The whys and wherefores of the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh, cumulated with the larger peripheral belligerence in South China and East China Seas and the Taiwan Straits in 2020, have been debated ad infinitum. The events of Galwan Valley, Hot Springs-Gogra and Pangong Tso in the months from May 2020 onwards have currently reached the long drawn phase of verifiable disengagement and consequent de-escalation. The omnipresent question is what were the aims and the objectives of Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) in undertaking the aggression. And by accepting to disengage, were these objectives deemed to have been achieved by the PLA? Or in the keen efforts to bring about status quo ante to the situation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the underlying strategic motivations of the past events and the future portends are being ignored in Tacticising Strategy1 of PLA/ China. It is instructive to follow the statement of Zhao Lijian, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, in Beijing on 03 July 2020, “New Delhi should avoid a strategic miscalculation with regard to China.” The thrust of this paper is to examine the strategic miscalculation that needs avoidance.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, a distinctly different behaviour by the Chinese leadership was apparent. In a fervently nationalistic summing up at the National People’s Congress in 2018, President Xi Jinping had stated that “…China will not cede a single inch of its territory to others and is ready to wage a bloody battle to assume it’s due place in the world,” and that every inch of territory lost through unequal treaties has to be reclaimed, and exhorted the PLA to be ready for war. China’s much greater aggression exhibits their leaders’ recognition that shi, the ‘strategic configuration of power’, ‘alignment of forces’ or ‘propensity of things to happen’ has altered resolutely in their favour. What they are obviously following, are strategy and stratagems to potentially exploit the shi and commence shaping and moulding the environment. Apparently, China’s “quiet rise” and “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead (韬光养晦，决不当头)”, has already given way to more fierce expressions of great power aspirations and more assertive and even aggressive international posture, also with regard to China’s territorial disputes.
A new scenario has hence emerged in Chinese geopolitical calculations. The PLA’s military transformation is one of the major geo-strategic developments of the 21st Century, covering the complete gamut of ground, aerospace, maritime forces, strategic support and rocket forces. More fundamentally, despite the transformation the ‘Party yet controls the gun’, that is, Chinese Communist Party exercises over-arching control over the PLA. Geopolitically, there has been an appreciated success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – with stringent contractual obligations that recipient nations are placed in. The 18 June 2020 high-level video conference strengthening the Belt and Road international cooperation for jointly fighting COVID-19 was a clarion call to the rest of the world. In the pandemic, relative to the other developed nations, the Chinese economy and internal state has remained stable. Over the years, China rapidly transformed its economy from a low-cost ‘factory to the world’, to a global leader in advanced and innovative technologies and in global value chains.
Eastern Ladakh needs to be placed in the overall schema of China, as part of the aggression in its periphery. PLA exercise earlier in the 2020 in Tibet witnessed the deployment of several key aspects of Chinese military capabilities. PLA’s Tibet Military Command had deployed helicopters, Type 15 lightweight tank, 155-millimeter vehicle-mounted howitzer and anti-aircraft missiles, as per China Central Television (CCTV). The reported concentration of over two divisions opposite Eastern Ladakh later in May-June 2020 was part of the plan, before venturing for the transgressions on the LAC. Apparently this additional force was brought in as a show of strength, to deter escalation or additional support to the transgressing forces if required.
The events of May and June 2020 in Eastern Ladakh were unprecedented, premeditated and part of an overall plan, au contraire to previously set pattern of behaviour. A series of simultaneous transgressions at Galwan Valley, Hot Springs-Gogra and Pangong Tso, strongly indicated the amended paradigm. The DS-DBO road as an excuse for Galwan Valley transgression was a red herring, as the road was under use for a long time (in winter months). The new Bridge has made it through the year road. Occupation of Finger 4 at Pangong Tso was a totally deliberate and direct affront, obviously since Indian LAC crossing Finger 8 is well known to PLA, and there have often been face offs there. PLA could not create similar rationale at Pangong Tso, like in Galwan Valley of the newer construction of DS-DBO road. It is argued that Galwan and Pangong Tso were just manifestations, tactical scenarios of a larger stratagem in the making.
What PLA had not probably anticipated was the robust and strong response by the Indian Armed Forces, on establishing an eye-ball confrontation at all locations transgressed and the ferociousness and tenacity of Indian soldier at Galwan on 15 June 2020, without even using firearms. In an exemplary mobilisation the Army and the Air Force picked the gauntlet, brought in a strong force to Ladakh, accepted the challenge and prepared even for escalation. All this was being undertaken while continuing laborious negotiations at Chushul-Moldo, to obtain a verifiable disengagement, de-escalation and return to status quo ante. This process is yet seemingly underway. The events point towards PLA having deliberately and in a well planned manner broken the systemic of understandings and behaviour based on varied Agreements, protocols and norms.
It brings to fore the imperative of envisioning the future. The concept of Chinese Strong Nation Dream (qiang zhongguo meng) as articulated by President Xi, essentially calls for a strong and prosperous country, rejuvenation of the nation, and the well-being of its people by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Apparently, it is well nigh impossible to outguess the Chinese, in the trajectory to achieve the Dream. The global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up opportunities for China to expand its influence. The transgressions in Eastern Ladakh are part of Chinese rewriting the rules-based international system, to better reflect its own interests. Chinese attempts at ultra-nationalism are propelling it to seek more territory from its neighbours and dominate the region. Though unsubstantiated, internal domestic pressures exist in China, and these must be exercising the Party. The leadership in CCP will not allow negativism to grow within the nation, nor a sign of weakness or a loss of face in its aggressiveness displayed.
At this juncture, forward movement on demarcating and delineating the currently flawed concept of LAC, seems inconceivable. Status quo in management of the LAC, in the times of absence of trust, is obviously fraught with grave misgivings. There will remain likelihood of recurrence, which will result in understandable pro-action on the part of Indian Army units and formations. Lest a repeat takes place, a brawl leading to use of firearms has to be catered for in future border management permutations and combinations. In the environment of absence of trust, deceit and cunningness, the Armed Forces charged with management of LAC must remain cautious and proactive.
It is argued that while attempting to induce complacency, PLA may have planned a Phase two; a continual of aggression, one that will be better planned, and more forcefully and imaginatively executed. The vast realms of options available to the Chinese may be from targeting civilian/ national infrastructure with plausible deniability and the military infrastructure and defences on the border areas, thereby enlarging the concept of battlefield to battle space. It may take the form of another border incident, even facing the prospects of escalation to conventional war. It is, hence, imperative to plan for the worst case scenario, a modern technological conventional war.
PLA’s Western Theatre Command (WTC), responsible for the two restive provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet, is the most expansive of the theatres with complex internal and external operational requirements. It also has two combined arms tactical training bases (CATTB) located at Xichang and Qingtongxi. The Qingtongxia CATTB includes an electromagnetic environment simulation, monitoring and control systems, as well as a 1:500 scale (900 meters x 700 meters) mock-up of the Aksai Chin border region. The WTC also trains annually in High Altitude operations like capture of snow-clad mountain passes, obviously aimed against India.
A lesson that stands out with clarity in the events of May-June 2020 is the optimal necessity of intelligence on concentration of larger reserves. As PLA forces are not permanently garrisoned in the Aksai Chin area, it is likely that the mechanized infantry division in Hotan and other formations in Xinjiang or Tibet would be deployed to this area. Their movement, despite the air lift availability, is arduous and time consuming. Larger forces from Xinjiang or Tibet have to perforce traverse between 500 to 1500km, along National Highway G219. The 5,050 metre Tserang Daban Pass (on Kun Lun Shan) between Yarkhand/ Hotan and Mazar will have to be crossed, and must be constantly kept under surveillance. Any ingress from Xinjiang has to move along G219 that traverses between Karakorum and Kun Lun Ranges. Similarly is the 5,100 meters Jieshan Daban (Pass on G219 near Rutog in Ngari Prefecture). India needs to obtain state of the art, real time Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems, to be well forewarned.
