India-China standoff talks will focus on troops returning to ‘pre-dispute’ positions: experts

  • Saturday’s meeting will involve Lieutenant General-ranked officials on both sides, a move that has been described as unprecedented

  • India will call for things to return to the way they were a month ago but should also seek clarity on sovereignty along the 3,488km disputed border, experts say

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 12:15pm, 5 June, 2020

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Both countries, with strong leaders and nationalistic political discourses, may seek to avoid the appearance of compromise on the issue of sovereignty. Photo: AP

When India’s top military officials meet their counterparts from China on Saturday to resolve the latest face-off between troops high in the Himalayas, they are likely to urge all troops to return to their pre-dispute positions, said Indian military experts.

But they should also aim to seek clarity on sovereignty along their 3,488km undemarcated border known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), to prevent flare-ups from recurring, said Lieutenant General (Ret) D.S. Hooda, who previously led the Northern Army Command that oversees India’s borders with Pakistan and China.

Hooda, who was speaking at a webinar organised by the New Delhi-based Institute for Chinese Studies on Wednesday, said one option to ease current tensions was to have a moratorium on patrolling in contested areas, as had been done in the past.

But what complicated the current talks was that there was seemingly no cause for Chinese “violence” this time, said Hooda. Soldiers from both sides have been injured from fist fights and stone-throwing.

Previous standoffs had been sparked by disagreements over the building of border infrastructure, among other things.

“We were absolutely clear [then] of the red lines and demands of two sides. One wanted to build, the other said no. Therefore, we knew the steps towards resolution. I am not sure we know that in this case,” said Hooda, warning of a protracted stand-off.

Neither side has formally spoken about the origins of the standoff that began about a month ago but analysts speculated that 

China’s decision to amass troops at the border could have been fuelled by a combination of factors. This would include India’s move to impose direct federal rule on the Kashmir region last year, and its recent completion of a road and bridge close to the LAC as part of an infrastructure programme.

India has accused Chinese troops of incursions into areas that were never under dispute, such as the Galwan River valley, which is between Indian-administered Ladakh and Chinese-administered Aksai Chin. Aksai Chin is strategically important to Beijing as it has China’s only direct road link to Xinjiang and Tibet.

Indian military sources said their side would, during Saturday’s talks, press for the status quo to be maintained at Galwan, while seeking an immediate de-escalation at Pangong Tso, a lake in the Tibetan plateau where both sides have unresolved claims.

Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary and former head of India’s national security advisory board, told This Week in Asia that the current stand-off was unusual and suggested “coordinated action orchestrated at a senior level”, given the level of violence and scale of the troop build-up.

With the current face-off coming just three years after the last major stand-off in the Doklam plateau, both sides needed to consider more sustainable solutions instead of relying on firefighting, said Sameer Patil, a fellow of the International Security Studies Programme at Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House.

“At the heart of it, the problem is that the Chinese establishment has not offered its perception of the LAC to India, while the Indian side has done this. This is something that needs to be dealt with urgently,” Patil said.

He also noted that both sides would be represented by Lieutenant General-ranked officials on Saturday, a move that reflected the gravity of the dispute.

Chinese and an Indian soldiers at part of their countries’ shared border. Photo: AFP

“Generally, such talks happen at the local level and if it doesn’t get resolved, you take it to the area commander level,” he said. “But to have a Lieutenant General-level meeting is very unprecedented and it reflects the seriousness of the situation.”

While China has not announced who it will dispatch for the talks, the Indian military will be represented by 14 Corps Commander, Lt Gen Harinder Singh.

Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, a retired military officer, said domestic political compulsions would weigh on both countries in resolving the dispute.

 

Both countries, with strong leaders and highly nationalistic political discourses, might not want to be seen making a compromise on the issue of territorial sovereignty, said Bhaskar, the director of the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank.

 

He believed the agenda for the talks would not be entirely about local border factors but shaped by the directions of the two political establishments.

DECADES-LONG DISPUTE

The two nuclear-armed neighbours, who together account for more than one-third of the world’s population, have fought over their border since the 1950s, leading to a short but intense war in 1962.

Since then, no bullets have been exchanged, although sporadic clashes have erupted.

In 2013, a three-week long troop face-off at Ladakh’s Depsang Plateau led to many rounds of talks and negotiations between the two sides.

The 2017 Doklam Plateau standoff, at the trijunction with Bhutan, was resolved after 70 days and 13 rounds of talks that involved the foreign secretaries as well as ambassadors to both countries.

The latest face off began in Sikkim state and since then, media outlets from both sides have focused on the extent of the military buildup along the border.

Chinese president Xi Jinping and Indian prime Minister Narendra Modi during an informal summit in 2019.

In India, there have been reports of the Indian Army moving heavy artillery and ramping up its aerial surveillance in the region.

Global Times, the Chinese nationalist tabloid affiliated with state-owned People’s Daily, carried reports this week saying China’s People’s Liberation Army had expanded its arsenal of weapons since the Doklam stand-off and that the PLA was conducting night time, high altitude drills, “for infiltration exercises behind enemy lines”.

While India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh confirmed a large Chinese presence along the LAC in a television interview earlier this week, Chinese officials have not said much beyond stressing that the border situation is “stable and controllable” with both sides resolving issues through dialogue.

“There is no need for any third party to intervene,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday at a press conference, when asked if he had any comments on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump exchanging views on the matter.

The latest tensions come as India continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. It has more than 226,000 cases and 6,348 deaths and is trying to find its way out of a lockdown that has decimated business activity and left millions without jobs. One unsettling development for the Defence Ministry was its most senior civil servant testing positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, China is grappling with worsening relations with the US that are roiling global trade while also facing resistance from other countries over its decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong.

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