By Maj Gen Ashok Kumar, VSM (Retd)
India and China are currently at their lowest ebb of the relationship, at least, in recent times. The LAC standoff has put the armed forces of both the countries face to face with large-scale mobilisation including in the depth areas. Both the countries are investing heavily to maintain such a large No of troops in high altitude areas. While no cost can be too high when it comes to the matter of national security, it is also essential to understand as to whether the current stand off is the best way forward to deal with such situations?
The stand off has broken the norms of international conduct and decorum on part of China, besides bringing its expansionist agenda in the open which has raised alarm bells not only in the minds of its neighbours but also in the regional and international arena as well. New regional groupings like QUAD and AUKUS have emerged and more are in the offing. Whatever may be the perceived power of China as a nation, it does appreciate the likely difficulties that it might face in the years to come. The world, as against depending solely on China for supply chain, has already started exploring alternate options. Inner fault lines of the Chinese economy will be further widened if not arrested in a timely manner.
While India’s trade with China has been at an all time high despite the LAC standoff in Eastern Ladakh, China is clear that the current trade matrix, which is in its favour, cannot continue for long as India is not only developing its own capacities but is also looking at alternate options in the world market other than China. China is probably fretting over these new developments.
During the Russia-Ukraine war, China has appeared more aligned with Russia and has been in the opposing camp of the USA, while India has balanced itself in an exceptional manner both with Russia and the USA. Re-emerging world order is indicative of India sitting on the high table in world affairs sooner than later. Such a development will be counterproductive to Chinese interests in the long run and the Dragon appears to have sensed this which has led the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stating his country’s desire to meet halfway with India. It was done during his first interaction with India’s Ambassador to China Pradeep Kumar Rawat.
What are the Chinese intentions behind such a statement? It might be that its primary focus of unifying Taiwan is getting derailed by the LAC stand off with India in Eastern Ladakh or it might have realised the advantages of maintaining good relations with India as its neighbour? Does it want the USA lead groupings to weaken and for doing so, it is making such a gesture?
Real intentions can be gauged by understanding as to whether China indeed wants to meet halfway? Is this gesture of meeting halfway indicative of balancing unresolved incursions in Hot Springs, Depsang plains and Demchok, or is it about resolving the larger boundary issue to bring about real peace and tranquility?
In Apr-May 2020, China had transgressed in a No of areas on the LAC in Eastern Ladakh which are yet to be resolved despite fifteen rounds of Corps Commander Level conferences and other diplomatic engagements. India also let go of its Kailash Range advantage without letting all the LAC issues get resolved. The Indian demand to revert to pre Apr 2020 position, despite being fair, has not yet been agreed to by China. China also continues to undertake infrastructure battles in the areas claimed by India. Since China is already in an adverse position in certain locations on the LAC from the Apr-May 2020 status, its offer to meet halfway is fraught with danger if the statement has been made for resolving the current LAC crisis as it is outright ‘Advantage China’.
But then there is a silver lining too. While there are smaller disputes in HP, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, major disputes still remain in Arunachal Pradesh and the Chinese occupied Aksai Chin area of Ladakh. The MacMohan line evolved in 1914 Shimla convention delineates the boundary in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. As per recent books published, it comes to the fore that China was willing to recognise the boundary along MacMohan line in the state of Arunachal Pradesh except the fact that they wanted a fresh ratification by the current regime as against implementing the 1914 Shimla accord. So its advantage India if handled well diplomatically.
So what is the larger issue to be resolved? It is the Aksai chin area which is in adverse occupation of China. Indian claims in this area are based on the Johnson Line whereas the Chinese claims are based on the Macdonald Line. It is this area where meeting halfway may be a way out. If China is willing to hand over 50% of Aksai Chin back to India which can be suitably delineated, it may have some scope of a way forward. Being an issue of national importance, it is the Government of India which has to take a call on resolving the border issue with China in the national interest as there is a large quantum of trust deficit now while dealing with China. It is also important to look at real dynamics of meeting halfway which necessarily may not mean a mathematical model but a better construct of understanding each other’s national imperatives and propose a plan to address the mutual concerns.
Whatever be the issue, the engagement at the highest political level is probably the need of the hour and it is hoped that it comes sooner rather than later.
(The author is a Kargil war veteran and defence analyst. He is a visiting fellow of CLAWS and specializes in neighbouring countries with special focus on China. He tweets @chanakyaoracle Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).