G Parthasarathy

China unlikely to resolve border issue soon

G Parthasarathy | Updated on August 10, 2020

India has to get more imaginative in dealing with China’s challenges.   -  PTI

Beijing seems determined to set its own rules on demarcating the border. India has to prepare its forces for a cold winter in Ladakh

There have been the usual voices in sections of our media, academicians and politicians, voicing optimism at the prospects of an early withdrawal of Chinese forces from areas under Chinese occupation in the Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso and the Depsang Plains, in Ladakh. The Chinese entered these areas in early May. These voices were silenced by China’s Ambassador to India Sun Weidong, when he addressed a large audience in a webinar meeting in New Delhi’s Institute for Chinese Studies. Ambassadors traditionally leave foreign audiences they address with some hope and expectations for better days ahead, especially when relations are tense. Sun Weidong, however, took the reverse route.

Rather than reassure audiences across the world about China’s professed desire for peaceful and cooperative relations with India, Ambassador Sun chose to resort to sabre-rattling, leaving his audience in India with little doubt that India-China relations are headed for tense and difficult times ahead.

It must be mentioned that this sort of crudely aggressive Chinese approach has taken shape ever since the coronavirus crisis broke. Rather that resorting to restraint and maturity, China’s Ambassadors and media, notably the Party mouthpiece Global Times, have been crude and aggressive whenever China feels that there are reservations about its views and policies. Anyone questioning China’s policies or motives across the Indian and Pacific Oceans is disparagingly put down.

Ambassador Sun was virtually on the warpath. He came across with the astonishing and factually incorrect statement that “disengagement has been completed in most locations”. The reality is that there has been a token pull-back in the Galwan Valley and no move towards restoring the status quo in either the Depsang Region, or the Fingers 5-8 area in the Pangong Tso Hills, seized recently by China.

China is quite clearly set on disrupting our lines of communications to the strategic airport at Daulat Beg Oldi located close to Aksai Chin. When queried about China’s policies of deliberately not clarifying where in its view the Line of Actual Control defining the border lies, Ambassador Sun suggested no useful purpose would be served by any such clarification by China! He thus ruled out all prospects of any early move to avoid and ease tensions, or resolve the border issue.

Distant dream

Any negotiated settlement to resolve the border issue or make the borders tension free seems a distant dream. China appears determined to set its own rules on demarcating the border. India has to prepare its Army and Air Force for a cold winter in Ladakh and other areas along the Sino-Indian border. China’s forces in these areas have been augmented with reinforcements from Tibet and elsewhere. It is, therefore, time for New Delhi to get more active and imaginative in dealing with China’s challenges diplomatically, as China’s arrogant attitude in recent days has alienated a large number of countries across the world.

The strongest reaction has come from the US, which has moved diplomatically to challenge the aggressive Chinese behaviour. Washington has pledged support to countries ranging from India and Japan to Vietnam and other members of Asean that are facing Chinese pressures and threats on their maritime and land boundaries.

India and the US recently carried out naval exercises across the Straits of Malacca, marked by the presence of a US nuclear powered aircraft carrier Task Force. It is time that such exercises are expanded to include Japan and Australia, as members of the Quad. A military presence from the Quad sends a clear signal to China that the main lines of communication for its energy supplies from Iran and Arab Gulf countries, which traverse through the Malacca Straits, could well be challenged as India strengthens its Naval and Air Force presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are located across China’s sea lanes of communication.

This effort by the Quad can be supplemented by two members of Asean — Indonesia and Vietnam — which have tensions on their maritime boundaries with China. Twenty-four warships of the Indonesia navy recently held exercises near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, where China has maritime boundary claims on its neighbours depicted on its “nine dash line” maps. Indonesia has received explicit support from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in its determination to not yield to Chinese maritime territorial ambitions.

India should have no doubt that even within South Asia (the Indian sub-continent), China is now set to work with South Asia groupings that it sets up to isolate India, on developments following the coronavirus crisis.

Pakistan, which describes China as an “all weather friend”, is always ready to oblige China’s efforts to erode and undermine Indian influence. Pakistan has been joined by Afghanistan and Nepal in a conference organised by China, ostensibly to deal with the impact of the coronavirus challenge. This was a rather weird replica of the conference India hosted on March 15 for all South Asian countries. The participants invited were all countries sitting astride China’s land borders.

The Chinese are quite obviously looking to dominate a framework that encompasses countries located astride the Himalayan and Karakoram mountains. This framework is evidently a part of new Chinese thinking that with Trump preparing to exit from Afghanistan, the mountains around India need to be controlled by governments inimical to India.

The Chinese appear to believe that with Prime Minister Sharma Oli in their pocket, forever ready to question the legitimacy of Nepal’s established borders with India, they can use Nepal’s territory to undermine India’s interests. China is still to learn the art of dealing with the leadership of democratically elected governments. Recent attempts to mess around in the internal politics of the Maldives and Sri Lanka, produced unexpected results for China. China’s Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqui may have been a roaring hit when she was in Pakistan. But high-profile meetings with political leaders in Nepal like Prime Minister Oli, intrusively backing his ambitions to continue in office, could have very undesirable and unexpected results.

In the meantime, India is moving ahead with strengthening its economic ties with Taiwan. Apart from empathising with Lee Teng-hui and the people of Taiwan over the death of its Founding Father and first Prime Minister Lee Teng-hui, India appears set to press the accelerator for expanding economic ties with the island. China would have taken note of this.

The days when New Delhi was constantly looking over its own shoulder before moving ahead on building its economic and cultural ties with Taiwan are now mercifully over.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on August 10, 2020

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