The Chinese have invested greatly in SSF. Strategic Support Force (SSF) has configured the critical new domains in “informationalized” 21st century warfare – space operations, cyber, electronic warfare and signals intelligence, among others. There is evidence to suggest that PLA intends to confront an adversary pre-emptively through cyberspace alone. PLA undertaking warfare across the electromagnetic spectrum would rely on initiative and offensive action, to dominate the electronic spectrum and effectively deny the adversary the use of its electronic equipment. Offensive operations across the electronic medium will employ electronic jamming, electronic deception, directed energy weapons and electromagnetic pulse radiation. This effort would use computer network operations that infect adversary’s weapons systems with malware while they are still inactive. There could also be implanted malicious code with the aim of destroying the adversary’s Command and Control system, such as circuits that control railroads, military air traffic and divert trains to wrong routes to cause traffic jams. One of the distinctive features of the SSF is the integration of Chinese cyber militias. The PLA, therefore, also views cyber operations as an independent means to subdue the adversary and sees computer network operations as having disruptive effects on them.2
With the creation of SRF, a well planned fire strike could represent punitive strikes against key Indian targets. PLA Strategic Rocket Force (SRF) has centralised command of the PLA’s missiles both conventional and nuclear. Such a campaign can be undertaken by long-range precision strike by rockets, missiles and air forces, to destroy important targets, paralyze operational system of systems, and destroy war potential, thereby creating conditions for other operations. The PLA/ CCP leadership could conclude that conducting precision strikes would be preferable to conducting difficult offensive ground operations, in which Indian Armed Forces have great advantage of training and experience.
As an obvious equal and opposite reaction, the peripheral comity of nations, despite the complex economic and trade linkages, are witnessing similarly intense nationalist forces against the aggressive policies of China. Similar consternation is also evident among other nations of the world, apprehensive of the rise of a belligerent new great power. India, in the context of China, is a frontline state with contested borders, with the likelihood of facing the next onslaught. Improved relations with the US and other similarly placed nations would imply obtaining technological assistance that would prepare us for the technological war that looms ahead.
In sum, India must take the events of May-June 2020, as ‘warning shots’ and prepare for an even more aggressive China. Within the nation, Sinology scholars must begin unpacking what a belligerent China on way to Pax Sinica could mean for India, and prognosticate the same, than only analysing past and current events.
In analysing the aggression shown by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Eastern Ladakh since May 2020, and the intransigence apparent in the consequent negotiations to return to status quo, it is imperative follow the hierarchy dictating the same. The attempt herein is to refute any impression of a local or within Military Division/ Theatre Command initiative to undertake belligerent posturing. This is essential also to contemplate future directions.
China in the past three decades has been rapidly growing, and in 2020 it is an intensely assertive power. Tied with the growth of China is the transformation and modernisation of PLA. The PLA’s modernisation is embedded with the ‘Two Centenaries’ goals – founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) with its first centenary in 2021, while the second, in 2049, will mark 100 years since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) itself was founded. A transformed PLA has become an important part of the ‘China Dream’ – a wide-ranging development and modernisation ambition for the Chinese nation.
How does CPC control the PLA? The idea that the CPC controls the “gun” is an oft-stated, and hence, the armed wing of the CPC, the PLA has been an intensely political entity from its very inception. Initially the “Red Army” under Mao Zedong, the PLA is not a national institution but rather the military arm of the CPC. The PLA’s political work system is the primary means through which the CPC “controls the gun” in accordance with Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
The Articles 4 and 13 of Internal Affairs Regulations of Chinese PLA are instructive in that the PLA oath demands no special loyalty to the country, only the Party, showing over-arching control that CPC exercises on PLA. The Article 4 states that “The People’s Liberation Army was created and led by the Communist Party of China. The mission of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the new era is to resolutely safeguard the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” The Article 13 is the soldier’s oath states that “I am a soldier of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, and I swear: Obey the leadership of the Communist Party of China…” 1
The PLA’s traditional identity, hence, is of a party army with a military culture that is hierarchical and where decision making is top-down and centralized. As the CPC’s armed wing, the PLA is organizationally part of the party apparatus. Career military officers are mostly party members, and units at the company level and above have political commissars responsible for personnel decisions, propaganda, and counterintelligence. These political commissars are also responsible for ensuring that party orders are carried out throughout the PLA. CPC committees, led by the political officers and military commanders, oversee decision making at all levels and party inspection cadres monitor the behaviour of personnel. Multiple levels of commissars, party committees, and inspection cadres hence penetrate all levels of the military, providing an interlocking, reinforcing system that infuses party authority throughout the PLA. 2 It can safely be stated that the PLA is a politicized “party army” since its inception and exists to guarantee the CPC regime’s survival above all else; serving the state is a secondary role.
The tiers of political work in the PLA are intertwined in a manner that ensures that the CPC is able to penetrate the military from top to bottom. These tiers comprise the political commissar system, the party committee system, and the party discipline inspection system. Political commissars are responsible for personnel, education, security, discipline, and morale. The importance of the Political Commissar can well be seen in that Lt Gen Wu Shezhou the Political Commissar of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) since January 2017 is an elected member of the 19th Central Committee. The 19th Central Committee is a political body comprising the top leaders of the CPC, and is, formally, the “party’s highest organ of authority” when the National Congress is not in a plenary session. This Committee is vested with the power to elect the General Secretary and the members of the Politburo and its Standing Committee, as well as the CMC. As an aside, Gen Zhao Zongqi, the Commander of WTC had been an elected member of 18th Central Committee since 2012, and is currently member of the 19th Central Committee.
In the implementation of the military strategic guideline in the new situation, China’s armed forces must closely centre on the CPC’s goal of building a strong military.3 The CPC Central Committee constitutes Central Commissions and Leading Small Groups (LSGs) as the political core executive and give the “core leader” President Xi significant influence over strategic policymaking. Each LSG makes sure party decisions within its purview are implemented. CPC LSGs on National Security and Military Reform are headed by President Xi Jinping, concurrently in addition to being the CPC General Secretary, Central Military Commission Chairman (CMC) and China’s President.
The CMC, the PLA’s highest decision making body, is technically a party organ subordinate to the CPC Central Committee. The State Council, which is akin to a Cabinet or the chief administrative authority, and has a Ministry of National Defence, does not control the PLA, which is done by the CMC. The members of the CMC are elected by the top CPC hierarchy – the Politburo Standing Committee. The real “nerve centre” of the Chinese military system is clearly the Central Military Commission (CMC). It is the principal deliberative and decision-making body for all major military and strategic decisions that involve the PLA. One of the principal objectives in restructuring by President Xi is to ensure the absolute loyalty of the PLA to the CPC and to himself personally as the party’s paramount leader.4
The Political Work Department of the CMC, created in January 2016 as part of the Military Reforms, manages the PLA’s political commissars and undertakes the routine political work in the military. This Party committee system is replicated in some fashion at each level of command. Party committees fall under the supervision of the CMC Political Work Department and are intended to ensure loyalty at all levels. They propagate the party positions, policies, and directives throughout the force.
