On the other hand, the Indian army perception is that only projecting a strong resolve and countering Chinese offensive actions would compel them to the negotiating table

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar stated last week that diplomacy is the only means to resolve the current Indo-China stalemate. Jaishankar and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi are scheduled to meet on the side-lines of the SCO foreign ministers’ summit in Moscow this week. The Indian foreign secretary, Harsh Shringla, speaking at a seminar in Delhi stated, “It is a fact that it cannot be business as usual. Unless there is peace and tranquillity on our borders, normal bilateral relations will be affected.” He added, “we as a responsible nation are always willing to talk and engage.”

On the other hand, the Indian army perception is that only projecting a strong resolve and countering Chinese offensive actions would compel them to the negotiating table. It was in this context that the CDS announced military options being on the table in case diplomacy fails.

As part of its military options, the army launched a series of pre-emptive operations along the LAC and occupied vacant dominating features, placing Chinese defences and movement into the Chushul valley under observation and domination. These features have been occupied by strong and resolute forces, prepared for defensive operations, equipped to withstand multiple assaults, supported by artillery and armour. Chinese attempting to come close to Indian positions were warned to maintain a distance.

The only way by which China can seek to reverse the situation, other than talks, is by launching an offensive, for which Indian forces are prepared. After this pre-emptive move, demands for talks from China have suddenly increased. Till recently, Indian requests were ignored or delayed on flimsy grounds. Multiple rounds of Brigadier level talks have since been held, on Chinese request, but without any conclusion as India refuses to relent.

With defence ministers of both nations in Moscow for a SCO conference, China put forth its third request for a meeting. The two defence ministers met and discussed the current scenario. The latest Chinese request came after the army’s pre-emptive operations. For China, the intention was to convey strong objections of the Chinese leadership to Indian actions. The meeting remained inconclusive and set the tone for discussion between the two foreign ministers.

The Chinese foreign ministry in its press statement, after the meeting, stated, “The truth and cause of the current tension on the border between India and China are clear, and the responsibility lies entirely with India. China’s territory cannot be lost, and the Chinese military is fully determined, capable and confident to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The Indian statement read, “The actions of Chinese troops, including amassing large numbers, their aggressive behaviour and attempts to unilaterally alter status quo were in violation of bilateral agreements. Indian troops had always taken a very responsible approach towards border management but there should be no doubt about our determination to protect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Each side has blamed the other for the impasse along the LAC. The fact that the Chinese are increasingly calling for talks suggests that the Indian pre-emptive action has unnerved them, and they have no response except to escalate. India is unwilling to budge from its current positions but willing for talks to resolve the standoff. The scenario has reversed. China, which was confident of having pushed India on the defensive and sought to further enhance pressure is now on the defensive, struggling to find answers. The question which arises is what could be the next step, especially as China has thus far refused to adhere to accepted agreements and created a trust deficit?

Chinese attempts to redraw its claim lines and alter status quo to the existing LAC is unacceptable to India. Indian insistence that deployment pre-April 2020 be restored, and additional forces withdrawn, is unacceptable to China. Existing rules state that in case of disengagement, the nation which entered first withdraws first. This may be unacceptable to both. In an environment of intense distrust, it is unlikely that even foreign minister parleys may determine a meaningful breakthrough, though Jaishankar would be talking from a position of strength as India holds the dominating heights. For both nations, accepting the other’s viewpoint is difficult, also due to national prestige.

If the Chinese withdraw to their April positions, then it would signal a loss of face. It would be presumed that they were compelled to act due to Indian pre-emptive actions. It would damage the global reputation of the PLA, something China is wary of. If India accepts the Chinese stand, then it would damage its international standing.

If the PLA remains in place, then any future forward movement could be hindered by Indian forces. Their main camp at Moldo remains under Indian observation. If they attempt to launch an offensive to dislodge Indian forces, then losses may be beyond their capability to hide as an assault in such terrain is disastrous in casualties to assaulting forces.

For India, agreeing to be the first to withdraw would imply trusting the Chinese to follow suit, which may not happen. It has witnessed Chinese refusals after multiple Lt. General level meetings and hence does not trust China. Further, if it withdraws, it is uncertain of China occupying the same heights at a later time, adding to costs for Indian forces in the region. In such a case, India may never be able to regain these positions. In Sikkim, China occupied Jelep La, after India vacated it in 1965, post Indo-China diplomatic talks and continues to retain it. Hence, it would prefer to hold its current deployment for a prolonged duration.

The only possible resolution in a situation of distrust is that forces maintain their current deployment while discussions to resolve the current LAC in Ladakh progress. India needs to be resolute when it seeks a diplomatic solution to a military crisis. It has always lost military advantage in diplomatic discussions, despite gaining on the battlefield. Tashkent and Shimla are examples. Diplomats must be on guard and not rush for quick solutions, especially when the cards are in our favour.