India-China row: Let’s not put our hopes in the Moscow plan

Srikanth Kondapalli

On September 10, the foreign ministers of India and China agreed to ease tensions on the borders after “frank and constructive discussion” on the side lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Moscow.

The five-point agreement could usher in normalcy at the border — a good thing even if it is only a temporary reprieve at best.

Scaling drastically down from Beijing’s coercive diplomatic statements since May, when the standoff at Pangong Tso in Eastern Ladakh began, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in Moscow that “right now, [both countries need] cooperation, not confrontation” and that they should “immediately stop provocations such as firing and other dangerous actions.” Wang also said it is “important to move back all personnel and equipment that have trespassed.” Did he mean it equally for China?

Wang invoked the SCO Asthana Summit discussion in 2017 between Modi and Xi in which the two leaders agreed “not to allow differences to become disputes”, never mind the 4-month-long and continuing border standoff in Ladakh, the 20 Indian soldiers who were killed on June 15, and the shots that were fired for the first time in decades.

While India insisted on border stability as the key factor in bilateral relations, China harped on “development partnership” and expanding trade relations. The contrast in positions have been around since the late 1980s, now heightened by the recent curbs on Chinese investments, apps, visas and Confucius Institutes.

Secondly, the Moscow agreement suggested to “continue dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions.” However, in falling back on the same local commander-level meetings that were held at Moldo and Chushul that yielded no major or quick positive outcomes on disengagement and de-escalation, the prospect of easing tensions appears bleak, or perhaps the Moscow meeting itself was designed merely to buy time for further military preparations.

Thirdly, the foreign ministers agreed to evolve new confidence building measures to cope with the fresh changes on the ground. New CBMs have been talked about since the Doklam standoff in 2017. But, as the 1993, 1996, 2013 and other CBMs were thrown to the winds during the current stand-off, it is not clear how any new CBMs would help keep the peace on the borders.

Strangely, while the meeting reiterated the Special Representative mechanism to resolve the boundary dispute, no timeline for the resolution was arrived at. In the absence of this roadmap, it is inconceivable that there will be stability in the bilateral relations. This is precisely at the root of the security problems between India and China.

Fourthly, there was no mention about any restoration of status quo ante to the April 2020 ground level positions – a key demand of India as China began encroaching land in Pangong Tso from Finger 8 to Finger 5, Hot Springs, and more significantly in the Depsang Plains. India, of course, regained the five major hill tops on the south bank of Pangong Tso on August 29-30, by pre-empting a build-up of Chinese forces there. If this pattern is to become the new normal, then many fronts across the 3,488-long border could light up in the coming weeks and months.

Fifthly, all this while, the apologists of asymmetry in power relations had argued that with China’s much bigger economy and military budget, conventional and strategic weapons, and the ability to goad Pakistan into creating another front against India, New Delhi has no chance but to acquiesce to China’s demands.

However, with the Indian Army now in control of key heights and the way our troops have stood up to bullying by China’s army at Galwan, Pangong Tso, Naku La and elsewhere, it’s China that must be having second thoughts.

What’s more, the Indian demonstration of holding off China provides a beacon to other nations that have been threatened by an assertive China of late.