With the intricate relationships, and the overarching control that the CPC has on PLA, it is imperative to correlate the happenings of Eastern Ladakh:
- In studying China’s reform plans there are repetitions of the year 2020. It is year that is particularly important in terms of political goals as it marks the end of the 13th five-year plan in 2020. 2020 is also the CPC’s target year for achieving a ‘moderately well-off society’. China’s 2019 White Paper China’s National Defence in the New Era stated that by 2020, PLA was to have achieved basic ‘mechanisation’, significant enhanced ‘informatization’ and greatly improved strategic capabilities. The PLA announced on 20 March 2020 that combined arms battalions have become the PLAA’s “basic mobile operational unit” with heavy, medium and light roles. The PLA Army has been experimenting with battalion-level formations that have artillery, reconnaissance, armour, intelligence, and air defence assets under battalion command. “This suggests they wish to ready brigades to deploy for strategic missions while reserving the group armies for major combat, likely in proximity to China.”5 Mechanized warfare primarily includes planes [fighters and bombers], tanks, artillery [self propelled], warships [surface and subsurface], and like weapons and equipment. Three-dimensional warfare, mobility warfare, and firepower warfare are its principle methods. Its basic characteristics are: the great suddenness of the outbreak of war, broad scope of the battlefield, long period of operations, multiplicity of the means of operations, great destructive force of attacks, extensive material support requirements, and intensive requirements for command and coordination. The primary operational methods of informatization include information warfare, precision fires warfare, network warfare, unconventional warfare, and space warfare, among others. Its outstanding features are: system vs. system; information confrontation as the focus of both sides; a battle carried out in multiple dimensions including land, sea, air, space, electromagnetic spectrum, and cyberspace; integrated cross-services and arms joint operations as the basic operational form; mainly nonlinear, non-contact operations; high attack accuracy; rapidly progressing conflict; integration of operational actions, command, and support.6
- It is obvious that the ongoing aggression – actions and decisions, in Eastern Ladakh is directly controlled from the Apex, with both WTC Commander and WTC Political Commissar being members of the all powerful 19th Central Committee. The Political Commissars, including the one with South Xinjinag Military District, are similarly managed by the Political Work Department of CMC. The Central Committee’s LSG on National Security is also chaired by President Xi, as is the CMC. The selection of the targeted areas may have been operational and/ or tactical decisions, to provide increased space or depth to the Western Highway.
- The overall response Indian Army (and the Indian Government) has exhibited robustness and strength. In that manner of speaking, if PLA’s ‘active defence’ and “Local wars” doctrines to pre-emptively aggress in Eastern Ladakh, (without escalation in major conventional conflicts) was the intent, it may not have fully been realised. The PLA has to worry about the impact of the casualties it has suffered, on the political future also of its masters in CPC.
The PLA Army, that is, the ground forces, in the targeted year of CPC’s 2020 objectives cannot exhibit even an appearance of incomplete success. The CPC leadership exercises ultimate control over the deployment of PLA forces in operational times. Hence, since 2020 is a critical timeline in transformation of PLA, and 2021 is the CPC’s centennial year, then the transgressions in Eastern Ladakh are strategic opportunity for PLA to prove the transformational success and become more influential in defence and foreign policy. If the events in Eastern Ladakh indicate inability for the PLA Army to meet 2020 way point, it will be unacceptable to the CPC hierarchy. This dictates the end-state of the current imbroglio.
While it can be well appreciated that CPC and PLA do not desire conventional war at this juncture of a global geopolitical and China’s internal churn, it will be prudent to anticipate the future course of events and prepare. It may be likely that the oncoming winter, or even through negotiations that there may be a draw down, or a change of tack. However, irrespective of that possibility there is a need to prepare for the future:
- We need to develop a repertoire of proportional response options to PLA’s coercion or aggression, to contrive a favourable situation. These manifold options could also include a number and/or scope of bilateral and multilateral training exercises with allies, in such super high altitude reaches.
- With the omnipotent threat from the Strategic Support Force, we must review and if feasible demonstrate, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, against military application of disruptive technologies. In fact we must possess a near-permanent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) infrastructure. Forewarned is always forearmed!
- There would be need of ‘hardening’ and creating alternatives to the pro-action by Strategic Rocket Force. This might require intensive deliberation among the Services, the field formations, units and bases. We also require genuine jointness, with IAF taking lead to exploit fullest potential. In the long run such planning will pay dividends.
- And lastly, the age-old dictum, offense is the best form of defence. From 1948 onwards, we have never hesitated to undertake offensives in super high altitudes!
Events of 2020 are benchmarks for CPC (and PLA) to proclaim of having become prosperous, powerful, modern country. By 2021 centennial year, the CPC will declare that the “dream” has been at least partially realised. The PLA’s allegiance is to the Party, and is thus primarily will be the politico-military instrument.
It is possible that the ‘proclamation’ may be benign, so much the better. However, it if it is not so, the events of 2020 are a clarion call for India and Indian Armed Forces.
The new China has shown itself as muscular, aggressive, expansionist and determined to force its way to top of the world stage by vigorously establishing Pax Sinica. China’s in the past three decades has been rapidly growing economically and accelerating its transformation process with the most extensive restructuring of its military. China’s transformation and modernisation of Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) follows Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The PLA is at threshold of achieving interim modernization goals of informatised, integrated joint operations, and, in 2020 itself has shown as an intensely assertive power. Hence, China, which has gained substantial comprehensive power in a short time frame, is seemingly willing to employ it.
Contextually, China’s behavioural and attitudinal transformation dictates long term view. The approach has to be strategically pragmatic eschewing dogmatism, approaching the problem with the insight that envisioning depends on cognition, and that human cognition is fallible in predictions. In planning for secure national future, inflexible dissensions will be counterproductive, and yet, in seeking solutions, there will be a need to correct and adjust as soon as dysfunctions or shortfalls are recognizable.
Three basic pointers drive the analysis of the current aggression of China. Firstly, the strategic geography between India and China has clear diktats. India had hopes that trade and economic interdependence, insulated from lack of demarcation/ delineation of Line of Actual Control (LAC), will yet promote peace. This notion has been woefully belied. Apparently with little progress through multi-channel protracted negotiations, border remained fragile and brittle. Our architecture of LAC management with China had ever remained anarchic, and peace was only guaranteed by deliberate restraints exercised by India. Realism for India is that the balance of power, by 2020, had been severely disrupted in China’s favour, and this unbalanced power has become a potential threat. It has oft been stated that China may have over -reached itself in the aggression shown in its periphery since May 2020. That is an issue for history to judge. However, presently and in the foreseen future, it is imperative that India accepts the mammoth attitudinal change in China, and prepare itself to newer realities. This constancy of threat calls for India to envision the changed policy paradigm, and prepare for the same.
Secondly, it is obvious that the entire schema of the Chinese in 2020 has been a deliberate, well-planned, premeditated belligerence, with overt and covert agenda. PLA troops have for long been showing disregard to the agreed architecture on management of LAC – the protocols and the CBMs. In the backdrop of such confrontational attitude and aggression, Chinese comments to Indian Army to abide by agreements is challenging basic intelligence, like the pot calling the kettle black.
To explain the whys and wherefores of the aggression is not easy. Warding off threat posed by the construction of DS-DBO road, to Aksai Chin or Western Highway (G219), is grossly over blown. G219 is important, but no more as life line connecting two restive provinces or for CPEC. Again attributing Chinese hostile behaviour at Depsang, Galwan, Hot Springs-Gogra and Pangong Tso to occupying areas up to its 1960 claim line can be challenged. For example, there are dichotomies in grid references of 1960 claim line in North Bank of Pangong Tso, and there are other ‘claimed’ areas in Eastern Ladakh not transgressed.
