Five months into the Chinese annexation of Indian territory, the Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat gingerly girded up his loins to announce August 25 the possibility of military action to vacate this aggression. “The defence services always remain prepared for military actions should all efforts to restore status quo along the LAC not succeed”, he said. Without, perhaps, meaning to do so, he indirectly issued a mea culpa first by stating that the Indian military “are tasked to monitor and carry out surveillance and prevent such transgressions from turning into intrusions” — tasks the army clearly and manifestly failed to carry out, then by repeating the tired old excuse mirroring the Ministry of External Affairs’ statements for the army doing nothing: “Transgressions along the LAC [occur] due to differing perceptions about its alignment”. And lastly, by justifying military inaction by hiding behind the government’s position “to peacefully resolve any such activity and prevent intrusions”. It has ended up further tarnishing the army’s image.
Rawat’s revealing that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval had met with the three service chiefs on Saturday, August 22, to discuss the military stand-off with China and to review “all options with the objective that PLA restores status quo ante in Ladakh” was not reassuring because it actually indicated a lack of appetite for the hard option. Reviewing options is after all what the senior most levels of the army and government have been doing all these months without bringing any closure.
On parallel track, the external affairs minister S Jaishankar, in a couple of interviews took a different but equally wishy-washy tack. Talking to Hindustan Times he said “We are engaging China through diplomatic and military channels. There are essentially two elements in our approach. One is starting 1993 and then every few years, we have had a series of agreements (with China). Their import is that both sides will keep minimum force on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). But that is not the case now. We have very large number of Chinese forces and frankly, we are at a loss to know why. There are also certain norms of behaviour that were prescribed. Clearly, if we want peace and tranquillity on the border, we need to adhere to those agreements. Second, I accept there are some differences in perceptions in the LAC. But there is again a clear understanding that neither side will attempt to unilaterally change the status quo. It was because of these agreements and the adherence to them that the bilateral relationship moved forward in other, different spheres, including the economic one. And this must continue if the relationship has to grow. But there will naturally be issues if the peace and tranquillity is put under stress.”
He thus admitted just how clueless MEA and the Modi government generally were in not anticipating PLA action — “we are at a loss” — in reading China and President Xi Jinping’s intentions, and how bereft of ideas they continue to be as regards dealing with a China that violates mutually agreed upon norms with impunity, and has over the years repeatedly wrongfooted Delhi with its territory grabbing initiatives. Experience is a hard taskmaster. However, the Indian government, like some particularly dumb student who gets smacked around but doesn’t get it, has fallen back on, when not appeasing Beijing, taking the ostrich’s way out of trouble — burying its head in the sand.
This last was evidenced in the Prime Minister’s astonishing television address June 19 in which he point blank denied the Chinese had done anything untoward on the disputed border, leave alone something as crass as invading and occupying Indian territory. Nor did he mention Chinese aggression in his Independence Day speech when the entire nation had tuned in. The sole reference to the eastern Ladakh scene was Modi’s praise for the strong counter-response June 15 by the 16 Bihar Regiment soldiers who inflicted casualties on the PLA on the Galwan. The implied warning was that China can expect this kind of violent reaction if it pushes India’s buttons in the future. Except, the Indian jawans’ giving it as good as they got reaction can be attributed to their own derring-do and not to anything thing the army higher command, and even less the Modi government, had ordered. In the event, the conclusion is inescapable — and this is what Beijing no doubt gleaned from that incident — that Delhi will wake up only if Indian lives are lost; short of that and other than having the MEA hee and haw, will look the other way if the PLA gobbles up Indian land.
Jaishankar dilated some more on this approach, this time to Rediffnews.com, thus: “This is surely the most serious situation after 1962. In fact, after 45 years, we have had military casualties on this border. The quantum of forces currently deployed by both sides at the LAC is also unprecedented. If you look back over the last decade, there have been a number of border situations — Depsang, Chumar and Doklam. In a sense, each one was different. This one surely is. But what is also common is that all borders situations were resolved through diplomacy. I am not minimising either the seriousness or the complex nature of the current situation. Naturally, we have to do what it takes to secure our borders. As you know, we are talking to the Chinese both through military channels and diplomatic ones. In fact, they work in tandem. But when it comes to finding a solution, this must be predicated on honouring all agreements and understandings. And not attempting to alter the status quo unilaterally.”
