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Sunday, April 11, 2021

When will the India-China border standoff be over?

Innumerable rounds of military talks have been held throughout the years in order to seek peaceful resolution of the ongoing standoff at the Indo-China border in Ladakh. But it never seems to be enough. When will the India-China border standoff be over? Or more so, how will it ever be settled?


These questions remain as even a few days ago India was placed in a difficult position. With the Coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc in the country as positive cases have crossed the 3lakh mark, India also came face-to-face with the Chinese troops in Ladakh in what reeked of a Doklam-style confrontation of 2017 amid fears of a re-run of what happened in 1962. But, hopefully, both sides realised soon enough that this is not the way to move forward.

China-India standoff
Pangong Tso lake in Ladakh, altitude 4,350 m (14,270 ft). It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India to Tibet. (Photo: shutterstock.com/Rudra Narayan Mitra)

Cooperation is the key?

A brand new round of military talks was held between commanders of the Indian and the Chinese Armies on June 12. The focus of these talks held at the level of Major Generals was de-escalation in the Galwan area. This was the fifth such discussion between military leaders of these two countries to peacefully resolve the ongoing standoff at the Indo-China border in Ladakh. Several meetings over the years have been held between Brigadier-level and Colonel-level commanders of both armies so far.

With respect to the Pangong Lake in Ladakh, discussions will be held at the Corps Commander-level later as another similar one was on June 6. “The talks are looking at a final resolution. Till the dialogue continues there will be no major changes on the ground,” a source told India Today.

Earlier this year, India refused US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate between China and itself. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have repeatedly assured that the standoff will be resolved through established channels of communication between India and China, both diplomatic and military. In fact, various hotlines have also been established between military leaders who are deployed on the Indo-China border to provide a clear line of communication between the armies of both countries. Tension escalated in Ladakh after a physical confrontation between Indian Army troops and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on May 5 at Pangong Tso lake. A military buildup on both sides also followed the confrontation soon after along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).


China gaining control over the Indian Ocean?

But that shouldn’t be the only thing India has to worry about — according to recent media reports, China is growing its military presence in the Indian Ocean too. And that could be a real matter of concern. Satellite pictures in May this year suggested China’s military base at Djibouti is being modernised. The facility, which was set up in 2017 only as a logistics support unit, is being upgraded into a full-fledged naval base with a 1,120-feet pier that is expected to berth Chinese warships, including the Liaoning aircraft carrier. This follows the country’s expansion of an artificial island in the Maldives, a development which seems to have a lot of strategic overtones, leading some experts even to claim that China is encroaching on India’s spectrum of influence.

Meanwhile, rumours are flying all across that China is on a drive to militarise Gwadar port in Pakistan. Recent satellite pictures show anti-vehicle berms, security fences, sentry posts and elevated guard towers inside the port in Pakistan, rapidly fuelling speculation of the construction of a military facility. There are also several reports that China is helping India’s neighbour Bangladesh build a naval base at Cox Bazaar, which includes wharves, barracks, ammunition depots, and also a naval ship repair yard.

However, it is the one — the People’s Liberation Army’s Djibouti base that most vividly demonstrates China’s Indian Ocean ambitions. With an approximate area of nearly 250,000 square feet, China’s Djibouti compound is not nearly an ordinary military base. Entirely covered with outer perimeter walls, watchtowers and underground quarters capable of hosting an estimated 10,000 troops, the facility is no doubt a veritable military garrison and a huge matter of concern to say the least. China insists this project is a “support facility” meant mainly for anti-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa, but analysts and experts claim the base is very much capable of supporting other important missions such as intelligence collection from other countries, non-combat evacuation operations, peacekeeping operations support and counter-terrorism.

China’s increasing maritime deployments – including submarines and intelligence ships – demonstrate Beijing’s rising interest in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littorals. Many even say that the presence of a Chinese research vessel in India’s exclusive economic zone in September 2019 implies greater Chinese projection of power into the Indian Ocean, fostering fears of imperative encirclement. What the Indian Navy needs is a strategy of distant power projection in order to effectively convey to Beijing. By operating a plan for a sustained presence in the Western Pacific — a space Beijing controls and is highly sensitive about – the Indian Navy could substantially influence the maritime balance in Asia, thus forcing China to scale down its military presence in the Indian Ocean.

Positive blood test result for the new rapidly spreading Coronavirus, originated in Wuhan, China (Photo: shutterstock.com/SamaraHeisz5)

Together or not?

Also, several experts have stated that the Coronavirus battle should have been fought together with countries under the leadership of the United States, China and India under the G20 framework. The former US undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns mentioned the same thing a few days ago. In a video conversation with former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Burns said that the sort of cooperation expected during such a crisis from the US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t appear, largely because the American leader “doesn’t believe in international cooperation” and is “a unilateralist”, while the Chinese president wanted to compete with Trump. When asked by the former Congress president why there has been no global cooperation to tackle the pandemic, Burns said: “It is a terrible disappointment to me. I’m sure it is for you. You know, this crisis was made for the G20. It was made for Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump to be working together, all of our countries for the common global good.”

Burns had also added that China lacks the refinement and openness of a democratic country such as India or the US and has a “fearful leadership”. “I think a lot of people right now are saying China is going to surpass, China’s winning the battle of coronavirus, that it is gaining hearts and minds. I actually don’t see that,” he said.
“China certainly has extraordinary power in the world. Probably not equal to the US militarily, economically, politically yet, but it’s gaining, no question about it. What China lacks is the sophistication and openness of a democratic country like India or the US,” Burns added. These remarks were also made in the backdrop of the Indo-China border standoff.

US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate between the two nations was turned down by India. Clarifying its position, MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said that they are engaging bilaterally with China based on five established mechanisms to address the border standoff issues between the two nations, thereby making it even more clear that it doesn’t want US to mediate in any way.

So, we didn’t see these nations working together now, will we see them on the same page later? Only time will tell. Until then we can only hope the Indo-China border standoff reaches an agreement without a war brewing behind the curtains.

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