By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)
The disengagement at PP15 in the Gogra Hot springs area was to happen last year as a tangible outcome of a Corps Commanders Conference held then. It did not. When Wang Yi came on an uninvited visit in Mar 22 to Delhi, it was expected that this disengagement would coincide with his visit. He probably came with the lollipop that the PLA would condescendingly agree to the disengagement at PP15 Gogra Hot springs if Sino – Indian ties resume with the Business as Usual tag.
It was typical of the Chinese supremacist world view to expect such an outcome. However, India did not fall into the trap. In fact, Wang Yi was snubbed and had to go back empty handed. A message was sent. The old normal in Sino-Indian relations does not exist anymore. A new normal is not yet in sight. The new normal is predicated on the LAC and the border issue.
Later, the disengagement announcement was expected in the 16th Corps Commanders meet. It did not occur then. The standoff continued at Gogra till recently. All of a sudden it was announced that there would be a disengagement. The disengagement process commenced and has been completed as per news reports. Why has this disengagement taken place now? What is its significance? Needs analysis and understanding.
After the major disengagements at Galwan, Chushul and Pangong Tso in 2021, the disengagements at PPs 17A and 15 in the Gogra- Hot springs area were considered low hanging fruits to build mutual confidence and trust between PLA and IA. Once this was done, the other major standoffs at Depsang and Demchok were to be addressed.
A minor disengagement took place on Aug 21 at PP17A. After that, the PLA went into stall mode since it held the trump card of possession of our territory. Very clearly, the PLA was stalling not only for time but for clear political outcomes. The political opportunity cum necessity, absent till now, has sprung up. This sub tactical concession has greater political relevance for China than India. This needs further elucidation.
While all news and media channels in India carried this disengagement in detail as part of their headlines, it barely made a ripple in the Chinese media. The SCMP, for instance , portrayed it blandly as a product of ‘reinforced common interests at a time of growing international instability, rising bilateral trade and shared threats to both countries’.
Very clearly, the Chinese media did not explain why the PLA was stepping back. The low key approach was adopted so that PLA/CCP is not seen in adverse light as having given in to seek concessions from India. At the same time the Indian media while conveying and analysing this development has been realistic in its overall assessment. The bottom line is that disengagement is only a minor one which should have been done long back. It is no great shakes. However there is a bigger shake ahead if we can smell the tea leaves. The Chinese appear to have done so.
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The disengagement is a direct trade off so that India does not spoil Xi Jinping’s first coming out party since the onset of Covid in 2019. The fact that Xi Jinping is making his first international foray outside China since the Covid began is now directly conflated with the 20th Party Congress being held next month to anoint him for an unprecedented third term as China’s uncrowned king.
In this context, the SCO meet has to be a success. If it has to be a success , Mr Modi must attend the meet irrespective of the outcomes. This minor disengagement is the price China is paying for Mr Modi to show up at the SCO meet. If this fundamental is understood , the rest falls in place. Of course , there will be the inevitable Modi-Xi one-on-one on the side-lines of the SCO meet, which the Chinese hope will pave the way for further negotiations. Such an event whether publicised, acknowledged or not will give added lustre to Xi Jinping’s image and smoothen his path next month at the 20th Party Congress.
Will the Chinese keep quiet at that? Not at all. They will make a song and dance of this disengagement at the right time and use it as a pressure point for future talks. They will also seek to reopen dialogue post the SCO meet so as to move to a new normal wherein India will be expected to do ‘more’ if China is to step back from Depsang and Demchok.
What is that ‘more’ as per Chinese expectations? These expectations are based on the current Chinese world view that the 21st Century is still China’s Century. China is the numero-uno in Asia. Its ascendance as the premier global power is preordained and only a matter of time. The blip of economic slowdown and zero covid is a transient phenomenon. Once Xi Jinping is anointed for life as China’s head honcho, its true colours of establishing a Sino Centric World in which India will have to accept Chinese supremacy will be revealed.
The new normal to which China will work towards will revolve around India accepting the LAC as it is and also accepting to negotiate the future of Arunachal Pradesh as disputed territory. India will also be forced to maintain restricted force levels along the LAC as per Chinese expectations. As per the envisaged normal, India will also be expected to open its gates for unhindered investments, trade and exports from China while making no significant concessions to India. India will also be expected to tone down relations with the USA and West. China will hope to accomplish this through Russia, which it now sees as dependent on itself.
Having said this, China will also be realistic to know that it is facing severe headwinds. It cannot handle two military fronts – Taiwan and India simultaneously with the USA backing both. Hence a wedge between India and USA has to be driven in. China also realises that India is the fastest growing big economy in a world where all other economies including its own are stagnating.
It would have also realised that many in the world see India as the alternate to China in scale.China will also be cognisant of the fact that India has acquired the strategic confidence to drop the ‘One China’ stance and talk of militarisation of Taiwan straits. It must also be aware of India’s rising stature in global affairs. If it has to achieve the ‘Chinese Dream’ and ‘Rejuvenation of the Great Chinese Nation’, it needs India on its side and not against it.
Simultaneously, China needs to contain India. Hence, China must dangle carrots before India and wield the stick at the same time. The carrot is future disengagement and concessions on the LAC. The infrastructural development along the LAC and its forward leaning posture is part of the stick. However there are more sticks which have been shown.
The visit of Yuan Wang to Hambantota, the firing of long range missiles in high altitude during the Corps Commanders Conference, enhanced air activity along the LAC, exposing the Chinese encroachment into Bhutan (Pangda village), pressing Nepal to agree upon the trans Himalayan rail track are all part of Chinese sticks against India. Overall its excessive militarization poses a grave threat to India not only along the LAC but elsewhere in the IOR also. At this point of time, China has more sticks than carrots.
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More than carrots and sticks, China has some real internal problems which weakens its hand. Its economy is haemorrhaging due to multiple factors – zero covid, drought, decoupling, isolation, real estate bubble collapsing, big tech dismantling, bad international loans et al. China’s iron brother Pakistan is turning out to be a millstone around its neck. China also faces severe political isolation and headwinds from the affluent western societies who now view it as a systemic rival.
Once Xi Jinping starts his third term, it is almost certain that he will impose his brand of Xiconomics on China which will revolve around ‘state controlled economy’, ‘common prosperity’ and ‘dual circulation’. This will only weaken China further. If and when China surfaces from these issues, two long term issues will start taking effect to plague it – climate change and ageing. Everything else apart, China cannot escape these factors. From many perspectives it is clear that China has peaked. It is in this contextual background that India must approach any future equation with China.
Overall, India must deal with China with a strong hand and strategic confidence. It has acquired the latter but needs to develop the earlier meaningfully without letting it drift. From a diplomatic point of view India must continue to engage China politely and in a non-committal manner. In case any major step is to be taken or a policy reversal is to take place, it will do well for us to remember that China never keeps its word.
It has proven so once too often. In this context, I am quite confident that the Indian leadership will handle Xi Jinping and China appropriately. However there is always a lingering fear. Where a ‘jhootha parade’ is required, we should not gift China and Xi Jinping with a ‘jhoola parade’ once again.
The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ www.gunnersshot.com.
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