New Delhi’s hopes for an early resolution to the crisis in Ladakh through diplomatic channels, as happened during the earlier crises, have been hampered by lack of any immediate leverage with Beijing.
Moreover, the creation of Ladakh as a Union Territory, after the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir, is being used by the Chinese as a pretext for the breakdown of existing border agreements.
The Chinese intransigence on not engaging on Pangong Tso, after having altered the status quo there, has led to fears that it is working on a ‘two-step forward, one-step backward’ strategy to make net gains in border areas.
The Sunday Express spoke to three diplomats – all former Indian ambassadors to China – who were involved in diplomatic negotiations with Beijing during the crisis at Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017. They said that in each of these cases, there was an event or a visit, the success of which was important to Beijing, and this provided India immediate leverage during negotiations with the Chinese to resolve the crisis. Unlike then, the current negotiations are likely to be lengthy, leading to a protracted standoff along the Line of Actual Control.
During the 2014 Chumar crisis, it was the first visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to India after the election of a new government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, lending the event great significance.
In the 2017 Doklam crisis, resolution was aided by the BRICS summit to be hosted by the Chinese government which did not want it happening under the shadow of a border standoff between the two largest BRICS members.
In 2013, India was to be the first foreign stop for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang after taking office.
In October 2017, the then Foreign Secretary, now External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar had told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs: “Both sides were obviously conscious of the importance of de-escalating the situation and ending the face-off before the BRICS Summit in Xiamen which was scheduled for 4-5 September 2017.
BRICS is a forum where India and China work closely together and obviously, neither side wish to see their leaders meeting at Xiamen under the cloud of Doklam incident.”
This time, the Indian side, an official familiar with the ongoing diplomatic talks in Beijing said, has been surprised by the breakdown of agreements and protocols signed between the two countries since 1993 for the management of the border – the 1993 agreement between Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and Chinese Premier Li Peng, in which India accepted the concept of the LAC, forms the basis of all further negotiations and agreements between the two countries.
This is seen to be linked to the Chinese reaction to the abrogation of Article 370 in J&K and creation of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory in August last year. Beijing argued that New Delhi had violated border agreements. It now seems to be using it as a pretext for unilaterally altering the status quo on the Ladakh border.
In its statement last August, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, referring to border agreements, stated, “We urge India to be cautious in its words and deeds on the border issue, strictly abide by the relevant agreements reached between the two sides, and avoid taking actions that further complicate the border issue.”
In a closed-door informal session of the UN Security Council on August 16 on the issue, the Chinese Permanent Representative in the UN argued that India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 challenged China’s sovereign interests and violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area.
On October 31, when Ladakh formally became a Union Territory, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang had referred to the bilateral treaties and the boundary dispute in his press briefing: “China urges the Indian side to earnestly respect Chinese territorial sovereignty, abide by our treaties and uphold peace and tranquility in the border areas and create favourable conditions for the proper settlement of boundary question”.
The matter got a new lease of life last Friday when Wang Xianfeng, press officer at the Chinese mission in Islamabad, tweeted an article by an influential Chinese scholar, Wang Shida of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). CICIR is a Beijing-based think-tank, affiliated to the Ministry of State Security.
In his article, Wang said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had conveyed his country’s position on the Ladakh issue to Jaishankar when he visited Beijing after abrogation of Article 370 last year. “India’s moves challenged China’s sovereign rights and interests and violated the agreement on maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas between the two countries,” the article quoted the Foreign Minister as having said, specifically mentioning the violation of the 1993 border agreement.
China’s refusal to talk about the Pangong Tso area after having altered the status quo there – it is engaging with the Indian side on the situation in the Hot Spring and Galwan Valley sectors — has led to fears that Beijing may be following its “two-step forward and one-step backward” strategy which would leave it with the net gain of one-step while sounding reasonable.
In Pangong Tso, the Chinese soldiers have come in eight kilometres, moving their usual deployment from Finger 8 to Finger 4 on the northern bank of the lake. This has curtailed the patrolling limits of Indian soldiers who used to go up to Finger 8 which India says denotes the LAC.
“The status quo has been altered by the Chinese in Pangong Tso unilaterally. Our NSA also spoke to his SR (Special Representative) counterpart in Beijing after the clashes in early May for restoration of status quo ante. That is our aim, but the Chinese side has not engaged so far,” an official familiar with the ongoing diplomatic talks in Beijing said.