Similarly, to ascribe motivation to abrogation of Article 370 and creation of Ladakh as Union Territory is to underplay the inherent belligerence. Indeed, except that China had claims, these areas have little intrinsic value to it for territorial expansionism. The Covid-19 pandemic is also being ascribed to China, and its growing internal dissensions are stated as causes for aggression. India’s growing bonhomie with the US, the mileage into Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), increasing geo-political importance are all fall back rationale. India has retained good relations with Russia and professes virtues of multilateralism and strategic autonomy.
It is argued that taking cue of its success in South China Sea without facing credible contestation, an attempt has been made to unilaterally resolve its staked/ and even unstacked claims along the LAC. Undoubtedly, China is expressly pursuing a geo-political agenda becoming lone Asian hegemon, and hence the autonomous credentials/ policies of India are irksome. Case in point is Indian principled stand on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP). As argued previously, China fathoms that it has reached a credible pinnacle of power status and with a large number of nations tied inexorably through BRI, trade and economics; it has presupposed that assertiveness can well be carried through without significant challenge. Deliberately, the rules of the game are being one-sidedly established by China, in long term visualization.
Thirdly, the results of the continuous sequence of Border Personnel (Military) Meetings and diplomatic interactions aimed at disengagement/de-escalation and return to status quo ante seem to portray befuddled and dismal picture. It is apparent that Chinese are either obdurate in their unwillingness to return to status quo, or wish to seek deep concessions on the LAC – ones that they well fathom, cannot be acceded to by India. Studying the history of the pace of PLA’s infrastructure development along the LAC, in the oncoming winter (2020/2021), they would create semi/permanent infrastructure and habitat in areas intruded, establish posts of Border Guards and present a scenario of fait accompli by the summer of 2021.
This scenario presents serious decision dilemma for India. The changed paradigm that the Chinese have presented clearly surmises that an overhaul of Indian policies towards China is inevitable and mandatory. In anticipating the fait accompli and lack of a firm move on grievously flawed concept of Line of Actual Control (LAC), the optimal necessity for India is to generate substantive options, mindful of the Chinese hegemonic ambitions, including collusion with Pakistan; the options for resolution of the LAC imbroglio are not being debated, being the exclusive preserve of the political and military hierarchy. In any case, the state of parleys, military and diplomatic, has not been publicly disseminated to be fairly examined. Three broader expositions are considered as below:
- The effect of Chinese antagonism and aggression has been clearly discerned by all the peripheral neighbours. Obviously, there is grave anxiety, with South East and East Asian Nations having for long faced the antagonism in South and East China Seas and Taiwan Straits. It is also a truism that there exist deep economic and trade linkages between China and ASEAN, Japan and Taiwan. The Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025 and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have common priorities. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, China has committed to new infrastructure projects across the Southeast Asia. In the months since the pandemic started, it has sealed deals for building a dam in Cambodia, a $22.4 million business park in Myanmar and a large solar energy farm in Laos. Despite the anxieties of China’s intentions, the ASEAN nations will consider their national interests vis-à-vis China. Understanding that BRI is exceedingly important to President Xi’s national and international standing, it may be prudent for many a peripheral nation to continue to hang on China’s coattails.
- The Quad comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States signifies united steadfastness to counter China’s growing assertiveness. As India has contested borders and Japan the dispute of Senkakau Islands, there is immense scope for conjoined resolve to challenge the intransigence of China and its hegemonic proclivities. There is much scope in pursuing QUAD agenda, as China destined with singularly grim strategic geography, hemmed by the ‘first island chain’, is acutely dependent on sea-borne trade. India will also have to take a call on joining the Blue Dot Network and Five Eyes, the core of the western intelligence system, or the outer rings of Nine or Fourteen Eyes!
- India has taken strong and firm measures since April 2020 on economic and trade front with China. Though trade had nearly touched US $100 billion, it is yet not too significant in overall terms to distress China. The bans imposed will have some effect, more as India being perceived as a large future communications and consumer market, and the domino effect ban could have globally. Case in point is the follow-up ban on app Tic-Tok by the US. Even the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by China is not too large, data compiled by Bloomberg Quint showed Chinese FDI into India at $4.14 billion in 2019, though the China’s Commerce Ministry, pegged it at $8 billion for 2018-19. It is also true that it may be very difficult for India to totally de-couple from China economically. Many supply chains even outside China have behind-the-scenes links.
Contextually, there can be no avoidance of hard power to deal from a pedestal of strength, with a clear intent and will to use it. Indian Armed Forces have their strengths that the adversaries recognise too. It is the arena that the Armed Forces need to create sunrise capabilities that is as important. Three issues to ponder upon:
- Over a period of time the three Services have developed most un-identical internal cultures. The three combat forces need to convert into an integrated combat power. Even before venturing into integration/ jointness, the three services need to take time off to contemplate typology of threats, decide how best to undertake war fighting and strategize for the next 20 years without inter service or intra service turf wars. There is also need to rebalance the lopsided weight on the Western Front. It will be the best to create new set of plans, set aside egos, and create the requisite combat power. Integration will follow naturally. There may be need of a tri-service blue ribbon commission to create the Joint Transformative Report and action plan with time horizons. Without this we could be fallible and create mistakes or leave voids.
- Appreciably, the Government and the armed forces are already charged with the future, and are preparing for a modern, technological war. There is but no alternative to modern capabilities, in imbibing offensive and defensive disruptive technologies, not as force multipliers, but independent realms of warfare.
- India, in deepening relations and economic integration with the US, should plan the engagement in manner that avails of requisite technological prowess. Understandably, as is proverbially said, there will be no such thing as a free lunch! However, pragmatically, India cannot become a frontline state in an oncoming global cold war. Inspite of all friendly mechanisms with other nations, multilaterals and bilateral, China is a neighbour with contested borders and, hence, any future estrangement with China will inevitably be for India to handle independently.
The Dragon is awake, exhorted by the nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China having ambitiously laid down aims, to be ‘…a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.’ There is a world opinion building against the ham handedness of China. This argues for a high grade readiness of the combat power.
The gravity of the situation also demands tempering of rhetoric. Cool headed, long term visualization is imperative to envisage the multiple avenues to assure National Security. The stratagems planned for need to borrow Deng’s philosophy of hiding strength and biding time.
Strategic Pragmatism is based on critical rationalism and realism. A distinctive mark of strategic pragmatism for the Armed Forces will be to focus on ends, ways and means for what can be achieved based on the newest in short term with immediate impact, what requires more structured development over the medium term and what can only be set as a long-term target involving fundamental reform or innovation. A goal may not be immediately attainable, but yet may be attainable if planned for carefully.
(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct).
The Line of Control (LOC), the Line of Actual Control (LAC) hereinafter the LINES, and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) in the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, are denoted by huge dissimilarities, as chalk and cheese. The 772 km LOC with Pakistan is delineated, and has Anti Infiltration Obstacle System, except in the Kargil Sector. The LOC had over decades extensive eyeball to eyeball defensive positions manned by the Army, with some units of Border Security Forces under command. It was based (despite the delineation) on the philosophy of holder-keepers, implying that the force occupying any position would de facto own it. Indeed, it has remained a hot border, denoted by near continual firing across the LOC, the operations of Border Action Teams and the incessant attempts by Pakistan to infiltrate terrorists. The 121.5 km AGPL, an extension of LOC from NJ 9842 to the Karakoram Range, has similar defences on dizzy heights of the Saltoro Range facing Gilgit-Baltistan.
