Well over a year since the first round of military talks were initiated on June 6, 2020, between India and China, the two nuclear-armed rivals, the essential impasse continues. The crucial and specific issue of the restoration of the status quo ante remains officially unanswered. Post the first round of talks, bloody and escalatory incidents like the Galwan valley skirmish (and more thereafter) have taken place. The overall first mover and disrupter of the theatre’s long-held status quo is undoubtedly China. The much-bandied talks towards de-escalation and disengagement are now predicated to the revised set-pieces of ground ‘holding’, to the overall detriment to India. In the hardball game of negotiations, the chips of bargainable elements, patience and reciprocity, are decidedly in the favour of the Chinese as they are content to drag, postulate and assert their new ground ‘holding’ positions, with no pressure to conclude.
At the recently concluded 12th round of military commanders’ talks, areas like Depsang, Gogra Post, Hot Springs, and Patrolling Points 10, 11, 11A, 12, 13, 15 and 17A were believed to have been discussed. The exact ramifications of possibly the shortest of all the joint meetings so far are expected to play out in the coming weeks. Certain measures like establishing ‘hotlines’ at key friction points were amongst the earliest signs of positivity, though the usual language of platitudinous reassurances does not count for much in negotiations with the Chinese, for whom deceit is an integral component of governance and diplomacy.
The Chinese Tactics Continue Unabated
Clearly, the urgency for an expeditious resolution to the wounded Line of Actual Control (LAC) is more loaded on the Indian side, as was also relayed by the Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting in Dushanbe last month. The fully controlled Chinese media, which dutifully dials up and amplifies issues that Beijing would want to internationalise and resolve on priority, remained understandably disinterested in covering the 12th round of crucial talks, even though the same entailed the first combat operation for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in decades. Ironically, August 1 was also the PLA day, and the media outpouring of threat perceptions to China revolved around the usual suspects, i.e., the United States, Taiwan and even the Dalai Lama or Tibet. But, interestingly, it included nothing on India.
Worryingly, the Chinese instincts for incrementalism and activism have not truly stopped during these 12 stages of talks, as the phenomena of ostensibly “civilian” tents popping up, tents transforming into semi-permanent structures, or the speeding up of ‘dual-use’ infrastructure continues in the uninhabited swathes on the Chinese-controlled side. Given that in the hyper-sensitive Chinese domain, not a leaf moves without President Xi Jinping’s will, to imagine that this parallel tact of running with the hare of negotiations whilst hunting with the hound of provocative moves, simultaneously, is typical Chinese deception. It is this backdrop of calculated moves that makes the often restorative soundbites accompanying the talks seem hollow; as the famous Chinese proverb goes, “If you are negotiating and you are buying (act as if), you are selling. If you are selling (act as if), you are buying.”
No Joint Statements Post The Talks
In these talks, the Chinese sense the Indian urgency and could act dangerously accommodative at times, without really intending to be so. Incidentally, the Chinese did make some earlier disengagement overtures on Hot Springs and Depsang, among other points, but never really moved on it. There have been no joint statements post these talks to suggest any “breakthrough” under progress, as is often posited in media unilaterally without confirmation.
Perhaps it is time to introspect if talks need to be given a bigger political-diplomatic canvass in order to pressurise some forward movement. So far, the news emanating from the region is interspersed with contradictory import, and the longer China “holds” its literal ground in the region, the more unextractable and sticky it becomes.
The military commanders from the Indian realm are imminently professional, functionally thoroughbred, but perhaps not naturally given to political dimensions. In contrast, their PLA peers in the negotiation, at that level, are deliberately exposed, systematically versed and empowered with the politico-diplomatic stakes. There is a symbiotic relationship between the PLA and the Communist Party of China (CPC), as the professional mandate of the PLA is “to chiefly serve the political ends”.
The role of the Political Commissars in operational units is deeply entrenched in the PLA culture. The ‘nibble-and-negotiate’ tactics at display do not have the hallmarks of kinetic militaristic actions, but those of a ‘grand design’ that is typical of the ‘Industrial-Military’ complex thinking of China.
Not escalating the negotiations to the national political leadership level may be conveniently expedient from an Indian political perspective, but overloading expectations solely onto the militaristic brass, to evince a positive response from the Chinese, hasn’t been to India’s advantage, as yet.
China Does Not Face Many Disadvantages
The Indian Armed Forces have conducted themselves with exceptional reaction and response, given the circumstances. However, they should not be made to carry the can of a negotiation stalemate. There are no pressing Chinese disadvantages in terms of sustainability, vulnerability, or societal pressures, to back off from the recently advanced and belligerent positions for Beijing — and hence their deliberately lackadaisical approach to resolution. However, if the scope of overall negotiations and bargaining expands beyond the cartographical issues (currently discussed by military commanders), to include other sovereign levers, perhaps India could invoke more substantial armoury to have an even keel. Understandably, that could potentially risk the negotiation stalemate to extend to the Indian diplomatic and political leadership, but that is certainly a path worth exploring without playing safe, given the lingering process and experience so far.
In these negotiations, the ‘backward movement’ in terms of de-escalation and disengagement is primarily warranted on the Chinese, and they would be in no tearing hurry to oblige India. Every passing day and with each inconclusive round of negotiations, the Chinese remain tactically low-key and unresponsive, and procrastinate, even as they dig in their heels more substantially. The national leadership must lift the gauntlet and the responsibility of the situation beyond the restricted militaristic mandate currently, even at the risk of a continuing stalemate.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)