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Monday, April 12, 2021

India mulling options in Indo-China dispute?

While 20 Indian Army personnel were martyred in a deadly clash on June 15, it has suddenly woken a large number of citizens to the fact that Pakistan is, of course, an important, but perhaps not the most important, security challenge our country confronts right now. The Indian public opinion is not at all in the mood to tolerate even the hint of a territorial concession to China anymore, but that leaves us with a pertinent question — Is India mulling options in the Indo-China dispute? If yes, then what kind?


Times are changing

As China becomes more willing to assert itself abroad under President Xi Jinping’s regime, and the power differential with India, makes it a more serious adversary to us now than any other country. The consistent calls for boycotting Chinese products might seem populist and rooted in ignorance of how it can, in reality, affect the economy, but they reflect the emerging mood about China — moving towards a degree of loathing and hate.

And this evolution of public opinion is bound to have an impact on the political discourse. Which is why even a prime minister such as Narendra Modi — who has proudly worn the badge of nationalism during his term in office and presented himself as a security hawk — is already facing tough questions, not just from critics or the opposition but also more independent observers. His claims after the attack that there was no non-Indian presence in the territory concerned hasn’t gone down quite well with the public.


What the opposition has to say?

The political establishment including the ruling party and the opposition parties came together on a single platform to speak in one voice against the aggression by the Chinese army at the India-China border on June 15 where a violent clash took place between the two sides. 20 soldiers of the Indian Army were martyred and that has led to increasing tensions in bilateral ties. The political parties expressed their views at a virtual all-party meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 19.

Even as political parties wanted to be on a united front regarding the violent incident, some of the opposition parties, primarily Congress raised questions about the union government’s handling of the issue and said that the all-party meeting should have been called much earlier and the opposition parties should be briefed on a daily basis by members of the union government.

During the all-party meeting, PM Modi assured political leaders from across the parties that there was no intrusion inside the Indian territory at the India-China border in Ladakh on June 15 and not a single post has been overtaken at the border. Modi reiterated that security forces were already taking steps to protect the country. “Neither anyone has intruded into our territory nor took over any post. Our forces are doing what they have to do to protect the country, whether it is deployment, action or counter-action. Our patrolling capacity has increased due to newly built infrastructure, especially along LAC,” Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted PM Modi.

The sharpest critique, however, came from Congress president Sonia Gandhi during the meet. Key issues raised by her included specific questions on troop movements including asking for a proper timeline, highlighting the need for regular briefings to other political parties, pointing out that ‘valuable time’ that was lost between 5 May to 6 June when meeting of the Corps Commanders took place.

“This meeting, in my view, should have come sooner and immediately after the government had been reportedly informed about the Chinese intrusion on May 5th, 2020 into several places in Ladakh and elsewhere. As always, the entire nation would have stood together like a rock and fully supported the government of the day in the steps required to defend the territorial integrity of the country. Alas, that was not to be,” Gandhi said in her opening remarks. “The question is, what next? What is the way forward? The entire country would like an assurance that status quo ante would be restored and China will revert back to the original position on Line of Actual Control,” she added.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) in an official statement also said that it highlighted in the all-party meeting that the union government “should initiate high-level talks, so that steps are taken, including clear demarcation of the LAC, to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border.”

Is India mulling options in Indo-China row?
Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China delivering his speech at the Paris COP21, United nations conference on climate change (Photo: Shutterstock.com/Frederic Legrand – COMEO)


Is India mulling options?

According to numerous reports, India has changed rules of engagement at the China-LAC after the conflict. Reports suggested that the Indian Army from now has allowed field commanders to use firearms in case of ‘extraordinary’ circumstances on India-China LAC. There are further reports that in the wake of tense border standoff with China, the Central government has also granted the Indian armed forces an additional financial power of over Rs 500 crore per procurement project, which will enable them to buy emergency ammunition and weapons.

Amidst the continuing standoff between the Indian Army and China’s PLA, the union government recently reviewed ongoing road projects along the Sino-Indian border and decided to facilitate work on 32 of them, officials stated. The decision was taken at a high-level meeting convened by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and attended by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) among several others. “Works will be expedited on 32 road projects along the border with China and all concerned agencies will extend cooperation to fast-track the projects,” an official who was present at the meeting told PTI.

Along with holding numerous military-level talks to defuse the situation at the border in Ladakh after the conflict, India and China are also planning to engage at the diplomatic level.

The recent conflict is sure to have an impact on the politics of nationalism in India if it hasn’t already. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — by disengaging with our neighbour Pakistan till it acts on terror and through the surgical and airstrikes under its term in office — has always projected itself as a staunchly nationalist force. But now, as the scenario changes, it will have to be accountable for its actions on the other neighbour China too. The constant advice to the Opposition not to “politicise” the national security issue may finally go unheard, for if the ruling government has benefited from weaponising national security for electoral gains, the Opposition will not stop in doing the same. In the near future, when we hear the BJP talk about Pakistan, we can expect the Opposition to counter it with China from now on. Ladakh 2020- as it might be called, has introduced the China factor into Indian politics more stringently and its consequences will be long-lasting.

Note: Responding to a question at an event recently on the flare-up of border tensions between India and China, Alice G Wells, the senior US diplomat for South and Central Asia, described Beijing’s aggression as “not always rhetorical” and accused it of continuing with its “provocative and disturbing behaviour” to try to shift the status quo. “There’s a method here to Chinese operations, and it is that constant aggression, the constant attempt to shift the norms, to shift what is the status quo. It has to be resisted,” Wells added.

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