India-China Lt. General-level talks were held on 22 June, a week after the violent Galwan valley clash. China had desired that talks be held on 16 June, which India refused because of the premeditated brutal violence against its soldiers a day before. In these talks, a broad consensus to disengage and move back was arrived at. After this discussion, diplomats of the two countries discussed the current scenario under the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC).
The MEA statement following the WMCC meeting mentioned that both nations agreed to implement existing bilateral agreements to ensure peace and tranquillity. It added, “In this context, they also took note of the discussions in the second meeting of the senior commanders held on 22 June.” The Chinese statement was on similar lines. It read, “(China) agreed to strictly abide by the consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and agreements and protocols signed by the two sides.”
The statements appeared positive, seeking an end to violence and aimed at obtaining a solution to the current standoff. However, both sides continued to blame the other for crossing the LAC and instigating violence. China claims the Galwan Valley, which India refutes. Simultaneously, recent statements by both Ambassadors, in New Delhi and Beijing, placed the onus of resolving the crisis on the other and warned of relationships being impacted if the situation is not resolved.
Diplomatically, there appears to be no consensus. Galwan has also had a profound impact on Indo-China military relations. Trust between the two armies has deteriorated to the level that all future border patrols would be armed and prepared for physical violence. Henceforth, peaceful resolutions to standoffs are unlikely; violence will be the new normal. The Indian army statement after the between the two military commanders said, “talks held at Moldo- Chushul was in a cordial, positive and constructive atmosphere and both nations arrived at a mutual consensus on disengagement.’
Though there have since been limited signs of disengagement, it has not occurred across the region. There is another factor to consider. Doklam was resolved by political dialogue. Currently, apart from one discussion between the two foreign ministers, there has been no formal political contact. China has concerns, which it has sought to convey through this standoff.
These concerns could be political or economic, unlikely to be mainly military, as Chinese military actions are continuing unabated against its other neighbours in the South and East China Seas, as also its willingness to discuss de-escalation. International pressure has begun to mount and would only increase with time. Chinese concerns would be discussed at the political level, which may be activated at some stage. The other factor to be considered is that China embarked on its incursions in May, which is the commencement of the patrolling season. The weather is conducive till October/November.
Therefore, China is unlikely to withdraw after a few rounds of talks. It would seek higher levels of engagement. Simultaneously, there is a propaganda game being played out by the Global Times, led by its editor Hu Xijin. It continues to project Chinese military and economic superiority as also its determination to expand options, unless India adheres to its advice on multiple issues, mostly against challenging China on the global stage.
The offensive by the Chinese propaganda machinery is backed by pro- China elements within, seeking to enhance pressure on the government to approach China at the highest level for a resolution, an action India is not keen to rush into. In some cases, satellite imagery is displayed with imagined LAC and Chinese deployment. On occasions, Indian camps are marked as Chinese. TV anchors indulge in war-mongering and term every disengagement as a victory, rather than as an indicator of reducing tensions.
The political slugfest within India is not about China intruding into Indian territory but questioning the government for its comments and actions. The opposition blames the government, while the government accuses the opposition for its poor handling of similar incursions and accepting loss of territory in earlier instances. In the bargain, China is not criticised for its unilateral actions, including perpetrating violence at Galwan. This political slugfest impacts soldiers who battled China in earlier wars and skirmishes as also those battling them now, all with equal bravery. Political parties in their desire to challenge one another appear to have ignored them.
Modalities of disengagement would be discussed at multiple levels, some accepted, some contested. Territorial claims would continue being raised. Disengagement and pull back would be slow due to conducive weather. Implementation and verification would take time. Political talks may be held at some stage. Trust deficit created by Galwan would slow actions as neither side desires an escalation. Lack of projection of the standoff and non-disclosure of casualties in local Chinese media implies it is not building internal war hysteria for enhancing its current levels of incursions to levels of war.
This may change with time. It is presently enhancing pressure on India, below levels of war, hoping India blinks and seeks a compromise. India has thus far refused to bend. Over-projection of the current scenario, creating war hysteria, especially when talks for disengagement are progressing, lead to an environment of winning and losing, adding to stumbling blocks in progress of talks. No nation desires to display an impression of retreating from its positions, especially under pressure, least of all China.
Talks, disengagement and moving back to pre-incursion positions are slow, deliberate steps, which can only be successfully implemented in an aura of trust with impartial media coverage. While the government has taken political parties into confidence, it avoids making statements which could offset multiple levels of dialogue and continuing disengagements. This has historically been a national policy; however, demands for statements are on the rise. Politically, discussions and dissections should be done once the crisis ends. Till it continues, the national polity must present a united front. While individuals cannot be stopped, the media needs to be sensitive in its discussions.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)