In a scenario strongly reminiscent of 1962, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could help in reducing tension by giving some strong public assurances.
So, I remember vividly the news items that appeared daily in our newspapers in October 1962, before we found ourselves at war with China.
The similarity between those reports and the ones appearing today are chilling.
There is the same self-righteousness, the same casting of primary blame on the other side, the same calculated imprecision about what the actual deployments on the ground are, and the same reassurances that our armed forces are ready to prevent further incursions by the other side.
The only difference between 1962 and today is that, thanks to advances in communication technology, we now also know what the Chinese are saying, and the accusations they are making. So, we know that the Chinese are accusing us of the same, self-justifying accusations of LAC infringement and violation of recent agreements by Indian troops, that we are making against them.
And the tone of their official, fully publicised démarches is chilling:
“The Indian side’s statement may be different from the Chinese side’s but there is only one truth and fact,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
“China has never provoked any war or conflict and never occupied an inch of other country’s territory.”
The formal statement, issued by Ji Rong, is even more pregnant with menace:
“India’s move has grossly violated China’s territorial sovereignty, seriously violated relevant agreements, protocols and important consensus reached between the two countries, and severely damaged peace and tranquillity along the China-India border areas.”
Beijing’s underlying thought processes on the issue have been simultaneously spelt out by its semi-official mouthpiece Global Times:
“From the Doklam crisis in 2017 to the serious clash in the Galwan Valley in June this year, India has been taking a radical and hardline approach in dealing with the China-India border dispute. The system that has managed the border situation for decades is now crumbling. Regular border frictions will exhaust both countries.
“India has not taken negotiations as the main path, but pinned its hopes on strengthening ties with external forces, including the US, to exert pressure on China.India’s actions have seriously increased the strategic mistrust between China and India, and heightened the damage border frictions are creating on relations between the two countries. India has canceled much cooperation with China since Galwan Valley clash. Its nationalism is inflicting damage to itself.
“India’s national security outlook is twisted. New Delhi’s defense budget for 2019 reached $71.1 billion, ranking the third in the world, or about 2.4% of its GDP. However, a large part of it was spent on meaningless border frictions with its neighbours.
“India has gone astray playing geopolitics with China. Countries like the US will never really offer a hand to India, but rather take advantage of the South Asian giant.
“Nonetheless, if China and India are really engaged in comprehensive antagonism, it will be much easier for China to rope in countries, including Pakistan, against India. But Beijing hasn’t ever implied that. This shows China is quite capable of handling challenges from India.”
“China doesn’t want to be India’s enemy,” the article goes on:
“China’s development is far ahead of India’s, but we still believe that continuing development is the priority to assure our national strategy. India has just started its modernization, with a large number of people in dire poverty. But Beijing seems to have been more enthusiastic than New Delhi in the two sides’ cooperation. New Delhi is obsessed with “national security” while overlooking homeless people. The Indian government has forgotten that its main task should be improving living standards.
“Should China and India be rational enough and use their ties as a platform to advance cooperation, there shouldn’t have been the increasingly tense strategic struggle between them. If India takes nationalism as the main gauge of measuring its ties with China, exaggerating border issues, and treating these ties geopolitically, then China alone will never be able to maintain regional peace and stability.
“Neither China nor India is willing to keep their relations at the cost of losing territory. But the same disputes have been there for decades, and they shouldn’t have been allowed to resurface. Chinese public opinion hasn’t focused on the China-India border issues, but India has always been fanatical. One will suspect that India is misguided.”
“China is an immovable neighbour and much stronger than India. The two countries are suitable to be partners in seeking common development. But if New Delhi wants to label Beijing its long-term strategic rival, it needs to be prepared to pay a huge cost. In the meantime, it will never manage to get one more inch of land at China-India border areas.”
