Both India and China accused each other for the failure to move forward during the 13th round of the commanders meeting on 10 October at Moldo in the western sector of the border. India stated that the “unilateral attempts of the Chinese side to alter the status quo and in violation of the bilateral agreements” have created a problem in the border areas and that the Chinese side did not propose any “forward-looking proposals” to resolve the problem.
On the other hand, the Chinese side accused India of making “unreasonable and unrealistic demands” and hoped India “will not misjudge the situation” in the border areas.
China’s communist party outlet, Global Times, stated that India “will not get the border the way it wants” and its “unrealistic demands [are] not in line with the real situation or its strength”.
In other words, going away from what it agreed to, China is arguing that India must accept the current status quo on the borders after its troops marched into Indian-claimed regions since March last year. It is also sending a signal that it is unwilling to vacate such lands even at the cost of going to war or changing the format of bilateral relations.
Beijing is Coercing India
According to the Chinese version, “reasonable” concessions from India include recognising the repeatedly rejected Zhou Enlai line of 1959 in Aksai Chin, which is several hundred kilometres south and southwest of the highway it constructed in 1954-57, giving up several hundred square kilometres of territory south of Karakoram ranges and Depsang Plains. In other words, China is conveying that it will not budge on the commanders’ meeting of going back to “known positions” prior to March 2020.
China is also conveying to India that it should kowtow to Beijing based on a recognition of existing military strength differentials, acquired in the recent four decades of economic and military rise.
Clearly, while China argued for “equality” of all countries in its diplomatic discourse and principled foreign policy, Beijing is coercing India. This is in sharp contrast to the narrative it has in its relations with a more powerful United States.
The 13th meeting as such was vitiated by recent events on the border. On 31 August, for instance, over 100 PLA soldiers on horseback entered the Barahoti region at Tunjunla in the middle sector, and on 28 September, over 200 PLA soldiers surfaced in Arunachal borders at Yangtse. Also, on 9 October, China's Weibo released photos of PLA-captured 30-odd Indians with dishevelled hair and wounds, possibly from the situation at Galwan in June last year.
A Slew of Violated Agreements
While the previous rounds resolved the issue of disengagement and de-escalation in the Pangong Tso region — mainly due to the military operational advantage that the Indian Army acquired in Kailash ranges — more than a dozen “friction points” between the two armed forces are yet to be resolved. These include several patrol points blocked in Depsang Plains, Hot Springs, Kurang Nala, Demchok and other areas.
This is despite several high-level agreements to resolve the border standoff, including between the two Defence Ministers in Moscow on 10 September 2020, the 10 February 2021 declaration, and the Dushanbe meeting of foreign ministers on the resolution of the rest of the areas at the “earliest”.
That China is unwilling to vacate the areas it occupied or in the process of militarisation is evident from the preparations it has been making recently. Prefabricated materials were brought in to raise camps in the western sector by China from Sirijap to Moldo to Rutok, indicating that China has been planning permanent arrangements in the border areas.
Also, out of 628 “well-off villages” it began constructing in Tibet in 2017, over 200 have come up on the Line of Actual Control areas with India. Some, such as those in the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh, are within Indian-claimed regions or in Bhutan and Nepal.
China’s complete turnaround at the 13th commanders meeting is not acceptable to India. New Delhi, in its “whole of the government” approach, had argued that without peace and tranquillity at the borders, it is unwilling to explore bilateral relations. New Delhi also stated that it will secure its land “till the last inch”.
Thus, the hardening of China’s position, its disregard for a series of signed agreements in 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013, and active military preparations have all brought the two countries to the brink of war.
Repeated border transgressions and haggling between troops preceded the 1979 war between China and Vietnam. Similar transgressions over a period of time on the Sino-Soviet borders at Ussurisky/Zhenbaodao brought the two nuclear powers to the brink of war in 1969. India and China thus stare at each other in border areas with conflict looming over the horizons.
(Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)