The negotiations at military leaders’ levels have not yielded to pre-April, 2020 dispositions of the opposing forces in Eastern Ladakh. As far as trade between the two countries is concerned, it has logged positive growth notwithstanding the measures initiated by the government. The article details the issues involved and suggests a few ingredients of a design for negotiating with the Chinese on better terms in future.
The 12th round of military commanders’ level talks between India and China resulted in mutual agreement in disengagement only at Gogra Post (PP 17 A) out of the multiple contentious friction points of Gogra, Hot spring, Depsang plains and Demchok. Reportedly, the Chinese even refused to discuss disengagement at Depsang plains and Demchok before the talks. The talks having taken place after more than three months of hiatus since 9 April and in the backdrop of wide divergence in the statements given out by the two sides consequent to confabulations between the Foreign Ministers on 14 July. It would have been naive for anyone to expect any greater concessions from the Chinese.
What could have been the Chinese motivation to agree to a pull back from friction points that India insisted? In the ninth round of talks, the motivation was to eliminate Indian domination over Moldo Garrison and neutralize the much-publicized Indian counter action over Kailash ranges. The disengagement was thus swift and verified during the 10th round of talks. Even during the standoff at Doklam in 2017, the disengagement achieved on 28 August 2017 was due to the Chinese having been taken by complete surprise due to an unexpected Indian response in Bhutanese territory and the BRICS summit scheduled in Beijing from 3-5 September that year.
The Chinese have incidentally firmed in, thereafter, at Doklam with huge permanent infrastructure besides creeping into Northern Bhutan to provide width and depth to the vulnerable Chumbi Valley where the PLA is at a relative disadvantage.
As Vijay Gokhale brings out in his book, ‘The Long Game’, how the Chinese negotiate with India; Chinese tend to set the agenda, the narrative for the negotiations and expect unilateral gestures by the other party prior to the talks to ensure positive results. Contrary to the statement of Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar that peace and tranquility in the border area is the basis of India – China relations. His Chinese counterpart Wang Yi believes in consolidation of results of disengagement that has been achieved and acceptance of current status quo; meaning two steps forward and one step back.
During the 16-month standoff in Eastern Ladakh, there appears to be no substantive pressure on the Chinese to agree to a restoration of status quo as in April 2020, except what was achieved on the North and South banks of Pangong Tso. Despite banning of over 200 Chinese apps, increased scrutiny on Chinese investments and excluding Chinese firms from 5G trial in India, the trade between the two countries has only grown further during financial year 2020-21 making China the biggest trading partner of India. Bilateral trade in the first half of the year was USD 57.48 billion, with Indian exports at USD 14.724 billion and Indian imports USD 42.755 billion.
Though the trade surplus in Chinese favour is humongous, the stake when viewed in the context of China’s global trade volumes, is much lesser and thus the Indian economy tends to suffer more in the event of an economic decoupling. So is the case even for the US whose bilateral relations with China in recent times has nosedived.
Take the case of the Chinese blocking the export of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) for manufacturing vaccines by India during the height of the second wave of the pandemic. These irritants have been further compounded by the denial of visas to Indian medical students to study in Chinese universities, blocking of commercial ships with Indian crew to visit Chinese ports and customs officials seizing maps showing Arunachal Pradesh as part of India as per a new regulation.
The unexpected visit of Xi Jinping to Nyingchi, along with key politburo members and addressing 281 officers of PLA Ground Force and 29 of PLA Air Force besides three lieutenant generals and 27 major generals could not have been entirely coincidental, succeed as it did Prime Minister Modi’s wishing the Dalai Lama on his 86th birthday.
There have been many instances in the past of Chinese belligerence along the LAC just before bilateral negotiations. To further isolate India in the South Asian region, the Chinese have commenced establishing their own form of SAARC and BIMSTEC in the form of China-South Asia Emergency Supply Reserve and Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Centre embracing all India’s neighbours.
Negotiation between two sides must ideally be from a position of equals, cooperative and consultative with both agreeing to honour each other’s core interests. In fact, this is what the Chinese wanted to establish in their negotiations with the US, both at Anchorage and Beijing. When it comes to negotiating with India, the Chinese tend to use what Shiv Shankar Menon describes as ‘legalized hegemony’ as a means of establishing hierarchy, consider themselves superior and display aggression, arrogance and even put conditionalities prior to the talks. Therefore, the establishment of parity at the beginning of the negotiations is crucial.
The overarching framework for talks is laid down at the higher diplomatic level leveraging other components of comprehensive national power and statecraft to leverage extraction of concessions. If a nation’s relative strength in a particular field at a given point of time inhibits it to negotiate from a position of strength/equality then the opponents’ weakness/vulnerabilities would be taken advantage of. There are instances when despite being a much stronger country, both militarily and economically, India has been very accommodative while negotiating with say Nepal / Bangladesh and Sri Lanka due to strategic reasons.
While militarily, in the economic and technological domain, the asymmetry between India and China is stark, there are more than a few vulnerabilities of the Chinese which can be selectively exploited. Be it the origin of COVID-19, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and in the South China Sea, India seems to have distinctly avoided antagonizing the Chinese sensitivities apparently because of its relative disadvantage in the economic and military fields.
It is imperative for India to leverage its relationship with other world powers in terms of strategic partnerships and even alliances to exploit the Chinese core vulnerabilities/sensitivities to extract concessions as part of diplomatic statecraft. Evidently Chinese have been sensitive to tighter embrace between India and the US, military operationalization of QUAD, diplomatic relations with Taiwan and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Indian vulnerabilities along the LAC despite the relative force asymmetry and infrastructure development, are not relevant beyond a point. With the unprecedented force deployment on either side, the scope for a military victory even at the tactical level is extremely limited. In fact, force deployment, beyond a point is counterproductive in terms of logistics and the cost of maintaining such large forces in inhospitable terrain. Further, there is a need to not only generate options for force application under various contingencies but also overtly practice these for deterrence to be viable and effective.
Any belligerence by either side to take tactical military advantage would have unintended consequences since neither side can claim to retain complete control over escalation. The medieval style of clashes at Galwan on 15 June 2020 only goes to prove that neither side wanted the situation to escalate beyond control. Underreporting the number of casualties in the Galwan clash and delayed official declaration of a much smaller number is indeed an effort to garner a semblance of victory by the Chinese.
It is unrealistic to expect a favourable outcome of negotiations, especially with the Chinese, at all times, and more so when they seem to be rejoicing at US ignominy after the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, it is important to continue to negotiate albeit to ascertain the opponent’s mindset and possible response to future contingencies. India needs to generate areas of strength (including Chinese vulnerabilities) to retain its bargaining position during future negotiations.
Maj Gen SC Mohanty (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)