Four days since violent clashes between the Indian Army troops and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) led to combat fatalities for the first time since 1975 at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the ground situation remains tense at Galwan Valley and Pangong Tso in Ladakh. The third round of Major General-level discussions were held on Thursday, 18 June, which saw the return of 10 captive Indian soldiers at last, without major injuries, defence sources have now confirmed.
The safety and return of the soldiers in Chinese custody since the Monday (15 June) night violence had become a pre-condition for any further dialogue to resolve the ground situation, sources said.
For Now, Military Contact Remains the Prime Objective
Though neither India nor China officially accepted that soldiers were held captive, an agreement for their return was reached upon on Wednesday, 17 June, and concluded on Thursday. The Ministry Of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava confirmed an earlier Army statement to the press on Thursday, 18 June, evening, that “No Indian soldiers are missing in action” post return.
For now, military contacts remain the key focus, even as diplomatic channels are being worked from New Delhi to Beijing.
All soldiers in Ladakh remain mobilised and battle-ready, and military choppers have been flying around the Ladakh skies. CDS (Chief of Defence Staff) General Bipin Rawat, and Army Chief General MM Narvane are the key strategists at this point in time, with directives being shared directly from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), multiple sources have indicated.
While respective Foreign Ministers S Jaishankar and Wang Yi spoke on Wednesday, 17 June, it is unlikely that a telephone call will happen at the top-level between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping for now, to send direct political messaging to the two armies engaged in serious face-offs at multiple points across the LAC since early May.
Now Is NOT The Time For Modi & Xi To Talk
Disengagement and de-escalation on the ground remain the top priorities, and the highest political leadership will likely refrain from a direct call while military ops are underway, said sources. While there are reports of disengagement at the site of clash in Galwan Valley, the Chinese build-ups on Pangong, epecially as revealed through satellite imagery, remain the prime concern. Images reveal massive construction by Chinese up to Finger 4, to block Indian troops from patrolling up to Finger 8 on India’s side of the LAC.
Sources pointed out that – with several grey areas on the ground, including strategy to remove Chinese permanent structures reportedly erected on the Indian side of the LAC – now is NOT the time for the PM to talk to Xi.
Since becoming prime minister, Modi has met Xi 18 times in the past 6 years, and the leaders have held two informal summits – the first one in Wuhan following the 73-day tense stand-off at Doklam tri-junction with Bhutan, and the second one in 2019 in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu.
“The prime minister will possibly come in only after clarity on negotiating positions and assessments are made about acceptable solutions,” hinted a senior diplomat when asked about a possible hotline contact between the two. “Without knowing full facts I would not like to assert a suggestion that PM Modi should pick up the phone and speak to President Xi. But there is definitely need for contact at a fairly high level through diplomatic channels, as the channel of communication between Border Commanders are adequate but usually not useful,” says Ashok Kantha, former Indian Ambassador to Beijing and Director of ICS (Institute Of Chinese Studies) .
‘China May Not Have Downplayed Its Casualties Had It Been A Clash With US’
Beijing, which has not officially confirmed number of casualties on its side amid media reports citing intelligence agencies putting it at 35 to 43 including injuries, is also downplaying the LAC clashes. Xi himself would not like to be seen as getting involved in the border confrontations as “China does not like being equated with India,” remarked a diplomat. “If this was a clash with the United States it may have made for better domestic perception and found more space in state run media in China,” the diplomat explained, when asked about the Galwan Valley violence that hardly found mention across Chinese dailies despite the rhetoric and belligerence on display on the state-run Global Times.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts at the level of Foreign Ministers and Special Representatives on the Boundary Issue (Ajit Doval and Yang Jeichi) are underway to find solutions amid accusations being levelled by both sides.
India lodged its protest hours after Monday night’s gruesome incident came to light, with the Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong in Delhi. Indian Ambassador to Beijing, Vikram Misri, was also called in for a meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui on 16 June.
NSA Doval Weighing In On Intel On Ground, Amit Shah Managing Domestic Politics
Chinese Motives of Alteration of Status Quo at LAC, and hidden larger motives need to be ascertained and thwarted by Delhi before any political engagement at the highest level can be expected.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has also held several review meetings along with External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar, CDS and three service chiefs. It is learnt that Home Minister Amit Shah is looking at the domestic political management of the entire incident. While NSA Ajit Doval would be weighing in on intelligence inputs on the ground, specific circumstances leading to the sudden escalation and bloodied clashes, the difference in scale and motives of the Chinese PLA this time – as compared to past incidents of transgression in Chumar, Depsang or Demchok – and whether or not Beijing is testing waters for a larger operation.
According to sources, in 2013, during the Depsang stand-off, the Chinese side wanted a new agreement to freeze all infrastructure developments on both sides, with Beijing at an existing strategic advantage.
The Indian side had rejected it as “we did not want to perpetually freeze asymmetry” said an official. ‘The Chinese motives of alteration of status quo at LAC, and hidden larger motives need to be ascertained and thwarted by Delhi’ before any political engagement at the highest level can be expected.