The 826 km LAC in Eastern Ladakh with China draws its history from Mr Chou en Lai’s 1959 letter to PM Nehru that referred to line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west. The 1993 Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement between China and India recognised the LAC, with the unstated but underlying hope that a formalised LAC would eventually be delineated and demarcated. A series of Protocols and Confidence Building Measures enunciated in subsequent Agreements failed to serve the cause of peace and tranquillity on the border, without formalising the LAC, rather on the very contrary. To be fair, the LAC was dominated only by patrols, up to what Indian and Chinese Armies had deemed to be their LAC. Till about a decade or so ago, the LAC in Eastern Ladakh was manned largely by Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), with a limited presence of Army units, and with limited altercations. With increasing Chinese Army transgressions, the Indian Army reviewed its posture and deployment about a decade ago, to challenge PLA’s creepingly increasing push forward by its patrols, which led to repeated fracas and some longish face-offs, contravening the Agreements.
With that a backgrounder overview, it is necessary to flash forward to the present and the future of the LINES. The holder-keepers notion of LOC was put to rest finally during the 1999 Kargil War, when the areas surreptitiously occupied by Pakistan Army in Western Ladakh, were recaptured by the Indian Army. Despite the ceasefire of 2003, the LOC has largely remained hot and tense in form and substance, with Pakistan retaining its entrenched policy of pushing in terrorists. Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir is undergoing calamitous makeover with new roads, power plants, hydropower dams and SEZs, as part of CPEC. Gilgit-Baltistan’s large mineral deposits – metallic, non-metallic, energy minerals, precious and dimension stones, and rocks of differing industrial value are being extensively mined by corporations mainly from China. This is apparent in areas in upper Hunza, like Chapursan Valley, where the Chinese have done both tunnel building and mineral exploration. Of the 2000 mining lease licenses for exploitation of minerals in the region, 300 were awarded to Chinese mining companies in Ghanche District flanking Saltoro Range for uranium, gold, copper, marble and precious stones. The pressure on the LOC will hence continue as hither to fore, and may even heighten tensions.
On the LAC, Indian Army had endeavoured to ensure peace and sanity over the last three decades. India had hopes that insulation of lack of progress on demarcation/ delineation of Line of Actual Control (LAC), from burgeoning trade and economic interdependence, will promote peace. In one stroke of 2020, these three decades of negotiations, Agreements, CBMs and protocols stand discarded and thrown away to waste in deliberate, well-planned, premeditated aggression by the PLA. Protracted meetings over four months, seeking to resolve the imbroglio, and a status quo ante of April 2020 situation, remained a nought. This followed a bold and expansive operation by Indian Army in the Chushul Sector, astride the Spangur Gap, that close to turned the tables on China. Indian forces are in a strong defensive posture on the entire Front, with some sub-sectoral advantages, and with prowess to offensively defend. The situation hence remains tense, and abnormal, literally on razor’s edge.
India has to accept this latest eventology with the all the graveness that it demands. After the obdurateness that lasted four months, there is seemingly a change in the Chinese stand. State Councillor Wang Yi referring to post 15 June 2020 had stated, “This risky act of the Indian army seriously violated the agreement reached between the two countries on the border issue and seriously violated the basic norms of international relations.” However, in tone and tenor his Paris recently was different, “…there will always be problems with India of the kind witnessed in Ladakh because the boundary wasn’t demarcated… China wouldn’t be the first to escalate the situation and was committed to managing all issues through dialogue.” At the insistence of the Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, meeting took place with Indian Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh at Moscow to discuss the current imbroglio. And as officially stated, the External Affairs Minister Jaishankar will be meeting State Councillor Wang Yi at Moscow on 10 Sep 2020. That is a flurry of tête-à-têtes, happening post the Indian Army’s operations of 29/30 August 2020.
It is apparent that there will be a desire to find a rapprochement, a way out of the tenseness of the situation on the border. China is in a peculiar internal and external situation, where the hierarchy would hate the idea of a botched-up operation or even parity. President Xi and the CCP have assiduously pushed to heighten nationalism. “…the target audience of nationalistic rhetoric has drastically shifted … to primarily the domestic population. China’s nationalism … has also become increasingly bellicose, adopting characteristics of what some term “assertive” or “aggressive” nationalism.1 However, in a survey undertaken in China, “…Seventy percent of respondents believed the avoidance of war should be the most important principle in Chinese foreign policy. This contrasts with the popular assumption that nationalism promotes warmongering attitudes.2 Internationally, though many a developing nation is inexorably tied to its economic and technological coat-tails, China has not exactly created a soft power, a voluntary endearment (less Pakistan and North Korea).
Mindful of the nationalistic fervour and under pressure to ‘save face’ China will coerce us to accept a soft option like another set of protocols and CBMs or disengagement with caveats or concessions. Without deep forethought, these could be lapped up with short term euphoria and rhetoric of victory! It must be unequivocally stated that CBMs have a finite life of their own, and cannot endlessly provide confidence. The ceasefire on LOC is a case in point, which commenced and lasted for a time successfully, but currently, only exists on paper. This brings in the question of the conceived end state of the ongoing talks. Contextually, five broad pointers are projected:
- The omnipotent question is that will seeking just that status quo of April 2020 suffice? It is argued that April 2020 definition and architecture of management of LAC without formal delineation and demarcation will ever remain flawed and anarchic. If long term view is not taken in the ensuing talks, there may be a next clash, which could be even bloodier, and escalatory. Peace will not be guaranteed by policy of appeasement and restraints exercised by Indian troops manning the border. Even before a status quo is endeavoured, a formal agreement on procedural, time bound movement on delineation and demarcation is mandatory, and must not be buried in diplomatese.
- Post the 1962 war, China had proposed that either side should withdraw 20 km from where its forces had reached. After Galwan incident, it was reported in July 2020, that a ‘buffer zone’ has been created. Similar concessions have been presumably sought in North bank of Pangong Tso. It is likely that in talks that might take place henceforth, this notion of ‘buffer zone’ would be on the table. A buffer zone, a kind of ‘no-man’s-land’, must not be accepted as any measure of disengagement on the LAC. The PLA will be greatly advantaged in creating such a zone, and will tantamount to further pushback for Indian Army. Buffer zones will become willy-nilly loss of territory, deny us creation of additional proximate infrastructure and push our deployment way back.
- Before any disengagement at LAC, the issue of mobilising additional forces in proximity of LAC – as undertaken by PLA recently, need to be discussed. Such threatening move is counterproductive to Agreements and Protocols. A methodology of intimation and warning of any mobilisation, even for training, should be built in. In the current problem, even before disengagement on the LAC is accepted, the Chinese move back of the forces in depth must be assured.
- To sustain our units and formations, infrastructure construction is mandatory, exactly as PLA had undertaken. It also must be clarified that civil works undertaken by the Union Territory Administration in Ladakh, for example water supply scheme to villages, are developmental issues, will continue and must be acceptable. Case in point in the stagnant issue of water supply scheme at Demchock.
- There is an optimal necessity of tempering the rhetoric and curbing the euphoria. The Global times in China carries the confrontational banner, the latest being the grave threat that the “scale of war may not be controlled near the LAC”. On Indian side too, there has been belligerent cacophony and incendiary printed matter. There may have been narrational voids in information dissemination, relying as we had been on historical procrastination, allowing events to mend on their own. We need to drive the agenda, remain on top of events in the all-important informational domain, and mellow the cacophony.
As a stop-press, the Western Theatre Command of China has alleged that Indian troops had “outrageously fired warning shots” at PLA troops. Again the omnipresent question is that will the future witness LOC-isation of the LAC, a near continuous warring front from Chenab River to Mt Gya? While this may be a hyperbole, an overstatement, yet it imposes the right direction to the future parleys. In this matter, it is also imperative to establish lines of communication with diverse functionaries in China, like the Central Military Commission and the International Division of the Communist Party of China.