Excepting the last paragraph, the arguments presented in the rest of the article are ones that I have presented more than once in these columns, most recently in collaboration with an eminent Chinese intellectual, Victor Gao. If the writer of the Global Times article is sincere, and if he reflects Beijing’s strategic thinking accurately, then war in the Himalayas is the last thing China wants.
What it does want is an assurance that the present regime in India will not, either for its own domestic, ideological, and political reasons, or to curry favour with its newfound ‘defence partner’ the United States, recreate conflicts with China that the Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh governments had laid to rest. Beyond that, Beijing still wants to resume the strategic and economic cooperation that the Modi government has, so unthinkingly, disrupted.
Responsible statesmanship requires that India take both Beijing’s official hardline statements, and its unofficial reiteration of cooperation, seriously.
For weeks, since his June 19 statement that China had not seized any (undisputed) Indian territory, Modi has been quietly trying to recover the hyper-nationalist political ground he lost then by reinforcing the armed forces in Ladakh and declaring a covert economic war on China through trade and investment sanctions, while playing quietly with peacocks in his garden.
This policy has reached the end of its pre-destined road.
Prime Minister Modi may still be hoping for a Chinese pullback that he can again describe as a victory to his subjects, as he did after Doklam. But as Global Times explicitly reminds us, this is not going to happen.
So he now has to choose between a war that, given the forbidding terrain and its remoteness from supply bases and cantonments, India is pre-destined to lose, and accepting the hand of friendship that China still appears willing to extend.
If Modi decides to do the latter he can still do so, without making any humiliating concessions, through the following initiatives:
1) Recognise explicitly, and remind the Indian public though the TV and media, that there have always been different interpretations of the Line of Actual Control; and hold China responsible for preventing their reconciliation through an exchange of maps;
2) Inform the Indian public that despite this, repeated non-violent confrontations between rival patrols over the years in certain areas have enabled us to identify 23 such “grey” areas and that all of the five points of confrontation this summer fall within them;
3) Give an immediate and public assurance to China that there will be no further troop deployments in the area provided China is willing to do the same. This is necessary because vaguely worded agreements between corps commanders have not only failed to inspire confidence but given armchair military experts a field day for representing them as concessions born out of weakness – just the allegation Modi cannot tolerate.
4) Resume talks at the highest level – between external affairs minister Jaishankar and state councillor Wang Yi , to reassure China that while India may not be happy with the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and has disagreements in principle with its being located in Gilgit, it recognises that CPEC’s purpose is to facilitate trade, and has no intention whatever of disrupting, or allowing its territory to be used to disrupt, that trade.
These four mutual assurances, if given publicly so that they can be viewed as a form of contract, will end the confrontation in Ladakh and ensure peace in the immediate future.
But to ensure a permanent peace and open the way to the economic cooperation that China wants it is necessary for the two governments to take two additional steps:
1) First, in its own interest, India should lift all the economic sanctions through which it has tried to punish China for its sudden change of the status quo in Ladakh this summer.
Economic sanctions, even when they hurt, leave the decision makers and the elite untouched, so they become a war against the people of the country. As a result, in contrast to a military clash, which everyone tries to forget the moment it is over, economic sanctions change the perceptions of the people.
The harm they do to inter-state relations therefore lasts for years, even generations. India is fortunate that the sanctions it has imposed on China so far will barely touch peoples’ lives. Removing them will therefore benefit our relationships disproportionately.
2) Finally, since China will not, or cannot, explain its reluctance to exchange maps, would it not be better to bypass this issue altogether by agreeing to a modified version of the proposal first put to Pandit Nehru by Zhou Enlai in 1960 – that the two countries move, or keep, all permanent military installations back 10 or more kilometres from not only the LAC but the 23 “grey” areas and declare this a Zone Of Peace open to locals from both sides of the border to graze their sheep and goats, to cultivate, or trade in?
There is so much for both countries to gain from peace and so much to lose from war, that to even think of a relationship that is based upon permanent antagonism is a form of insanity.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.