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India-China spat More serious than realized

The immediate task is to defuse the stand-off at Doklam. It may require External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj meeting her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to untie the knot

More than a month after the standoff at Doklam, the reading of tea leaves by India and China is different. The latest statements by Xinhua last Saturday said quite a bit: In sum, there is no room for talks till Indian troops who illegally trespassed, withdraw first; there can be no compromise on territorial and sovereignty issues; Doklam is not like previous issues as trespass into Chinese territory across a mutually recognised border line is different from frictions that happened in undefined sections of the boundary; India has lied that it sent troops to help Bhutan but there was no invitation from Bhutan; India will face embarrassment as the situation could get worse.

A live fire exercise involving 5,000 troops was held in Tibet opposite Arunachal Pradesh recently. This could be the escalating psywar and mindgames being played, but it also has a message that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is ready for any contingency. Meanwhile, China has briefed foreign diplomats in Beijing on Doklam, saying its troops are waiting patiently but not indefinitely. Conspicuously Beijing has ignored contents of Bhutan’s demarche and India’s Press release.

India, on the other hand, has issued a solitary Press release and contended that the situation has not worsened since Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping at Hamburg on the sidelines of Brics/G20. It is not at all clear if Modi specifically raised the issue of Doklam in their brief meeting as China insists no bilateral talks were held. Indian leaders – Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Minister for Defence Arun Jaitley – and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar have briefed the Opposition and stated that informal talks with China were continuing and all channels were being used for working out a diplomatic solution. They emphasised that India would be “patient and peaceful”. How they are concluding that “signs are of things cooling down”, is not clear. Is all this wishful thinking as Beijing shows no sign of compromise, having tied itself with the pre-condition of Indian troop withdrawal first. It has left no

wriggle room.

India is on the defensive, wanting to steer clear of a two-front situation for which it is conspicuously unprepared. In an unusual move, a five-member delegation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence will ask the Government to ensure that modernisation funds are fully utilised and not returned, and the under-allocation of funds for the glaring gaps in infrastructure development on the China front are made good.

Apparently diplomatic channels are not working. Equally, the surfeit of agreements – Peace and Tranquillity (1993); Confidence Building Measures (1996); Political Parameters Framework Border Accord (2005); Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (2012) and Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (2013) are rendered inoperational due to the ‘pre-condition’. Chinese are indeed dead serious about conditionalities once these are articulated.

Recall the furore caused in Beijing in 1998, after India attributed its nuclear tests to threat from China. A furious China all but severed diplomatic ties demanding that India withdraw its China threat before normalisation of ties. After several months of cold peace, then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visited Beijing in the middle of the Kargil war- so urgent was the need to defuse tensions. The first thing Singh was required to do publicly in Beijing was to acknowledge with all the grace at his command that China was not a threat to India. That done, the Hindi-Cheeni Bhai Bhai toast was downed with Moutai. The Chinese have a saying that, those who tie the knot have to be the first to untie it. Singh had to perform that unpleasant and untrue task on behalf of the BJP-led NDA Government. But this time, it is not clear who tied the knot first.

Who will untie the knot this time, when it comes to that? Endowed with exceptional policing skills, National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, who took over from the Mandarin-speaking China specialist Shiv Shankar Menon, has made little progress in the stalled Special Representatives (SR) talks. Originally it was expected that the Government would appoint a diplomat as the SR. Doval is required to go to Beijing for the Brics security experts multilateral discourse on July 27-28. Tongue in cheek, the director of a prominent South Asia Chinese think tank in Beijing wondered if he would get a visa, adding jokingly, “I don’t know.” He felt that maybe only the harsh winter may force the troops to pull back, but that will not end the conflict.

The SR process has hit a cul de sac with the unravelling of the 2005 political parameters of the border framework accord. Menon has suggested a new strategic dialogue to work out on how to resolve the problems that have occurred on the defined and undefined parts of the border. A new SR with diplomatic talent is needed to fend off the wily

Chinese transgressions.

While the stand-off remains peaceful, it has opened a can of worms. The Chinese are equating Indian intervention in disputed Bhutanese territory with licence to support iron friend Pakistan in disputed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. They have lopped off nearly 1,000 km of the Ladakh border, saying it is a disputed area between China Pakistan and India. This is not new.

Doklam must not be allowed to escalate with armed troops confronting each other, separated by 200 metres. The long drawn out Sumdorong Chu incident was different, with troops substantially separated by distance.

Doklam should act as a wakeup call to substantially upgrade defence preparedness, especially against China, given the Government’s ineptness in having created a two-front collusive situation. Governments have been investing inadequately in defence in the mistaken belief that there will be no war. India is being short-changed by China on a border resolution because of the many chinks in the armour. Because of the comparative military handicaps, India is unable to play like China does – a coercive hand, like the Tibet card and the One-China policy being matched with the One India policy; strengthen countries having inimical relations with China like Mongolia, Taiwan and Vietnam; track and buzz PLA Navy in the Indian Ocean, especially at choke point Malacca. These options must be made usable to deter Chinese coercion.

The immediate task is to defuse the stand-off at Doklam. India must come out of the closet on Bhutan. It may require Sushma Swaraj meeting her counterpart Wang Yi to untie the knot, pressing for simultaneous withdrawal of troops. The situation is more serious and complicated than first imagined or realised by our leadership.

India-China spat More serious than realized – Ashok K Mehta is a retired Lt General of the Indian Army. He writes extensively on defence matters and anchors Defence Watch on Doordarshan.