Attempts Underway to Schedule Technical Talks
On Wednesday, in the phone call between Jaishankar and Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi, both sides accused each other of violating the consensus arrived at the meeting between Corps Commanders on 6 June at the Chushul-Moldo region. Wang Yi reportedly asked India to ‘severely punish the guilty’. While Jaishankar categorically stated that the violent face-off happened when the Chinese side ‘unilaterally attempted to change the status quo’ there and took ‘premeditated and planned action’ leading to casualties on both sides.
Following the conversation between Jaishankar and Wang Yi on Wednesday, attempts are also underway to schedule technical talks on the boundary dispute.
“The two sides are in regular touch through their respective embassies and foreign offices. At the ground level, the two sides have maintained communication at the commanders' level. Meetings of other established diplomatic mechanisms such as Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs (WMCC) are under discussion,” confirmed MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava.
Jaishankar will also be face-to-face with Wang Yi at a virtual meeting of Foreign Ministers of Russia-India-China (RIC), but the Russian Foreign Ministry has said bilateral issues will NOT be on the agenda of the meet which will discuss COVID-19 cooperation.
Russia-India Bonding Amid India-China Scuffle
Meanwhile, there has been no collective briefing of foreign envoys based in Delhi by South Block, like in the past when things were heated up at the Line Of Control (LoC) with Pakistan following the Uri surgical strikes or the abrogation of Article 370.
But contact has been established by the big stakeholders including US, Russia, France, Germany and some others with public statements being made by foreign envoys after days of initial silence.
“Our heartfelt condolences to the people of India and our thoughts to the mourning families of the Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in the line,” Emmanuel Lenain, Ambassador of France to India wrote on Twitter.
Indian Ambassador to Moscow, D Venkatesh Kumar, discussed the LAC situation with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister on a day that Kremlin advocated India and China to iron out the border conflict mutually, and stated that ‘both countries are close partners and allies of Russia’.
“On June 17, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov had a telephone conversation with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of India to Russia, D Bala Venkatesh Varma, at the Indian side’s initiative. The officials discussed regional security, including developments on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the border between India and China in the Himalayas,” an official Russian Foreign Ministry statement said, indicating that it is India that reached out to its tried and trusted strategic partner who has close ties with Beijing, both veto holders in the United Nations Security Council. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is expected to attend the 75th Victory Day Parade of Soviet Peoples War (1941-1945) next week.
A Tri-Service contingent of the Indian Armed Forces will participate in the Military Parade at Red Square in Moscow on 24 June amid the pandemic, in an important signalling of old ties.
Is India-China LAC clash ‘A Negotiating Tactic’ Or ‘A Punch in the Nose’?
The United States which is witnessing its worst ties with China in decades, has also now expressed solidarity with India. While PM Modi and President Donald Trump discussed Sino-India ties in their last phone conversation on 2 June, further diplomatic engagements between the two important Indo-Pacific players is ongoing. “We extend our deepest condolences to the people of India for the lives lost as a result of the recent confrontation with China. We will remember the soldiers' families, loved ones, and communities as they grieve,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter on Friday.
A day after Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, met with Politburo Member Yang Jeichi, who is also the Chinese SR for boundary talks with India, in Hawaii to talk US-China Trade, a top American diplomat confirmed that the US is monitoring the LAC flare-up.
“What we’re doing, we’re obviously watching the India-China border dispute very closely. It – this activity is similar to activity we’ve seen in the past on border disputes with the PRC, and again, I would point you to those – I think it was 2015 when Xi Jinping traveled to India the first time. The PLA invaded this contested area deeper and longer, with more people, than ever before historically,” said Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, David Stilwel.
He hinted that like in the Doklam crisis, it is not clearly known if this LAC clash is ‘a negotiating tactic or just a punch in the nose to demonstrate their superiority’.
Attempts Underway By Germany & France to De-Escalate India-China Border Tensions
“Some have asked about US and India-China developments. As I've pointed out, India has often preferred private support and public discretion. There are ways – many of which we will not see – that India and US can cooperate. They have a number of mechanisms (including hotlines), connections at various levels, ability to share information,” tweeted Tanvi Madan, a Senior Fellow at Brookings Institute in DC and author of recent book Fateful Triangle” How China Shaped US-India Relations During The Cold War.
Attempts are also on by India’s strategic partners like France and Germany to de-escalate the situation, with lines being worked behind the scenes.
Germany, a non-permanent member, which takes on the UNSC Presidency in July 2020, is ‘using its influence to dissuade a military clash’ between India and China, sources suggest. “I believe the expectation in the international community is that countries like India and China should not get embroiled in a conflict that would not only affect those two nations, but also the entire region... And that's why we are doing what we can to influence both sides with the clear message to deescalate this conflict and avoid a further escalation, especially a military one,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told DW News in an interview on Wednesday,
(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma.)
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