It is ironic that China should be counseling India to be ‘reasonable’ after it has presented India with a fait accompli by occupying a certain area on the Northern bank of Pangong Tso. Many articles have appeared in the Chinese State media which strike a conciliatory tone towards India and stress on the need to continue dialogue on the border question. Other articles and editorials have warned India to not fall into the Western camp, clearly a signal to US President Donald Trump who recently offered to mediate between India and China, on the on-going stand-off between India and China in Ladakh and other areas.
The first salvo in this regard was fired by China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson (27 May 2020) when he said: “We have been following the important consensus reached by the two leaders and strictly observing the agreements between the two countries,” apparently referring to the directions of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi after their two informal summits, asking the militaries of the two countries to take more confidence building measures to maintain peace and tranquility along the borders. These remarks came a day after President Xi Jinping ordered the military to scale up battle preparedness, visualising the worstcase scenario and asked it to resolutely defend the country’s sovereignty.
Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s statement was in effect a reflection of the situation on the ground. He said: “We are committed to safeguarding our territorial sovereignty and security, and safeguarding peace and stability in the border areas. Now the China-India border area situation is overall stable and controllable”. This obviously meant that China had achieved its goals militarily and now wanted talks to resolve the issue! China reportedly began occupying the area west of the LAC in Pangong Tso around 1 May 2020, making it very clear that while both countries (to quote Zhao) “have good border related mechanism and communication channels”, China was quite content with bypassing these and doing what it thought appropriate.
India’s position was made clear in a media briefing and it countered Chinese propaganda on the alleged construction of a road across the LAC. The DBO road, is in fact well within Indian territory in Ladakh and Chinese intentions are clearly to offset any advantage of the road in military terms by inching closer to it. India’s MEA spokesperson commenting on incidents in Naku La in Sikkim reminded the Chinese that: “Any suggestion that Indian troops had undertaken activity across the LAC in the Western sector or the Sikkim sector is not accurate. Indian troops are fully familiar with the alignment of the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas and abide by it scrupulously.” Strangely, the border in the Sikkim sector is settled and the possession of Naku La is very much as per international norms. Therefore, Chinese efforts to dislodge India from Naku La are really to, as they did in Doklam, reduce India’s tactical advantage in such areas.
Further, the Chinese line of thinking would like the world to believe that India is taking advantage of the current stand-off between US and China and taking sides with the US against China. The South China Morning Post (6 June 2020) quotes Sun Shihai, principal research fellow at the China Centre for South Asian Studies at Sichuan University in southwest China, as saying that India had taken advantage of the prevailing tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Sun Shihai claims that “India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is advocating aggressive unilateralism when dealing with border problems involving China, Pakistan and Myanmar adding that “There are signs and risks emerging that some Indian officials believe they can take advantage of the tensions between China and the US, as Washington is trying to bring India into its Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain a rising China.”
An editorial in Global Times (6 June 2020) also warned India not to be ‘fooled’ by Washington and added that China wanted “good-neighbourly” relations with India. The underlying warning to India not to fall foul of China is hypocritical as the argument about China “not giving up an inch of its territory” is really about land-grab across what India perceives as the LAC. The editorial raised the pitch by stating that “if the two countries face a showdown on the border issue, the entire Himalayan region and the Indian subcontinent will face instability. No external force can change this. Maintaining peace along border areas and friendly cooperation is in line with the two countries’ interests.”
Unfortunately, this kind of diplomatic signaling preceded by military pressure clearly indicates that China is feeling jittery about national choices that the Indian leadership has made in the recent past. However, what is not acknowledged is that these are decisions taken in the national interest. India’s diplomatic line is based on a realistic understanding of the current world order and managing partners has become the bedrock of the present government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The other factor at play is that India’s objective in “mirror deployment” of forces in contested areas is only to lay down the parameters of engagement with China and not to generate conflict with China, but the Chinese do not seem to want any conversation except on their terms. This message must go out to the Chinese loudly and clearly.
China is today facing global opprobrium for having set in motion, the spread of the virus, first by blocking information about the virus itself and second, by not imposing the lockdown in time. An Associated Press analysis (9 February 2020) of domestic travel patterns using map location data from the Chinese tech giant Baidu shows that in the two weeks before Wuhan’s lockdown, nearly 70 per cent of trips out of the central Chinese city were within Hubei province. Subsequently, another 14 per cent of trips went to neighboring provinces of Henan, Hunan, Anhui and Jiangxi. Nearly 2 per cent slipped down to Guangdong province, the coastal manufacturing area across Hong Kong.