While returning from the Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) meeting with the Chinese defense minister and other members of the grouping, also called the Asian NATO, India’s Defense Minister, Rajnath Singh, mysteriously stopped by at Tehran, Iran, to meet his counterpart. The trip was unscheduled and the real reason for this trip was buried deep in the diplomatic pleasantries and the usual reaffirmation of its support to Chabahar port project.
Four days later, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar, also, strangely followed Singh to Tehran to meet his extremely articulate counterpart, Javad Zarif, before he landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport to have discussions with his SCO counterparts, including the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Both these hastily organized trips to Tehran came a few days after the armies of two countries saw violence on August 29-30.
Later in another face-off, the Chinese and Indian troops exchanged 200 rounds of fire in Northern Ladakh — first time in 45 years. Why visit Iran when war with China has been staring at us across our 3,500 kilometer border?
Modi, to his credit, has not mentioned the name of China as the enemy, even when he traveled to Ladakh to show solidarity with the soldiers. Modi is a safe player and despite his aggressive persona, he would not like to be dragged into a war, which is not of his own making. Worse, Modi, like all good military commanders, will not want China and Pakistan to fight with India together in a nightmarish two-front war.
There are no answers to this question, but responsible diplomatic sources claim that these desperately put together trips were meant to use Iran’s growing friendship with Beijing to make China see reason. The trip was also meant to save our tattered policy and investment in Chabahar port, which was meant to sidestep Pakistan and launch new connectivity routes to Central Asia and Europe as a counterpoint to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The Indian government’s scramble for support from its allies in the region, as China began to muscle its way around in its neighborhood, did not yield much dividends. The Chinese did not budge. On the contrary, there was exchange of fire at many places. On September 10, S Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a long meeting and passed a joint statement that brought to the fore differences rather than congruence between the two sides.
Firstly, the Chinese released the statement at 3 am — in the early hours of India. The Indian foreign office was compelled to follow it a few hours later. After the usual affirmation to the core values of good neighbours, the Chinese claimed that both sides agreed that their normal business ties would not be impacted by the happenings at the border. This stand goes contrary to the external affairs minister’s construct that normal ties cannot be unhinged from the border. It was clear that India’s banning of Chinese apps and attempts to unhinge itself from its neighbor’s economy had begun to hurt. Chinese, hoping for a return to normalcy, has not retaliated by banning their bulk drug imports and other inputs. The total trade between the two countries is about $86 billion with Chinese imports being $73 billion.
The Chinese insisted that the Indian side agreed to it. Wang Yi, leading the pack of “wolf warriors” — the new breed of aggressive Chinese diplomats — was tough in dealing with his Indian counterpart. He also blamed the Indian side for the crisis. A five-point plan was inserted in the joint statement, but there were neither deadlines nor a detailed plan of how disengagement or de-escalation takes place. Till now the proposed Commanders meeting to work on the timetable to restore peace at the border has not taken place.
Government insiders claim that Jaishankar, who reported his conversation with Wang Yi in Moscow to Delhi, didn’t display great optimism after returning. It became amply clear that the Chinese military would not go back to their bases till they were told to return by President Xi Jinping. What was made crystal clear, by, first the Chinese commanders to Indian generals, and, later, by their diplomats, that they have to go back to the understanding struck between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, first at Wuhan and later at Mamallapuram. What was conveyed was that there was a breakdown of trust between the two leaders and it could be only fixed by them — others like army commanders can’t really do much.
This is a major pitfall of personalized foreign policy– when deals are struck at the leadership level and there is nothing really much diplomats and Generals can do about it.
EXPLAINING WHY THE Chinese army intruded into Indian territory and gobbled 1,000 kilometer of land in Ladakh after Modi and Xi had met 18 times in the past few years, has become an industry of sorts. From retired generals, think-tanks, to diplomats, all are suggesting different kinds of reasons as to why the Chinese decided to ‘backstab’ India. From Pandemic to settling the new LAC- all have been discussed. Many of them are shy in linking the crisis with the decision of Modi government to abrogate Article 370 that gave special status to Kashmir and for expressing its resolve to win back Aksai Chin, which is under the control of China.
There have been commentaries that claim that the Chinese government was rattled by the Union Home minister Amit Shah’s declaration on August 6, 2019 in the Parliament that they will win back Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin. The Chinese fear that if India militarily tries to reclaim Aksai Chin then it could jeopardize $50 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China would not allow that — hence their touchiness to changes in the status of Kashmir and calibrated ingresses and salami slicing of Indian territory to create larger buffer between India and where they have created their expensive assets.
Both Xi Jinping and Modi had announced at Mamallapuram on October 13-14, 2019 that they would not let “differences turn into disputes”. This summit took place a month after August 5, the day when Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh lost its special status and were turned into Union territories. The Indian government tried unsuccessfully to explain this move as an ‘internal matter”, but this did not wash with the Chinese government that brought it up at the Security Council.
