By Syed Ali Mujtaba
The Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Pangong Tso remains poised on a razor’s edge. India- China animosity is high, mutual trust is nonexistent, and all past agreements and mechanisms that provided the basis for managing the border dispute have gone for a toss. The situation is slipping fast towards a point of no return, but a war that looks imminent is something that both sides have ruled out.
This has come out clearly in the India-China five points agreement between external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the margins of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Moscow. They agreed that these five points will guide the two countries to ease the tension and work towards disengagement on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The five points are; i) Both sides should not allow differences to become disputes. ii) Both sides shall abide by all the existing agreements and protocols. iii) Border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue iv) Both sides continue communications through the Special Representatives mechanism V) Both sides should expedite to conclude new confidence-building measures.
However the force posture on the ground suggests both sides may not move towards any military de-escalation. This is because the situation on the LAC is not only alarming but incredibly tense and is really on the edge. Indian and Chinese troops are just a few hundred meters apart at a forward position at Pangong Tso in Ladak. It appears India- China are doing handstands on the edge of a Ladak cliff.
India has consolidated its force posture and held its forward position there. China has mobilized a massive number of troops including artillery, armored vehicles, paratroopers, infantry and air defence personnel. Its H-6 bombers and Y-20 large transport aircraft are deployed at the LAC.
It looks like both the countries are readying for war. But are there any real incentives for war? India certainly does not want a military conflict, less so because the country’s economy is devastated due to the pandemic. On the other hand China too does not want a war because it has other theaters of conflict hotter than Ladak.
So what do India and China want? China wants India to accept its bigger power status and its right to set the terms of engagement. China further wants to force India to do a reverse act without crossing the threshold of war. However, India is equally determined not to play into the Chinese hands. Rather India wants to go on the front foot and test Chinese nerves as to how far it can go in such a war of attrition.
There is no sign of urgency between the contending parties and even the approaching winter has no impact on the easing of the tensions. Both the countries are caught in mental complicacy and are determined for a long haul waiting for others to blink. There is a danger in such a strategy because longer the standoff, the likelihood of tinderbox to get ignited due to some miscalculation.
So what is at stake? Can India cede some of its territory that it claims since 1962 and accept a unilateral withdrawal at LAC to defuse the escalating tension. This would mean redrawing of the LAC and accepting revision of LAC at China’s diktats.
India has rejected such an idea and has chosen to remain firm on the ground and to achieve its strategic objective India is making China bend as if it’s an Arm wrestling game.
On the other side, China as the stronger power sees no merit in pulling back its troops, restoring status quo ante and handing over India a “win“on a platter. Beijing is determined that not an inch of its territory will be lost. Chinese side perceives that such a compromise on its part will not be seen as the benevolence of greater power, but surrender to a resolute Indian side. So Chinese side is determined its military is fully capable and confident in safeguarding its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
So what could be done in such a situation? External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had earlier said that the recent standoff between India and China “has to be found in the domain of diplomacy.” However he was quick to qualify his statement that any solution must be “predicated on honoring all agreements and understandings and not attempting to alter the status quo unilaterally.”
However in the dialogue between defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe on the margins of SCO at Moscow, the Chinese side said that the onus of the crisis is on India. And to this the defence minister made the same counter allegation on China. He added India is equally determined to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. So whatever hopes for peace was built before the meeting got quickly dissipated after the conclusion of the same.
Now External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s five point agreement with external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, have put a question mark whether such agreement will really defuse the tension on the ground?
This becomes more nuanced after Jaishakar had qualified his statement saying that any solution must be “predicated on honoring all agreements and understandings and not attempting to alter the status quo unilaterally.”
If that is the case, will the Chinese side reciprocate him on the ground especially after having gained an upper hand in the LAC crisis? Going by the current situation where the two forces are poised head to head in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation, the space for any compromise is almost nonexistent.
It is certain that Chinese president Xi Jinping will not pull back its troops, perceiving that the cost of conflict weighs higher than complying to India’s demand of going back to the April position. This will be a huge loss for Chinese image both at home and abroad and such an idea is totally ruled out.
As far as India is concerned, going by the words of both Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Jaishakar, it is crystal clear that India is not going to accept the current status quo and push forward to dislodge the Chinese troops from its occupied position.
In such a situation how can the tension be defused? Well someone was rightly said that diplomacy is the art of the possible. So, it is possible that a solution can still be hammered out through a face-saving formula but what would be that mutually acceptable face-saver formula remains a mystery.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org