INDIA conducted the G20 summit with aplomb, showcasing its global stature. The presidents of two notable countries — Russia and China — skipped the event for different reasons. Russia’s Vladimir Putin gave the event a miss to avoid a potential confrontation over the Ukraine war; China’s Xi Jinping did it mainly due to domestic imperatives. Xi had never skipped a G20 summit since 2013. He didn’t attend the event in Delhi not because he wanted to avoid Modi, whom he met at BRICS in Johannesburg last month, but to avoid Joe Biden and a phalanx of Western leaders amid their geopolitical hostilities against China. China has a weakening economy that needs to be fixed and Xi had to expose his No. 2 and Politburo member-cum-Premier Li Qiang.
Had the External Affairs Ministry read the tea leaves properly, anxiety to make Xi untie the Galwan knot could have been put off. Clearly, Modi had sought a third meeting after last November’s exchange of courtesies at the G20 summit in Bali and a meeting in the lounge at the recent BRICS summit. His policy advisers misread a Chinese readout after a meeting between China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and NSA Ajit Doval on July 24 at the BRICS National Security Advisers’ conclave in Johannesburg. At the bilateral with Wang, Doval issued a strong message: “China’s actions have eroded strategic trust and public and political basis of the bilateral relationship.” He also confirmed the Bali consensus. Later that day, Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra announced, “President Xi and PM Modi agreed at Bali to direct their relevant officials to intensify efforts at expeditious disengagement and de-escalation of troops.” The Chinese readout that followed focused on the big picture: “President Xi stressed upon China-India relations.” It also contained the usual Chinese homilies on maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border region.
Conspicuously missing was the Indian quote on disengagement and de-escalation of troops. China also said the meeting was sought by India, to which the latter responded with “in accordance with a pending request by China”. How did the exchange of pleasantries between the two leaders eight months earlier transform into ‘Bali Consensus’, which had not been revealed by either side at the time? This was a Chinese red herring.
Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has been counselling China about the primacy of a peaceful and tranquil border in bilateral relations. The Chinese response has become standard: The boundary question is a historic issue and does not represent in entirety China-India relations. The 19th round of Corps Commander-level talks (August 13-14), which unusually spilled over to the second day, mentioned a freeze in the build-up in troops and equipment and the method for future disengagement and patrolling. The joint statement referred to expeditiously resolving the remaining issues. But China’s infrastructure has developed at a rapid pace. Satellite pictures by Maxar Technologies (August 18) indicate new tunnels and military projects, located 70 km from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Aksai Chin, dual-use Xiaokang border villages and last-mile connectivity to forward posts. China has revived stapled visas for Arunachal Pradesh and issued its annual edition of the new standard map (nothing new), reflecting Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of China. Most troubling for India is the acceleration in meetings on the resolution of the China-Bhutan border dispute. China has not posted an envoy in Delhi for the past 11 months — one of the top 10 posts that automatically confers the Vice Foreign Minister rank.
India, too, has upped the ante. Three former Service Chiefs, for the first time, attended the Ketagalan Forum at the Institute of National Defence and Security, Taipei, as part of the Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue. In response to a question from a Pakistani journalist, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson remarked: “The country concerned should abide by ‘One China’ policy.” Former Army Chief Gen MM Naravane had spoken on Tibet and China’s illegal annexation and recommended dumping Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy. Still, India and China have kept the doors open to dialogue and diplomacy.
All said and done, China has signalled three noes — no further disengagement and de-escalation, no disengagement from Demchok and Depsang, and no return to status quo ante of May 5, 2020. For China, national security and sovereignty tower above all other issues.
The India-China chessboard, as seen from New Delhi, looks something like this: a) 100 PLA soldiers are deployed at Depsang (with 100 Indian soldiers on their side), preventing Indian patrols moving beyond the ‘bottleneck’ and on to their traditional areas of patrolling;
b) The Chinese are clear about their 1959 claim line from Depsang to Demchok; c) There is no loss of territory per se. Only transgression due to overlapping perceptions of LAC; d) In the buffer zones, in all six friction points, except Kailash Heights where it was total vacation by both sides, there may be new patrolling protocols, including no-patrolling zones and patrolling on odd-even days to avoid clashes. Graziers will be escorted by troops; e) A new border management protocol may be evolved in the future; f) No breakthrough on the diplomatic front, least of all any summitry till late 2024; g) No grand bargain like India accepting buffer zones for China recognising the McMahon Line.
The opposition Congress is asking questions on the loss of access to territory and patrolling rights in 26 of 65 patrolling points. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had on February 11, 2021, informed Parliament that an agreement had been reached on complete disengagement north and south of Pangong Lake, but the status quo of May 5, 2020, was not fully achieved, adding: “We have not conceded an inch of land.”
What an unmitigated blunder was vacating Kailash Heights, India’s trump card in border negotiations! We can celebrate our G20 success, but who will be held responsible for the blow to territorial sovereignty of the country?
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