It seems that the two leaders did not discuss the Kashmir issue, but they created enough optics to suggest that this issue would not hurt the growing economic and cultural ties between the two countries. Modi said: “The Wuhan spirit has given our relations new momentum and trust. Today, our Chennai vision will begin a new age in relations between our two countries”.
There have been commentaries that claim that the Chinese government was rattled by the Union home minister’s declaration on August 6, 2019 in the Parliament that they will win back Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin, as any move to do that would have jeopardized the $50 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China would not allow that — hence their carefully calibrated ingresses and salami slicing of Indian territory.
The two leaders also promised to reduce the trade gap and build a “manufacturing partnership”. Though unstated, the Indian government also conveyed to the Chinese that its telecom companies would not be kept away from Huawei and ZTE. In monsoon session of parliament the government announced that they were not keeping Huawei and ZTE out of country’s telecom ecosystem.
On Kashmir, Jaishankar had flown to Beijing, it is learnt, to put the fears of the Chinese leadership to rest.It seems that China was not impressed with Indian assurances. As a Chinese scholar in a joint article with an Indian columnist, Prem Shankar Jha, pointed out that the Narendra Modi government showed a proclivity to ignore past understandings. Did they refer to abrogation of Article 370 or some other agreements between the two countries? Whatever they may be referring to, as minutaes of the informal meetings between Xi and Modi were not shared with the nation.
There were explanations coming beyond the Himalayas from sources close to the Chinese that it is easy to make their adversary — read India — see reason when PLA guns are loaded, cocked and ready to fire. They could be in for a surprise. Extraordinary mobilization of men and weapons accompanied by a psyops have taken place in the recent past, something that had not been seen earlier is taking place. This has been accompanied by skirmishes at various points along the border. As Rajnath Singh pointed out fin Parliament, the differences with China were that it was not allowing India to patrol its usual patrolling points. An article in The Hindu pointed out that there were 10 such patrolling points where India has been blocked.
This has implications on how much land was snatched away from our sway. The biggest chunk being in Depsang, where the Chinese have cornered about 970 square kilometers.
Though the discussion on India-China face-off is limited to our struggle to hold different physical features around the majestic Pangong Tso lake — the scene of shooting of the film ‘3 Idiots’ — and the Galwan Valley where a bloody scrap left 20 Indian jawans dead and many injured, the real challenge lies in retaining control of Depsang. Significantly, the Chinese, by blocking the patrolling points around this area, in the event of increased hostility, think they are in a position to knock off Ladakh from India’s control, but they haven’t factored the battle readiness and resolve of the Indian army.
These are frightening prospects, but in the event of a violent large-scale war, many unimaginable outcomes are possible. China’s untested military that has not seen action since 1979, could come up short against our battle-hardened fighters. Understandably, India has raised the Tibet card and used a covert regiment built around the refugees to fight off the Chinese in areas around Chushul — in the Ladakh region.
As has been elucidated above, China is upset with the way the Indian government has changed Article 370, but more so, it wants to pre-empt the militarization of Quad — India, US, Australia, Japan — another Nato avatar. China fears being surrounded by the Quad countries and its movements getting restricted due to the pressure that may visit Beijing in the South China Sea. That is a major reason why China is desperate to secure its corridor, which has been built to ferry oil and gas in the event the Strait of Malacca is subjected to a hostile naval blockade.
China is preparing for the worst and its analysts think that US President Donald Trump, desperate for a win, just might open a front against them. Trump, like all Americans knows, that in an election nothing works better for an incumbent than war. That is what wag the dog is all about!
Modi, who is keen to see Trump re-elected as the US president, also seems to be cognizant of the transitory nature of elections and the long-term implications of the standoff with China. After all, he has had 18 meetings with Xi Jinping and they were all about managing their differences and enlarging ties. Quite clearly, he does not want all the diplomatic investment that he has made with China to go waste. He would want peace restored.
It’s a different matter that US think tanks and Sino experts are provoking India for a scrap, but Modi, to his credit, has not mentioned the name of China as the enemy, even when he traveled to Ladakh to show solidarity with the soldiers. Modi is a safe player and despite his aggressive persona, he would not like to be dragged into a war, which is not of his own making. Worse, Modi, like all good military commanders, will not want China and Pakistan to fight with India together in a nightmarish two-front war.
China, a close ally of Pakistan, converges on the issue of the abrogation of Article 370 for different reasons. There are expectations in the think tank community that US would come to India’s rescue if there is a war. This may just be unlikely as Trump, now lame duck till the November elections, also has business interests in China and they could cramp his decision-making.
Be that as it may, China, by its mobilization of troops, seems like getting ready for a winter war, aware of the fact that by doing that it would no longer have an access to India’s market or friendship. And that would be such a poor manifestation of Xi Jinping’s diplomacy and leadership.