The LAC of April 2020 and Sep 2020 has hence no equations; devoid of trust, with amended rules of engagement and opposing forces are arrayed in close proximity in a belligerent and tense manner. The paradigm that Chinese have presented clearly surmises that an overhaul of Indian policies towards China is inevitable and mandatory. A national decision arrived at apex to resolve the border (as done for the enclaves on Bangladesh border) with any ‘give or take’ is definitely different than creating buffer zone or simple disengagement. And till resolved politically, the LAC as we know sacred territory, even if the amended paradigm is a fait accompli. The notion of territorial sovereignty is a defined territory, which is both a physical and a legal reality. The constancy of threat calls for India to envision the changed policy paradigm, and prepare for the same. Meanwhile, this is an opportune time to contemplate basic parameters for resolutory discussions at diplomatic levels.
In a first, External Affairs Minister addresses gathering that includes the militant group
The other six employees had been released in small batches over the last two years, including two men last month, in exchange for nine Taliban prisoners. Mr. Singh had been held back as the Taliban insisted on the release of other prisoners, a process which was finally completed this week. According to sources, he returned to Delhi by an Air India flight on Saturday, and will travel home to his family including his wife and two children living in Bihar’s Madhepura district.
On Saturday, India participated in the inaugural ceremony of the Intra-Afghan dialogue between representatives of the Afghan government, civil society and the Taliban, with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar addressing the delegates. The government also sent a senior official, MEA point-person for Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran J.P. Singh and a delegation to the inaugural ceremony which was attended by U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, a 21-member Taliban delegation and Foreign Ministers of several countries. While Indian officials had witnessed the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement on February 29 this year, also in Doha, this is the first time an Indian Minister has addressed a gathering that includes the Taliban, which India still does not recognise.
Calling for the Intra-Afghanistan negotiations to “preserve” the progress made in the past two decades in post-Taliban Afghanistan, Mr. Jaishankar did not however, mention the Taliban in his speech and said India’s policy on Afghanistan remains consistent.
“India believes any peace process must be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled, has to respect the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and preserve the progress made in the establishment of a democratic Islamic Republic in Afghanistan,” said Mr. Jaishankar over a video link, according to a statement issued by the MEA.
“The interests of minorities, women and vulnerable sections of society must be preserved and the issue of violence across the country and its neighbourhood has to be effectively addressed,” he said, highlighting India’s role as a “major development partner”.
“[Mr. Jaishankar] wished for the success of the Intra-Afghan negotiations in delivering to the people of Afghanistan what they have longed for — a peaceful and prosperous future in an independent and sovereign nation,” the MEA statement also said.
Also read | Getting India back to the Afghan high table
The Intra-Afghan negotiations were a key part of the U.S.-Taliban and U.S.-Afghanistan accords signed earlier this year as part of the Trump administration’s plans for pulling troops out of Afghanistan. According to the agreement, the U.S. would facilitate the talks which were due to begin on March 10, and that the Afghan government would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners while the Taliban would release 1,000 captives the militant group was holding. However, the process was delayed repeatedly, as both sides delayed the release of prisoners, which also meant that three of the Indian engineering team were not released. On August 4, after considerable negotiations by Afghan officials, and the Id ceasefire called by both sides, Prasadi Mahto and Hulas Mahto from Jharkhand were released and returned to India.
In a statement at the time, the MEA had thanked the Afghanistan government for its “constant and unwavering support in securing the release of the Indians”. With Mantu Singh’s return, the Afghanistan government has completed its commitment to bring back all the Indians who had been working on a power project in Afghanistan’s Baglan province, when they were taken at gunpoint by a group of militants in May 2018.
“Mr. Khalilzad appreciated India’s participation in the Intra-Afghan Negotiations (IAN) held in Doha on September 12. He briefed about the U.S. assessment of the IAN and shared the U.S. perspective on the Afghan peace process,” official sources said.
“The two sides discussed future steps and possible cooperation between India and the U.S. in furthering the Afghan peace process,” the sources said.
During the talks, both sides stressed on the need for regional support for the Afghan peace process, that could see the Taliban being brought into the political mainstream in Kabul, and on the importance of ending transnational terrorism from Afghan soil.
“The United States and India share the view that the peace process must continue until there is agreement on a political roadmap and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. The Afghan sides should ensure their territory must not be used by any terrorist group against any other country,” said a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Delhi.
On Saturday, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke via video-conference at the inaugural session of the Intra-Afghan Negotiations (IAN) in Doha, the first time that an Indian official has addressed a gathering that included the Taliban (which India has thus far considered a terror group). New Delhi also sent a high-level official delegation, led by the MEA point person for Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, J.P. Singh.
The MEA did not respond to a question on whether the Indian officials had met with Taliban representatives directly. However, a senior government official said that “by participating in IAN at Doha, India has already engaged all parties,” signalling a major shift in Indian policy.
This was Mr. Khalilzad’s 5th visit to New Delhi since he was appointed the U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation by U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018. In an interview to The Hindu in May 2020, Mr. Khalilzad had advocated an official India-Taliban engagement, saying it would be “appropriate” given India’s importance in Afghanistan. However, the government had refused to comment on the statement then.
Mr. Khalilzad flew into New Delhi on a special plane on Tuesday, accompanied by a three-member team, directly from Pakistan. With the Intra-Afghan negotiations underway in Qatar, the U.S. Special Envoy is pushing for a ceasefire, and during his meetings with the Pakistani army Chief General Bajwa and Pakistan’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Mohammad Sadiq, he reportedly asked for Pakistan’s support in convincing the Taliban to commit to a reduction or cessation of violence.
“Matters of mutual interest, regional security and ongoing Afghan Reconciliation Process were discussed during the meeting. The visiting dignitary (Mr. Khalilzad) greatly appreciated Pakistan’s role in the ongoing peace process and said it could not have succeeded without Pakistan’s sincere and unconditional support,” said the Pakistani army spokesperson in a tweet.
India was invited to the inaugural session by the Qatari Foreign Minister, along with other regional countries. An Afghan official told The Hindu that Pakistan had opposed the move to invite India, but that the Ghani government in Kabul had insisted on it, and the U.S. had backed the move.
“[Tuesday’s] discussions are a reflection of the India-U.S. strategic partnership which provides for close consultations between the two countries on bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest,” government sources said about Mr. Khalilzad’s meeting in Delhi.
“India has always said there should be an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process and [External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar] repeated that stand,” Mr. Khalilzad said in an exclusive interview to The Hindu, shortly after his visit to Delhi on Tuesday.
“You could say that before it was an American-led Afghan process…but now it is an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process, with the delegations sitting across the table from each other, without a foreigner sitting in the room, for the first time. These groups, or warring parties, are now talking with each other to negotiate a roadmap for the future of their country,” Mr. Khalilzad said.
During his brief visit, Mr. Khalilzad and his U.S. delegation met Mr. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval for a 90-minute discussion on the IAN process. While he welcomed India’s decision to join the event and to send a senior level delegation there, Mr. Khalilzad declined to comment on whether India has now decided to open talks with the Taliban directly and whether this was discussed between them.
In his speech at the IAN, Mr. Jaishankar had urged the negotiators not to lose the ‘progress’ that Afghanistan has made in the last two decades after the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of a democratic country. When asked, however, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation said it was up to the Afghan negotiating teams to decide.
