding Rajnath Singh of what the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had famously claimed when he asserted that not an inch of Indian land had been lost.
If the foreign ministers were expected to break the ice, they did to the extent that that they came up with a mutually accepted joint statement which is far more diplomatic and politically correct.
The two foreign ministers agreed that the stand-off was “not in the interest of either side,” They agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.
“The ministers agreed that as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to conclude new confidence building measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas.” The statement said both sides should avoid any action that could escalate matters.
The South China Morning Post , however, quoted Liu Zongyi, a South Asia expert with the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, saying that while the joint statement was a positive development, ‘verification was needed that the Indian military would follow through’.
“Could the Indian military meet halfway with Chinese for a peaceful solution to the stand-off ?” Liu said. “Both sides had several diplomatic consultations since the tension arose in Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso, but what Indian foreign affairs and defence departments said was not consistent with what they did. We still need observation and, for the Chinese side, to be prepared for any circumstance that may come up,” he declared.
In contrast, Liu added, Wang’s earlier visit to the border at Tibet had underscored the common understanding between China’s foreign affairs and military wings. Liu said the firing of warning shots at Pangong Tso this week had broken the previous mutual trust.
“The original confidence-building measures to keep peace and tranquillity at the border – including the no-firing rule – has been broken, especially after the fatal clash at Galwan Valley on June 15,” he said.
Notwithstanding the hawks on both sides, there seems to be a growing realisation that war, limited or otherwise, would be disastrous for both the countries. China may also have realised that India is far better prepared in 2020 to meet any threat. Moreover, China stands to lose the Indian market for its companies and capital and face an international blow back. But then joint statements do not reflect the actual words spoken in the meeting. Nor do they indicate the hard bargaining that is driven behind closed doors. Peace comes with a cost and the future will reveal which side paid what.
In any case, India and China have clearly pulled back this week from the brink. It seemed a full-scale war was just days away when soldiers on both sides opened fire on the LAC—in the air—for the first time since 1975.
Professor of Chinese Studies in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Kondapalli Srikanth, pointed out that China was almost certainly preparing for a war because it had put its air force on the ‘second alert’, and the Western Theatre Command had issued a statement blaming India for transgressing the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
From the Indian side, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had issued a statement saying that India will defend its territorial integrity “at all costs”.
Prof Srikanth felt this was the first time that China was trying to portray itself as a victim. Although it was “difficult to predict at what level” the war would be fought, he did not rule out a two-front war, with China and Pakistan at the same time, and underlined that India had been readying for it since 2009.
The advantage for the moment lay with India, Prof Srikanth felt, as Indian troops had occupied the heights on the south side of Pangong Tso. Srikanth also underlined India’s preparedness for battle in mountainous terrains because it had raised 11 Mountain Divisions.
The combat ratio is 1:8 between those who are on the heights and those who are not. That is, China would need eight soldiers to evict one Indian soldier positioned on top of a hill, he claimed and maintained that China would have to place 40,000 and more soldiers in the area for the purpose. Reports suggested that China had massed 60,000 troops in the area and that India had responded in kind. India’s military preparedness is “quite robust”, said Srikanth.
Former Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief Hormis Tharakan says that what he knows about the situation in Ladkah is from media reports. He says that Indian troops are “on the LAC” as they were in 1962, and that is what is triggering the fierce reaction from the Chinese. He says that unlike in 1962, India is better prepared to face up to the Chinese.
Asked if the hostilities were to break out, what the global reaction would be and whether the rest of the world would rally to support India, he said that the world is busy fighting COVID-19 and there would not be any great support.
Talking about the motives of the Xi Jinping government for adopting a belligerent position on the IndiaChina border and in the South China Sea, JNU academics recall the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, where the new agenda set was to “occupy centre stage”. China wants to replace the United States, which it considers to be the main rival in the global sweepstakes. Professor Alka Acharya of the School of East Asian Studies at JNU and a China-watcher, says that it would be difficult to make a direct correlation between internal troubles and the nationalist belligerence on the border.
While describing the situation as “war-like”, she says that unlike in Kargil in 1999, which was a situation favourable to India, in the India-China border tussle there would be no clear winners or losers. She is also of the view that international reaction to the standoff between the two Asian giants would be muted. While America is busy with the Presidential election, the other countries, she thinks, “would be wary of taking a stand against China.”
Professor Madhu Bhalla, a China expert and editor of India Quarterly, a journal of the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), has no doubt that “the situation has worsened’ since the June 15 violent faceoff where 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese died.
Local scuffles, where China would have to be delivered a ‘bloody nose’ and pushed back, was the only way to deal with the situation, she felt. But on the flip side, India’s global position is quite weak because it does not have the diplomatic, military, and economic power to match that of China.
Both professors Bhalla and Srikanth agree that Xi Jinping is unlikely to lose his position as China’s and the Chinese Communist Party leader if things go wrong for China because that is not how the Chinese communists work. “My hunch is he will not be removed,” says Professor Srikanth.
According to an expert who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Modi government is quite cautious in the matter, and that the consequences of a confrontation are weighing on its mind. So, in the middle of September, with winter barely weeks away, the LAC stands where it was in June: in the perception of both sides. India sticking to 1993, when it signed an agreement with China on the LAC, and China adamant on its interpretation of the LAC going back to its claim in 1959.
The war may have been averted for now. But both the countries will need to come up with statesmanship of a high order to repair the relations and move ahead.