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Despite Disengagement, Let's Capitalize, Not Normalize With China

China sees India as a present competitor and a potential future threat that needs to be kept on tenterhooks, even taken off balance occasionally.


After over two years since the fresh standoff started between Indian and Chinese militaries in the cold desert of Ladakh, another round of disengagement was announced Thursday. To be completed by Monday, September 12, the pullback from Patrolling Point-15 (PP-15) of the Gogra Hot-Springs feature would restore the status quo ante April 2020 along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the eastern Ladakh sector. Earlier, troops of both sides had disengaged from both the north and south banks of Pangong Tso, patrolling point-17A (PP-17A), and patrolling point-14 (PP-14), the last being in August 2021. 

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement was important for some steps it underscored. Both sides would disengage from the forward positions and return to their respective areas. Also, that any temporary structures and allied infrastructure created during the standoff would be dismantled and mutually verified. Even more important, the landforms in the area will be restored to the pre-stand-off period by both sides, the statement said. This is significant because the Galwan clash of June 2020 was triggered when Colonel Santosh Babu and his men had gone to verify the implementation of an understanding on the removal of a structure at the bend on the river where the two sides came to blows. 

While definitely a move forward, this hardly constitutes a normalization of India-China relations as they stood pre-Galwan. For one, de-escalation and disengagement do not mean demobilization yet. India had pulled in three divisions and more to mirror Chinese deployments, and those men are still going to be there for an unspecified time. Two, the longer standoffs at the Depsang bulge and Demchok, though predating this government, remain.  

It is likely that in agreeing for the disengagement, the Chinese were guided by the optics of two upcoming events. First, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Uzbekistan, where Xi Jinping might bump into Prime Minister Modi on the sidelines. And second, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), in October in Beijing, which is likely to amend the Chinese constitution further in the direction of making Xi president for life. 

Both are connected in a way. SCO is the Chinese backyard, and the National Congress would put to scrutiny Xi’s control of the global narrative on China before endorsing that amendment. From his point of view, a nagging India is just that: a nag. Also, Chinese strategists might have thought that softening India and projecting a picture of India-China détente would make India a suspect partner in the eyes of the West. So, let’s buy a truce with the Indians, or so the Chinese leader would have thought. But the smartness ends there. For, if anything, over the last few months we have seen India toughen its position on China beyond an easy revert to the Wuhan spirit. External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar has spearheaded the hammering of this message in over a dozen addresses and events in the past one month alone. The straight bat delivery of Jaishankar has left no ambiguity that India is in no mood to give the Chinese the comfort of diplomatic normalcy anytime soon. Clearly, much water has flown down the Yangtze. 

Speaking at the IIM-Ahmedabad on September 4, Jaishankar said the Chinese had no business being in those places in Ladakh as per long-standing boundary agreements, and that India had shown to the world that we could stand our ground. More importantly, he told the audience that we were working on the issue without giving concessions. In another address to the Indian community in Sao Paolo on August 21, during his visit to Brazil, Jaishankar said that ties between India and China were passing through a very difficult phase and casting a shadow on normalization. 

China sees India as a present competitor and a potential future threat that needs to be kept on tenterhooks, even taken off balance occasionally. This much is explained by the now clear, if unstated, policy of not resolving the border question. From Ladakh now to Doklam in 2017 to Chumar in 2014, and Depsang and Demchok earlier, all fall in a pattern of what has come to be known as the Chinese salami-slicing strategy going back all the way to 1959 and before. 

At the peak of the tension during the summer of 2020, a top source told me that the troop mobilization was costing around Rs 100 crores per day, peaking at Rs 200 crores per day in winters. Discounting for built infrastructure, a back-of-the-envelope calculation brings the total monetary value of the staring down at China to about Rs 25,000 crores. This is just for the boots on the ground. Remember, we also had our biggest air force mobilization in recent memory. And a little birdie at the South Block told me if the Chinese blinked, it was in good measure because of Indian Navy deployments, both in the air above Leh, and the depths of Pangong lake, not to forget the waters of Malacca Straits. It was a war-like mobilization with war-like costs, even if no bullet has been fired. So that must have been one of the objectives of the Xi-headed Chinese Military Commission. To inflict costs during the wobbly pandemic period economy. If this is the intent, what should we be doing? 

Let’s look at the lessons first. The mirror mobilization of Indian defence forces in Ladakh had many firsts. Taking an entire brigade with tanks to areas like Chushul, sling-flying tanks to forward locations using Chinooks, deploying heavy artillery in the Kailash ranges, and innovating on durable heating systems to keep our jawans warm through the harsh winters are some of the takeaways for which we could thank the Chinese. Many of these things would have happened over a period anyway. But Ladakh standoff provided an immediacy which was grabbed with both hands by the military leadership. The skills acquired mean we are an even more battle-ready army then before.  

If China thought the pandemic would be a weapon used to fashion the world as per its middle kingdom complex, the reverse seems to have happened. China faces a more circumspect world now than before the pandemic. The benevolent indulgence of the West led by the United States from Nixon era – which is a substantial reason behind China’s rise – has all but dried up. The Chinese can say they do not need that benevolence anymore. But then, that arrogance earns more circumspection, even enmity. There is a reason why in the recent past the Chinese have had diplomatic stand offs with small nations like Bhutan and Lithuania and have seen friends like Australia drift away. 

How does India steer this fundamentally altered relationship now? For one, while the USD 5 trillion economy is low-hanging fruit, we must think bigger and see ourselves as the second largest economy in the world by 2047. Prime Minister Narendra Modi understands that thus putting ‘India as a developed country’ by our hundredth year of independence as one of the national objectives in his August 15 speech from the Red Fort. Second, we must put in place mechanisms to limit civil strife. A peaceful society with a modern outlook becomes fertile ground for innovation and hard work, two prerequisites for focused and sustained growth. Between the Europe war and the Taiwan crisis, global forces are aligning in a manner that it would not be easy for the Chinese to be the engine of growth for the world on a sustainable basis. The diversification makes India the right candidate at the time. We have to take the tide. 

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