“We obviously are not seeking to impose our political system on the Afghans, they have to decide that through negotiations, whether it is for an electoral democracy or some other formula,” Mr. Khalilzad said on concerns that the Taliban will seek to impose both Islamic Sharia code and dismiss the democratic process as they did when in power from 1996-2001.
“But there are universal values that we will watch, and we hope they will include, including the freedoms for minorities, women, rule of law, ending corruption, democracy, elections and a free press. We will see what they do…If they don’t respect those values, we will have to reassess at that juncture,” he said.
Mr. Khalilzad’s comments run counter to a statement by Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh that there would be no compromise on the “political framework” of Afghanistan.
“If [Taliban] want to violate the framework, it will harm them and their supporters,” Mr. Saleh was quoted as saying on Monday, adding that he had been assured of that by the U.S. delegation which includes Mr. Khalilzad and U.S. National Security Senior Director Lisa Curtis.
The differences underline Mr. Khalilzad’s task in the next few weeks as he continues to shuttle between Doha, where the Taliban negotiators are based, Kabul where he is speaking with the Ghani government, and Islamabad where he reportedly sought the Pakistan Army chief’s assistance in ensuring flexibility from the Taliban leadership based there on ensuring a reduction of violence, during a visit on Monday.
“We would expect to see our four-point agreement followed: ensuring no attacks on U.S. and its allies from Afghan soil, the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, Intra-Afghan Negotiations and then discussions on a permanent ceasefire. So, while I think a ceasefire is unlikely immediately, it is feasible as an outcome of the talks,” Mr. Khalilzad told The Hindu over a telephone call while returning to Doha.
Asked how he saw India’s role in the IAN going forward, Mr. Khalilzad said given Afghanistan’s “complex geography and the role of countries in the region and beyond”, the outcome of the talks must be supported by all to ensure Afghanistan’s ‘prosperity’ through trade, investment and connectivity.
Does India’s participation at the IAN inauguration denote a shift in its position on engaging the Taliban and did you discuss taking this further during your talks in New Delhi?
The Indian Foreign Minister did participate by giving a statement and there was an Indian delegation present at the inaugural. It was an important step. India has always said there should be an Afghan owned and Afghan led process and the FM repeated that stand in his address. Now certainly you could say that before it was an American-led Afghan process… now it is an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process with the delegations sitting across the table from each other, without a foreigner sitting in the room, for the first time. These groups, or warring parties, are now talking with each other to negotiate a roadmap for the future of their country. It was a good day for Afghanistan.
The statement issued after your meeting speaks of future cooperation between India and the U.S. on the IAN process… What kind of cooperation do you hope for?
Our primary focus is twofold…one is to see an agreement that has broad support in Afghanistan. Remember, this is not the Afghanistan of old times — this includes all tribes, ethnic groups, political groups and parties, the post 9/11 generation, women and civil society. We must have all on board for the agreement to work, and the resulting political order must be inclusive. Second, given Afghanistan’s complex geography and the role of countries in the region and beyond, the agreement must be supported by neighbours and regional powers. The international community has to support the settlement that Afghans arrive at, and encourage development, regional trade and connectivity with Afghanistan. We need to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t pose a threat to other countries, but becomes a source of prosperity in the world.
You were in Pakistan prior to coming to India. Did you get any assurances of support on the announcement of a permanent ceasefire, and do you see the Taliban agreeing to that soon?
A comprehensive and permanent ceasefire is desirable. We would like that to happen quickly. What is most important for every Afghan is to see a reduction of violence as soon as possible. Given the COVID situation, given humanitarian needs, temporary pauses in violence would be beneficial to the process. Ultimately, we expect to see our four-point agreement followed: ensuring no attacks on U.S. and its allies from Afghan soil, the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, Intra-Afghan Negotiations and then discussions on a permanent ceasefire. So, while I think a ceasefire is unlikely immediately, it is feasible as an outcome of the talks.
The last month has seen very rapid developments, including the pressure that was brought on the Afghan government to ensure the release of prisoners so the talks could start. How do you respond to the criticism that the IAN is being run on the timeline for the U.S. presidential elections in November?
When we signed the agreement, we expected IAN to begin on March 10. It has taken a long time to get to this point however, and we lost a degree of momentum due to the constant delays. So, I think the charge that we are now being driven by a political timeline is false. We can discuss reasons for the delay…Afghans had to make tough decisions to get to this point, and it didn’t happen as fast as the Afghan people would have liked. What is important is the talks are now under way.
How have the first few rounds of talks in Doha gone?
Their interactions so far have been good, constructive, and warm. After opening statements, the delegations met as a whole and created contact groups to decide rules and procedures for the talks. A draft has been produced and there will be further meetings to finalise the procedures and to set the agenda. So far so good.
External Affairs Minister Jaishankar said during his speech at the inauguration that the progress made in Afghanistan post Taliban must not be lost as an outcome of the talks. How confident are you that democracy, rights of minorities and women will be ensured?
On the Indian FM’s statement (to protect post-Taliban gains), we obviously are not seeking to impose our political system on the Afghans, they have to decide that through negotiations, whether it is for an electoral democracy or some other formula. But there are universal values that we will watch, and we hope they will include, including the freedoms for minorities, women, rule of law, ending corruption, democracy, elections free press. We will see what they do…If they don’t respect those values, we will have to reassess our relationship at that juncture.
“All member countries have confirmed participation in the meeting, to be chaired by Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Nepal. The respective Foreign Ministers will take part,” sources familiar with preparations for the meeting told The Hindu, referring to the eight members of SAARC, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
A senior Indian official also confirmed that Mr. Jaishankar will attend despite the incident at the SCO virtual meeting of National Security Advisors on Tuesday. During that meeting, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval stormed out after he saw that the Pakistan Special Advisor on National Security Moeed Yusuf had used a map of Pakistan that claimed Indian territory.
“This was in blatant disregard to the advisory by the host [Russia] against it and in violation of the norms of the meeting. After consultation with the host, the Indian side left the meeting in protest at that juncture,” the MEA had said about the incident.
When asked, the sources said that no specific guidelines on background or maps have been issued by the SAARC Secretariat in Kathmandu that is also the Chair of the SAARC at present, but they hope it would go “smoothly”. A meeting of SAARC Finance Ministers, where an Additional Secretary represented India instead of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and Pakistan was represented by its Special Advisor on Finance, took place on Wednesday without incident.
An official also pointed to the revival of SAARC cooperation due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, including the creation of an India-led SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund, and exchanges between regional health professionals this year. Speaking at the SAARC Finance Ministers’ meet on Wednesday, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Gyawali said that the COVID-19 crisis has meant the region will experience a contraction of at least 2.7% this year, and will “experience the worst economic performance in the last 40 years”, which adds to the need for SAARC cooperation.
The SAARC Foreign Ministers meeting scheduled for next Thursday is part of an old practice of holding an informal lunch meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Last year, both Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Qureshi attended the meeting, but skipped each other’s speeches. Mr. Jaishankar left early, while Mr. Qureshi entered only after he left.
The meeting’s agenda includes opening remarks by Mr. Gyawali followed by a brief overview by the current SAARC Secretary General, Sri Lankan diplomat Esala R. Weerakoon. Following that, country statements will be made by participating Foreign Ministers, in alphabetical order.
In normal practice, the SAARC Foreign Ministers’ meeting also prepares for the SAARC leaders’ summit that last took place in 2014. Since then, India has refused to participate in the summit as it is due to be hosted in Pakistan. Sources said there was no clarity yet on whether there would be any move to host the summit virtually. At a special SAARC summit on COVID-19 hosted virtually by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 15, Pakistan PM Imran Khan had sent his Special Advisor on Health instead.
