India’s curious diffidence on the China question

Statements on the Chinese army’s 2020 transgression into India have often been contradictory. We must realise that the Chinese appreciate strength more than modesty
India’s curious diffidence on the China question
Express illustration | Mandar Pardikar

It has been 50 months since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China transgressed across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in April-May 2020 and occupied a broad swathe of Indian territory. Since then, the government of India has been exceptionally diffident about squarely confronting the China question.

It is not as if the government was oblivious to Chinese activities along the LAC. A news report on May 22, 2020 stated, “The first four months of this year, according to official data, witnessed 170 Chinese transgressions across the LAC, including 130 in Ladakh. There were only 110 such transgressions in Ladakh during the same period in 2019.”

On the night of June 15, 2020, one of the worst confrontations between the PLA and the Indian Army took place in Galwan valley, leaving 20 Indian soldiers dead including the Commanding Officer of 16th Bihar, Colonel Bikkumalla Santosh Babu. Many more were wounded. Though officially the Chinese acknowledged only four casualties, according to an investigative report by Australian newspaper The Klaxon, the figure was much higher.

Even before the April-May 2020 incursions, the government had been trying to build a case of perceptional differences qua Chinese belligerence on the LAC, given that Chumar 2014 and Doklam 2017 had already happened on their watch. Speaking in the Lok Sabha on July 5, 2019, the defence minister asserted, “There is a perceptional difference between the two countries over the LAC. The main reason is that there is no mutually marked LAC. Both countries have their own perception. Due to this, often, incidences of transgression occur.”

On September 15, 2020, the defence minister again stated in the Lok Sabha, “As yet, there is no commonly delineated LAC in the border areas between India and China, and there is no common perception of the entire LAC. Therefore, in order to ensure peace and tranquillity in the border areas, especially along the LAC, the two countries have concluded a number of agreements and protocols.”

This may be partly correct, as is evident from a recent article in The New York Times, where Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, former director general of military operations, was quoted saying, “It’s four lines, actually... One is the Indian perception of the LAC. Another is the Chinese perception of the LAC. Third is the Indian perception of the Chinese perception of the LAC—because we have a perception based on their line of patrolling. And the fourth is, of course, the Chinese perception of the Indian perception.”

Addressing the all-party meeting in the aftermath of the Galwan clash on July 19, 2020, the prime minister stated, “Na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai, aur nahi koi ghusa hua hai, na hi hamari koi post kisi dusre ke kabze mein hain (No one has intruded and nor is anyone intruding, nor has any post been captured by someone).”

Was the PM trying to say that the Galwan clash occurred not on Indian territory, but in what’s the Chinese perception of the LAC or the Indian perception of the Chinese perception?

On June 20, 2020, a statement issued through the Press Information Bureau strangely contradicted the PM’s earlier statement: “What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India. This government is strongly and resolutely committed to that. Insofar as there is some illegal occupation, the all-party meeting was briefed in great detail.”

Both these statements contradicted an earlier statement of the foreign ministry on June 16 that squarely blamed China for attempting to alter the status quo ante on the border: “On the late evening and night of June 15, a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo there.” What does a Chinese attempt to change the status quo mean—that they were intruding into Indian territory, or had intruded, necessitating the restoration of status quo ante?

It’s a position reiterated by the former Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Manoj Pande, as late as January 11, 2024: “We are in talks to restore status quo ante. Only once that happens can we look at the larger issue of troop reduction. Till then, whatever forces are required will continue to be deployed.”

What is even more bewildering is that if the clarificatory statement of PIB on June 20, 2020 is taken at face value—that what’s Indian territory is clear from the map of India—then where does that leave the theory of perceptions?

In January 2023, a senior police officer then serving in Ladakh, in a paper submitted to a conference of directors and inspectors general of police, wrote: “Presently, there are 65 PPs (patrolling points), starting from Karakoram pass to Chumur, which are to be patrolled regularly by the Indian security forces. Out of the 65 PPs, our presence is lost in 26—PP nos 5-17, 24-32, 37—due to restrictive or no patrolling by security forces.”

These contradictions beg questions. What is the stand-off on the LAC for the past 50 months all about if the issue is only about differing perceptions on the LAC? What explains 21 corps-commander-level meetings since June 2020? What explains 29 rounds of meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs since it was instituted in January 2012?

What explains the Indian defence minister’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Gen Wei Fenghe on September 4, 2020? What rationalises the meeting of the Indian foreign minister with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on September 10, 2020? A subsequent foreign ministry communiqué stated: “The two foreign ministers agreed that the current situation in the border areas is 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 Sino-Indian relationship is complex and fraught with the baggage of history going back to both the independence of India in 1947 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. What India should understand that while the independence of India was a consequence of a unique pacifist struggle, the Chinese Communist state resulted from a prolonged civil war. What the Chinese, therefore, respect is strength and not diffidence. A fact India needs to be very cognisant about.

(Views are personal)

(manishtewari01@gmail.com)

Manish Tewari | Lawyer, MP and former I&B minister

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