Two things about Jaishankar’s views reflect poorly on the Modi regime. One, the belief that past is prelude, that situations in the present and future are unfolding/will unfold as they have done in the past. This is nonsense because if past crises are deconstructed, there’s no pattern other than Beijing not keeping to any script, taking a different tack on each occasion. The only constant is the unvarying objective of territorially extending the Chinese realm. And secondly, if as Jaishankar publicly declared, the aim is to restore the status quo ante, why is the current situation deemed by him to be “complex”? By Jaishankar’s own telling, the Chinese acted against the settled norms, broke the rules and, notwithstanding the differing perceptions of the LAC alignment, are entrenched deep on the Indian side of the disputed border — a provocation that cries out for remedial military operations. Does it not suggest that by depicting the context as “complex” Jaishankar is creating diplomatic space for the Modi government to cede ground to China, to accept the newly imposed LAC, and otherwise to lend legitimacy to both the expansive Chinese actions and the resulting new territorial fait accompli presented to India?
This then is the China the Modi dispensation views as reasonable and desirous of a negotiated settlement when every indication suggests the PLA has settled in for good on the new border that it has created for itself in eastern Ladakh. Undeterred, Jaishankar hopes to engage in the chimerical pursuit of a negotiated solution when next he meets with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Moscow as part of a Russian peace-making effort under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization September 9-11.
Except, Wang has already staked out his position. On his return to Beijing after a recent tour of Tibet he declared, according to the Xinhua news agency, that the security and stability of Tibet is of pivotal importance to China’s overall development. This statement was the backdrop for Xi’s ordering party, government and military leaders to “solidify border defences and ensure frontier security” and ensure “national security and enduring peace and stability” in the regions bordering India. Xi was speaking at the 7th Central Symposium on Tibet Work, which finished its deliberations in Beijing last Saturday. This ‘Symposium’ is described as “China’s most important forum for Tibet policies”, and the first held since 2015. Moreover, with the HH the Dalai Lama and India’s unplayed ‘Tibet card’ in mind, Xi warned the Tibetans to fight separatism, “form an impregnable fortress in maintaining stability”, and “adapt to socialism and Chinese conditions”. Because there’s not an iota of give in Xi’s and Wang’s statements, what give there is will be on Jaishankar’s part (considering he is an expert in giveaways, to wit, his handiwork — the 2008 nuclear deal with the US that all but robbed India of the nuclear testing option).
In this setting, how to make sense of General Rawat’s and minister Jaishankar’s utterances? It is plain the Indian government is conflicted between the military’s wanting even at this late date to do something, anything, and the insistence by the MEA to stay on the diplomatic course and seek peaceful resolution, the prospects of which are nil if this solution involves the PLA retreating to behind the claim lines existing prior to April-May. In one sense, these are different organizational outlooks on the problem staring the country hard in the face of an implacable enemy making a monkey out of India in both the military and diplomatic arenas.
It has shown up the Indian Army’s incapacity for prompt action, let alone, war as reflected in the low levels of preparedness, and in always being “surprised” by whatever PLA does. Skeptics may reverse this line of thought and say that because the brass is institutionally loath to act against the PLA for fear of being bested, the army puts itself in a position to be surprised and then uses the fact of unreadiness as cover for being insufficiently proactive and counter-aggressive.
And, Indian diplomacy has been shown up as terminally genuflecting to Beijing, issuing mealy-mouthed statements, offering up excuses — clashes due to “differing perceptions of the Line of actual Control”, etc — and sticking by its theme of China being open to a negotiated deal even as India is getting whacked in the head.
From Maozedong’s days, China has perceived India as a sissy state; the developments in Ladakh have proved to one and all that this, in fact, is the case.