China-India border talks stall, Beijing holds all the cards
As the border stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in the Himalayan region of Ladakh enters its 15th week, with little indication of a breakthrough in talks, criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration is brewing in New Delhi.
Unhappy at what they see as India’s overly cautious approach, a group of military veterans and analysts are increasingly calling for the Modi administration to get tough on Beijing.
The prolonged stand-off could end up “constricting” India’s military options to restore the status quo, they say, leading to India losing control over vast tracts of strategically located land – so the group is calling for New Delhi to consider a range of options, from shutting the Chinese embassy in Kolkata to building a global case against Chinese aggression.
Brahma Chellaney, strategic studies professor at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, is among those calling for diplomatic sanctions in the form of downsizing or shutting down Chinese consulates and embassies on Indian soil. He pointed to how the United States last month ordered China to close its embassy in Houston, Texas, over accusations of espionage – following which the Chinese government ordered the closure of the American embassy in Chengdu.
“As a warning shot across China’s bow, India should rescind its 2006 decision allowing China to reopen its consulate in Kolkata. That decision was made despite Beijing’s refusal to let India reopen its Lhasa consulate,” Chellaney said.
India had a full embassy in Lhasa, the capital of China’s Tibet autonomous region, until the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
Since Indian and Chinese troops clashed with bare hands, spiked clubs and rods on June 15, leading to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number on the Chinese side, there have been at least 11 meetings between senior military and diplomatic officials from both sides in a bid to ease tensions.
Meanwhile, New Delhi has rolled out economic sanctions such as banning Chinese firms from road infrastructure projects and restricting imports of Chinese equipment in the power sector. India also banned 59 Chinese apps, including the popular TikTok, on national security grounds.
But Beijing is New Delhi’s largest source of imports, with India purchasing just under US$70 billion of goods ranging from electronics to pharmaceutical ingredients last year. India has a trade deficit of about US$50 billion with China, the largest of its trading partners.
Pravin Sawhney, a former military officer who is the founder and editor of national security magazine Force, said China “holds all the cards right now”. “The economic steps the government has announced will be more painful to India than China,” he said.
Sawhney is especially bothered by what he said were tactical errors in India’s public communications after the clash.
So far, Modi has refrained from naming China directly in his speeches. His government had, for the first time, admitted to the intrusion of Chinese forces last week in a document uploaded on the Defence Ministry's website, but the document was taken down within hours of being posted.
On June 19, Modi denied Chinese troops had intruded into Indian territory, but analysts – and even India’s External Affairs Ministry – had said the skirmish was caused by Chinese troops attempting to build a structure in an area of the Galwan Valley that had not previously been disputed.
“That day, the Chinese won,” Sawhney said. “When your prime minister says that no one had intruded, the matter is over.”
Chellaney said Modi had been underplaying the stand-off to protect his image domestically as a “strong leader”, an approach that was a “boon to China”.
“But the question is, should saving face at home override the national security imperative to call China out on its aggression?” he asked.
‘Beijing holds all the cards’
There has been no apparent breakthrough following talks between senior military commanders from China and India.
Since early May, Indian and Chinese troops have faced off at various points along the border, the 3,488km Line of Actual Control (LAC). Apart from the Galwan Valley, there has been little to no disengagement of forces in the other areas, according to military sources. The Indian Army has refused to comment on the status of disengagement.
Despite the stand-off, the talks have reaped domestic dividends for the Modi government. News channels have heaped praise on the prime minister, saluting how his policies forced China to “surrender” at the LAC, and how China had “withdrawn” under pressure from the “New India” that Modi’s leadership created.
But retired Lieutenant General H.S. Panag, who as the head of India’s Northern Command was in charge of securing the land borders with Pakistan and China for close to two years until the end of 2008, said the lack of a resolution was fuelling fears that India might have already lost vast tracts of land to Chinese incursions.
In a July 30 column, Panag criticised the government and called for the permanent fortification of areas along the LAC with “overwhelming” resources.
The retired general has been criticised repeatedly by members of Modi's ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for his criticism of observations against the government’s strategies.
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Panag, speaking at a webinar on Tuesday evening organised by the Gurgaon-based private club, The Quorum Club, said that the government’s approach was one of denial. “The government has used obfuscation and denial to convince the public that not much has happened,” he said.
Panag said Chinese forces were on land claimed by India, adding that Beijing’s intent in those areas should alarm Indian policymakers. “The Chinese are very clear that they are not going to go back from Pangong Tso and the Depsang Plains, while we are not even sure of Gogra and Hot Springs and what their final intention in these areas is.”
Sawhney of Force magazine said such intentions did not augur well for India-China ties in the longer run.
“China holds all the cards now, India does not. They have no problem with sitting where they are, currently, because the Tibetan autonomous region is a military operational base with a full ecosystem to support them,” Sawhney said, adding that the Chinese can be in those areas “forever”.
The former military officer said New Delhi could explore closer ties with the United States – as well as its northern neighbour, Russia.
“Russia is the only country that can help us. It sees itself as a balancing power in Eurasia and wants India and China to talk. We must activate the Russia-India-China trilateral forum immediately,” he said, adding that India’s focus on strengthening ties with the United States might not be very helpful in the current stand-off.
Chellaney from the Centre for Policy Research agreed, saying that Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which seeks to contain China, as well as its reactivation of the Quad – an informal military alliance between the US, India, Japan and Australia – was focused on maritime cooperation.
“But India faces China’s land aggression and the US military has no plans for a land war with China. So, despite warming India-US ties, Indian security interests cannot be advanced merely through strategic collaboration with the US,” he said.
Panag, the retired military commander, said India could choose a more assertive diplomatic route and take a leaf out of China’s book. “Just like China is assertive on the Jammu & Kashmir issue internationally, even while it talks to us, we can continue to engage with China but create a larger, global opinion against China.”
If this fails, too, Panag said that the government must keep its military options open. “If diplomacy fails and the Chinese refuse to go back, we must keep our military options open there (in Ladakh) or elsewhere, so that status quo ante is restored. If not, we will look very small as an emerging military power.”