Sources said that while India had not agreed to attending a summit hosted in Pakistan, it remains an important promoter of the SAARC process, and continues to provide about 30% of the $3 million operational costs of the SAARC Secretariat.
In the past week in Parliament, the Defence Minister has said that we have not seen transgressions across the LAC with China, but that Chinese troops have been amassed along it. There is hope that the five-point agreement in Moscow last week will bring some peace along the LAC. How do you see the situation?
Ashok Kantha: As the Defence Minister pointed out, we are in the middle of an unprecedented situation. We have had stand-offs along the India-China border in the past, but what’s happening this time is really different. For one, as the Defence Minister noted, the level of troops amassed by China is of a very high order. And we have also undertaken some deployment to match that. The onus has been placed on the border commanders to move towards early disengagement, de-escalation of troops. As you know, that process has not made any headway since the middle of July. There is a glimmer of hope from the Foreign Ministers’ agreement in Moscow. I think there is need for very active involvement and engagement at diplomatic levels, apart from meetings with the border commanders of India and China.
Tanvi Madan: It is clear from what the Defence Minister has said that the Chinese have violated previous agreements on the LAC. So, there’s a lack of trust, and even the Indian Ambassador to China pointed out that there’s been considerable damage to trust between New Delhi and Beijing. So, how do you trust that the new agreement [in Moscow] is going to work? I think there are some parallels with the 1962 war. But there are also limits to those parallels: both China and India are much stronger countries than they were then, and they have dialogue mechanisms, consistent dialogue even today, despite the kind of violations we have seen.
Given the challenge, do you think that the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral is an effective counter to China’s aggression at the LAC?
Tanvi Madan: I think it depends on what you’re trying to counter. I think you could call the Quadrilateral a coalition of the willing to try to deter China in the future, to set the rules of the road in the Indo-Pacific, and to ensure that they are maintained, but it’s not an exclusive arrangement. Did India’s presence in the Quad deter China or the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] from transgressing the boundary? The answer is ‘no’. But that is also not what one should expect from something like this, which is frankly not an alliance.
I think the Quad is useful in terms of what it can do. What can these countries do to enhance Indian capabilities? And what can the Quad do to shape the future balance of power, even the present balance of power, and try to restore deterrence in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific?
Ashok Kantha: We need to look at the Quad in depth, as part of a much larger jigsaw puzzle that we are faced with today. We have to recognize and acknowledge that our relations with China have entered new territory. The basic paradigm governing this relationship over the last three decades has broken down. Now, as we try and deal with an increasingly aggressive and assertive China, which is rising in a situation where the capability gap between India and China is growing, I think the Quad will be useful, but it will not be the answer to the challenge we are facing. When it comes to our continental challenge vis-a-vis China, the Quad will be of fairly limited use to us. Yes, to some extent, we may get support from partner countries bilaterally in matters like intelligence inputs or credible supplies of military hardware, but we are largely on our own when it comes to dealing with the Chinese challenge along the land border. When it comes to the maritime domain, clearly there can be much greater collaboration with like-minded countries, say, in pushing forward the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific and a whole lot of other areas.
We haven’t really seen the Quad emerge from all the questions that were asked about it. For example, right now India is still hesitant to even say that Australia will be a part of the Malabar exercises. Even if that decision has been taken, it has not been announced, presumably because you don’t want to exacerbate the situation with China. What might this Quad coalition actually look like?
Tanvi Madan: I don’t think the litmus test for the Quad is whether Australia will join Malabar. Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. are four democratic anchors in the region which have spelt out what they would like to do together, including maritime security cooperation, providing alternatives to the Belt and Road initiative, cooperation in 5G, cyberspace and other areas like Artificial Intelligence. You even see things like Quad-plus formats thinking about what a post COVID-19 world would look like, not just in terms of the kind of healthcare, but also in things like supply chain resiliency. I think it’s a question of whether Quad countries can establish more habits of cooperation and interoperability. I don’t just mean that in the military sense, that if and when there are scenarios where they need to act together, that could be like the supposed tsunami in disaster relief, but could be something more kinetic. What India needs to do most, which I think has perhaps not been done enough, is use these partnerships for internal balancing, use these partnerships to build India’s own capabilities. The continental and maritime are connected in that sense.
How does this closeness with the U.S. in the Quad impact China’s behaviour? We’ve often heard many diplomats say that China actually comes closer to India when India and the U.S. have a better relationship. How do you think the dynamics work?
Ashok Kantha: Frankly, we have been far too cautious when it comes to developing the Quad or when it comes to developing our own strategic linkages with the U.S. by asking how China would react. A relationship with the U.S. helps in our dealings with China, more so in a situation where the capability gap between India and China is increasing day by day. We have to work with like-minded countries, and that includes the U.S., Japan, Australia and many other countries. At the same time, we have to recognize that what we can achieve through the Quad is limited, it’s still work in progress. So, much more effort needs to be put in, to flesh out the idea of Quad and to see how it can become an effective lateral grouping.
Tanvi Madan: Chinese actions at the boundary have tended to be about bilateral issues between China and India, or how Beijing is looking at the region, or thinking about an assertive posture. The other thing that I think we’ve seen is — and we’ve seen it in the last six months — Beijing has been acting assertively on multiple fronts, regardless of ties with the U.S. So, the Japanese, for example, have been engaging in a major outreach to China over the last few months. But even they are facing this assertiveness from China. The Philippines was hesitating from signing an agreement with the U.S., and they too have been facing this assertiveness from the Chinese. Australians used to be very hesitant about saying anything to the Chinese. And that didn’t prevent the Chinese from pushing against them, which is why you’ve seen the change towards China in Australia in the last few years. So, you cannot let Beijing veto a relationship that is actually helping you strengthen your own ability to balance China, and particularly if it is acting aggressively against you.
How does India’s membership of the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation work with being part of the four-nation Quadrilateral? Do you think India is going to have to choose between these continental and maritime coalitions, or can these contradictions be managed?
Ashok Kantha: I think these contradictions can be managed. It’s possible for us to be part of multilateral groupings which might be seemingly at odds with each other. In fact, the fact that we are part of RIC [Russia-India-China] and BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] and SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organisation] provides a good rationale for more proactive engagement in the Quad setting. What we need to do is to show the requisite strategy, flexibility. China is a fact of life for us. We need to engage with China, though the nature of this engagement is going to change very significantly in the months and years to come.
The Hindu In Focus podcast | Could border tensions with China push India toward accepting a militarisation of the Quad alliance?
Tanvi Madan: India’s motivations for being part of the SCO in particular, but also RIC and BRICS, are three or four. One is to keep Russia on its side for defence but also strategic reasons. Russia continues to be important to India and these institutions and groupings are important to Russia. Second, you do not want to leave a platform to your rivals, that is China and Pakistan. I think the third thing is these are platforms to resolve or try to manage some of these contradictions with those rivals when you might not have other platforms to engage with them during a crisis.
The Quad has a very different purpose, and you do not have any inherent disputes between those four Quad countries. In the SCO, however, you have seen that India declined to participate in this SCO military exercise and then walked out of the NSA [National Security Advisers] meeting because of the Pakistanis showing a new map. And if this becomes a venue for India-Pakistan or India-China tensions in the way SAARC has, then you have to question the SCO’s value.
India may have multiple partnerships, but they are all not equal. This is not a hub and spoke where each of these relationships is equal. And I think the India-Russia relationship could potentially create strains with the U.S. as it has over the S-400 (anti-missile system). All anybody in the West has to do is just sit back and let these contradictions within the SCO play out themselves.