Indian and Chinese troops, tanks disengaging from the banks of the Pangong lake area

Against the background of the US formulating a new strategy to ramp up all round pressure on China with help of its allies and partners, China has taken some steps to initiate a thaw in its strained ties with India. Disengagement of troops from Pangong Tso was the first step and now it has been followed up with a phone conversation between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Indian counterpart S Jaishankar on 26 February. Wang suggested that now that the two militaries had completed the disengagement of troops in Pangong Tso, China and India could resume normal bilateral ties.

Minister Jaishankar made it clear that India would not allow China to pocket the gains of its illegal occupation in Gogra, Hot Springs and other areas and that “normalcy and a border dispute cannot run parallel as Beijing wants.” Earlier, an Indian official had stated that disengagement from Pangong Tso was “a significant first step towards resolving the remaining issues with China along the LAC”.

Wang Yi, in usual Chinese style, blamed India for “having wavered and gone in reverse” from its earlier stand of setting aside the resolution of the border issue from strengthening the bilateral ties in economic and other fields. Jaishankar said that the “boundary question may take time to resolve but the disturbance of peace and tranquillity including by violence, will inevitably have a damaging effect on the relationship.”

Some Chinese commentators, close to the government, have been writing that India should balance its close ties with the US and those with China. “India should downplay geopolitical issues and just as it has embraced the Quad (US, Japan, Australia and India) framework, it should work on deepening cooperation among the Brics (group of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries,” they have stated.

India took over BRICS chairmanship for 2021 from Russia on 15 February. India will host the Brics summit later this year, but its date and venue are yet to be decided.

For China, Brics and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are instruments to convey to the US that if the latter is the leader of Group of 7, China is the leader of the emerging economies and the developing world; and while US’s influence in the global economy and world order is waning, that of China is increasing.

What Lessons Should India Draw From These Chinese Moves?

First, that China is under considerable pressure due to US President Biden’s recent moves to formulate a new policy to win the strategic competition with China. Second, India will play an important role in shaping up of US strategy to contain China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific and deepening of Quad’s activities.

China is trying to drive a wedge between the US and India by reminding India of its traditional policy of strategic independence and resuming normal bilateral ties with China now that disengagement has been completed in Pangong Tso. Its objective is to achieve tactical peace with India without sacrificing any further territorial gains made in Ladakh post-April 2020.

What makes China so sanguine that it would succeed in achieving this bargain? China thinks that India would be ready to seek peace to curtail its burden of defence expenditure. Also, the prospects of peace and stability on its northern borders and increasing economic engagement with Beijing would persuade New Delhi to strike a deal. It won’t be surprising if Beijing had a hand in persuading the Pakistan army to agree to a ceasefire along the LoC announced on February 25 to sweeten this deal further.

India is on the right track to insist on disengagement and de-escalation of troops from all areas occupied by China after post-April 2020. India should continue its present policy of deepening strategic engagement with the US, UK, France, Japan, Australia and other countries both in and outside the Quad.

Past experience shows that China agrees to make concessions when faced with mounting external and internal pressures. India must demonstrate that it would not allow Beijing to retain the gains of its deceptive transgressions in the Indian territories anymore.