There have been 16 rounds of India-China talks to resolve the standoff in Ladakh, but apart from withdrawal on both banks of the Pangong Tso, nothing else has been achieved. Each time, it is said that both sides ‘agreed to stay in close contact and maintain dialogue through military and diplomatic channels and work out a mutually acceptable resolution of remaining issues at the earliest.’ The implication is that China is prolonging talks with an agenda. The Ladakh intrusion by China breached all previous agreements. Occupation of Kailash Ridge, the first offensive manoeuvre by India, conveyed its intent of challenging China. Hence, Pangong Tso was resolved in initial talks. Subsequently, there has been no forward movement, with China procrastinating, ignoring verbal understandings given prior to withdrawal from the Kailash Ridge, an action now being questioned as possibly having been premature.
It is possible that Chinese stalling stems from India’s insistence on clubbing Demchok and Depsang, which preceded the current standoff, in ongoing talks. Chinese aircraft have commenced flying close to the LAC, breaching the 1996 agreement which mentions that no military aircraft will fly within 10 Kms of the LAC. These are being conducted under the garb of an air exercise, again for the first time. India has responded in an equally offensive manner. No Chinese aircraft has crossed the LAC. India is in the process of deploying its second S 400 missile squadron along the LAC, displaying its ability to challenge Chinese aggressiveness. China, which had disputed Indian infrastructure development in Ladakh and claimed it to be a major reason for its intrusion, has announced plans for building new highways on disputed territory. Highway G 695 will pass close to the disputed Depsang plains, Galwan and Pangong Tso.
A bridge under construction on the Pangong Tso, will possibly be part of this highway. Another highway, G 684, is intended to link Xinjiang with Khunjerab Pass along the Pak-China border in Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. Their completion schedule has yet to be announced. There were media inputs of China expanding its construction activities in Doklam, leading to the Indian army chief visiting Bhutan. Reports mention China constructing villages close to the standoff location, possibly on Bhutanese territory. The Indian spokesperson mentioned, in response to a question, “The government keeps a constant watch on all developments having a bearing on India’s security and takes all necessary steps to safeguard the same. We will take all possible steps for the security of the nation.” He refused to answer specific queries on Chinese actions. India has also not been idle. In the past five years, India has constructed over 2,100 km of roads along the LAC alongside multiple airfields and helipads, ignoring Chinese criticism.
The airfields are capable of taking fighter as also transport aircraft. The Zojila Tunnel will provide allweather road connectivity to Ladakh. Chinese military activities are always part of a well-conceived longterm plan. Chinese transgressions of Taiwanese airspace as also employing its naval militia to harass nations in contention with it over South China Sea islands are intended with a reason, mainly to project that these disputed regions belong to China, and it can transgress at will. Similarly, Chinese offensive manoeuvres along the LAC, ramping up infrastructure as also breaking the no-fly 1996 agreement are not random incidents but convey Chinese intent of this being the new status quo. There is a perception that with the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party scheduled later this year, the current leadership cannot be seen to be weak. Apart from facing global pressures it also has a sinking economy and its zero Covid policy is failing. It is thus displaying military aggressiveness in all its disputed regions, not only against India.
The Chinese defence minister, in his address at the Shangri La dialogue in Singapore accused India of being responsible for the standoff. Further, Chinese strategists are recommending that normalcy along the LAC should be its 1959 positions. While projecting military aggressiveness on one hand, China is displaying diplomatic niceties on the other. It never commented on the visit of the Dalai Lama to Ladakh, possibly for the first time. Xi Jinping also sent a positive message to President Murmu, stating that he attaches great importance to China-India relations and was ready to work to enhance political mutual trust, deepen practical cooperation, handle differences properly, and push bilateral ties forward. This is his first communication with India in over a year. India-China trade is also on the rise. The government recently permitted import of renewable energy components from China as also placed orders for 39,000 railway wheels with a Chinese company. It is gradually permitting Chinese investments, post scrutiny, while cracking down on erring Chinese smartphone manufacturers. Currently Chinese 5G companies are banned but the government may permit import of Chinese manufactured 5G parts. India has also objected to the Pak-China call for third countries joining the CPEC on the grounds of it transiting disputed territory, eliciting no response from China. What appears to flow is that China is openly announcing its unwillingness to accept the Indian demand for April 2020 positions as the status quo. Delay of four months between the 15th and 16th round of talks as also no progress in talks thus far, substantiate this fact.
It is compounded by China ramping up its development activities along the LAC. Air exercises and violation of earlier agreements signals those tensions, on similar lines as Taiwan, will possibly remain the new normal. Any laxity by India, anywhere along the LAC will be exploited. The Indian government may be aware but is downplaying it. China is also propagating what its foreign minister, Wang Yi, has been stating about ‘putting the boundary issue in an appropriate place in bilateral relations,’ ignoring Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar’s comment that restoration of the LAC is a ‘pre-requisite for normalisation of ties.’ Prime Minister Modi and Xi are expected to be in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in September for the SCO summit. Will normalcy flow post their meeting or will tensions continue to guide India-China ties? We may not have to wait long to know. Till then, we need to remain alert.