by Rajesh Kumar Sinha

The stalemate on the Indo-China borders continue for the past 21-months. The latest two developments, the very pragmatic comments by General Naravane and the failure of talks between the two military delegations, need to be seen in this context.

The crux of comments made by the Indian Army Chief included the reality of partial and not full disengagement, the continued threat from the Chinese, the enhanced level of preparedness of Indian military and the willingness to be ready for a long haul on the borders. Continued with all the diplomatic finesse, the joint statement following the no-breakthrough 14-round talks, harped on the continued discussions through military and diplomatic channels and work out a “mutually acceptable resolution” of remaining issues.

Interestingly, just before the long-delayed military delegation-level talks there seems to be a further hardening of the position from the Chinese side. While the China land law coming into effect on 1st January this year, talks of “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China are sacred and inviolable,” seem aimed at using it as a diplomatic coercion against India in near future, rather than of any real military or strategic significance. The posting of PLA soldiers unfurling the Chinese flag in the Galwan region in the media, looks as a part of their continued psy-ops/information warfare against an equally determined and well-prepared Indian military.

The renaming of 15-places in Arunachal Pradesh and occasional aggressive posturing close to Sikkim borders, seem aimed at a strategic messaging that the area continues to be on their radar and should India try to do something against the Chinese core interests, i.e. Tibet and Taiwan, then they might try applying strategic or military coercion in the region.

An important reason for the Chinese indifference for the purported disengagement that India seems very keen on, for both strategic and political reasons, is that subsequent to the withdrawal of Indian forces from Kailash range the strategic and military vulnerability of Chinese have been reduced substantially. That emerged as an important reason for their refusal to withdraw from the PP-15 in the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La area. It also played a role in the stalled disengagement process from the other friction points.

Further, the bilateral trade for the April-December, 2021 period has increased 49.3% to US$ 90.37Billion with trade imbalance tilted heavily in favour of China. All such factors point towards a Chinese comfort in the maintenance of status quo and hence their reluctance to move forward on the issue of disengagement.

However, the Chinese too have their compulsions. While Indian political circles and media have been agog with coverage on Chinese building a bridge on Pnagong Tso and related military infrastructure, it is evident that they have been compelled to work ferociously due to the tremendous pressure exerted by the unexpected swift Indian military movements against the Chinese PLA. In last one year, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has built over 100 strategic roads and bridges as part of the India-China Border Roads (ICBR) project. Just in the last month, December 2021, 27 new projects got inaugurated, including the world’s highest motorable road project Umling La at 19,300 feet.

Hence, the Chinese desperation to build a pre-fabricated structure bridge at Kurnak, deep inside their part of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where Pangong Tso is at its narrowest, is more to ward off any future military surprises a la Kailash in August, 2020 than of any real dominating military advantages.

While both countries continue to build military infrastructures at a feverish pace, some consequences are quite discernible. One, as General Naravane suggested in his address that “war or conflict is always an instrument of last resort”, none wants a full-fledged war. Second, the continuously expanding trade and economic relations will continue to act as a big leverage in containing a border skirmish from turning into a greater conflict. Third, Chinese strategy is to try to contain India’s politico-strategic rise while compelling it to accept its own rise on a global platform vis-à-vis the US and to ensure that it plans to use the border disputes as a bargaining chip. The border settlement between the two countries are not going to happen anytime in near future.

From the Indian perspective, it needs time and finances to reach to a certain level of military parity with China. And till that happens, it requires borders to be quite, even though tense while politico-economic competition all across the globe, could continue. The May, 2020 violent border clashes however, could well be seen as a positive wake-up call for Indian military and strategic planners when the country has been forced to prepare itself for a big military conflict at a short notice and brace for a two-pronged war in a pragmatic sense.

This piece was written exclusively for IDN by Rakesh. Views expressed above are the author's own