There should be no surprise at the insipid Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement on the India-China border issue. It tells us what we already know 1) a meeting was held between the Corps Commanders of India and China on June 6 and 2) the two sides were maintaining their military and diplomatic engagement to peacefully resolve the situation.
There is no word on whether there has been any kind of disengagement, or even a commitment towards one in all, or any one of the problem areas—Galwan, Gogra or Pangong Tso. We may, in the coming months, be able to persuade the Chinese to thin their deployments near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), but betting on a quick return to the status quo ante would be hazardous.
A new and nervous era
A lot of the commentary we have seen on the Sino-Indian contretemps on the LAC has been about history, geopolitics and cartography. It could actually be the harbinger of a new and nervous era, a geopolitical side-effect of the terrible COVID-19 pandemic which is racking the world.
Instead of following the rational path of uniting to fight a common public health calamity, as we have done in the case of polio, HIV, small pox and so on, this time, geopolitical nerve points are being deliberately inflamed.
The US seems to be moving from trade war to decoupling and has successfully persuaded its old allies, Australia and the UK, to once again march to its drumbeat. Japan, which was on the verge of an entente with China earlier this year, seems to have drawn back. And China which is never too comfortable with disorderly things, is like a blindfolded person, hitting out in all directions with the belief it is protecting itself.
And then there is India. As usual, after the “masterstroke” that was the lockdown, the Narendra Modi government is trying to cope with its consequences. And as it appears unable to do so, it a) throws the issue back to the states, after having ridden roughshod over them in the first place and b) simply declares victory, even as people are starting to die across the country in ever larger numbers from a pandemic multiplied by the original “masterstroke” without any supporting plan to exploit its advantages.
So what has happened on the border? First and foremost, the LAC is something of a ghost line. It’s not delimited on any map, leave alone marked on the ground by a fence or boundary pillars. Whether this side of a nullah or a ridge is Chinese territory, or that, is a matter of perception and, when push comes to shove, physical possession.
So, whether it is in Galwan or in the Pangong Tso Finger 4-Finger 8 area, the system worked when both sides observed the rules of the game, worked out laboriously through a regime of Confidence Building Measures – the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement, the 1996 Military CBM agreement, the 2005 Protocol on CBM implementation along the LAC, and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013.
Now, one of the parties seems to be suggesting that new rules be worked out. It is true that China has, for the past decade, trying to get India to freeze its border infrastructure construction. It is also true that India has, instead rightly accelerated the process since it was badly placed in terms of infrastructure along the LAC, as compared to the Chinese. Because of this, curiously, it maintained a stronger forward presence along the LAC than the Chinese did. And some of this is clearly making the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) nervous. Whether it was the COVID-19 outbreak, or something else, it has decided to act now.
A warning from 2017
But we should have heeded the warning from 2017 that was contained in an article in the South China Morning Post in the wake of the Doklam crisis, written by Senior Colonel Zhu Bo, a familiar figure in the Chinese information war circuit and an honorary fellow in the PLA Academy of Military Sciences. According to Zhu, India would be the net loser of the crisis because “the disputed border was not on China’s strategic radar” till the Doklam standoff. The PLA had since reconsidered its assessment of the strategic importance of the Sino-Indian border and would begin to upgrade its military capabilities there. And that is what has happened.
Till Doklam, China had a relaxed posture, keeping just five PLA brigades in Tibet with a capacity to reinforce them to 30 divisions. Its Air Force lacked adequate bases, and even where the PLAF operated, the bases lacked bomb-proof shelters for parking combat aircraft. But things have changed in the last three years. The PLA is being equipped with newer weapons and more cantonments have come up to house them permanently. And so have bomb-proof facilities for fighters, at least in the main base at Lhasa’s Gonggar airfield.
All this has, of course, been happening in recent years, but now we are seeing a new nervous tic that COVID-19 may have given to the global body politic. It could be signalling hard times ahead.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.