How India and China came to 'the brink of war', and a survey of early Chinese reactions to disengagement

Welcome to today’s The India China Newsletter.

In this issue, I’ll be looking at:

- The takeaways from a revealing interview of the Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. Y.K. Joshi, who said India and China came to the brink of war in August last year— the first time any official has said that

- A survey of some early Chinese reactions to the news of the disengagement, which broke right as China was going into the seven-day shutdown of the new year holiday. So far, I haven’t seen any of the prominent experts or newspapers weigh in, but I’d expect to see more of that in the days ahead as China’s media gets back to work today.

- The spending splurge in China over the lunar new year

Lt. Gen Y.K. Joshi, the Northern Army Commander who also happens to be possibly the Indian Army’s leading China expert (having dealt with the PLA for years, served as a defence attache in Beijing, visited China frequently for military exchanges and fluent in Mandarin), gave a fascinating interview to Shreya Dhoundial at News 18. You can watch it in full at this link. Here’s what caught my eye:

How India’s countermoves were key to the disengagement:

The Kailash Range was occupied with a purpose. The Chinese surprised us initially by occupying parts of our areas -- till Finger 4 of the north bank -- and the negotiations were going nowhere. We had five flag meetings at the Corps Commander level and we were not succeeding in any manner. Then, I got instructions from my chief that we need to gain some leverage. On August 29-30, we launched this operation and occupied the entire dominating heights of Rezang La, Rechin La on the south bank, on the north bank as well, where we were dominating the entire PLA deployment. This was done to gain some success on the negotiating table. This disengagement is happening because we had taken the dominating position on the Kailash range. So, now the purpose has been achieved, we are going back to status quo ante April 2020. Plus, it has also been assured in the 9th Corps Commander Flag meeting, the areas that are now being vacated, will not be occupied.

Q) Would you then say August 29 and 30 were the turning point in this entire standoff, as far as, the areas are concerned?

Absolutely! It was the biggest turning point in this entire situation that was prevailing in east of Ladakh post May 5.

Q) What changed between the 8th Co-Commander meeting and the 9th Corps Commander meeting that the Chinese decide to disengage?

The first five Corps Commander Flag meetings happened before August 29 and 30, when China had a tactical advantage and we were on the back foot. Post August 29, 30, we've had these three flag meetings -- 7th, 8th and 9th. In these meetings, China was looking for a face-saver. Negotiations take time. In these three flag meetings, China realised that we will not be relenting. Our message to them was absolutely clear that we will accept nothing below status quo ante April 2020, which they understood and then relented.

How both sides came to the brink of war:

Q) You have seen the Kargil war. At any point of time did you think that this could blow up in an armed conflict as well?

Well, yes. There were situations where it could have blown up into an armed conflict. This happened after we did our quid pro quo options and we had occupied Rezang La and Rechin La. We had the armour and the mechanised forces sitting on the top of the Kailash Ranges. That was the night of August 29 and 30. On 31, when the PLA wanted to come up right up to the Kailash Ranges, that was the time the situation was extremely tense. Galwan Valley had happened, the red line had been drawn. We had been given absolute free hand to conduct operations the way we wanted. And at that moment, when you see the adversaries trying to come up -- the tank man, the gunner, the rocket launcher and the ATGM could, through the telescope sights, see the adversaries trying to come up the crosses -- the easiest thing to do and for what you are trained is to pull the trigger. That doesn’t need any courage, but the most difficult thing in which we need courage is not to open fire, not to press the trigger. So, we have to be very clear that there was a time when war was actually averted. We were on the edge, we were absolutely on the brink. And those were very tense and very challenging moments for us.

On China’s motivations:

It’s very surprising that they did what they did. I was a brigade commander from 2009-11, when we had only 2 battalions looking after the entire Eastern Ladakh. Since then we have been improving force levels in these areas. We have been improving infrastructure in these areas and we are drawing closer to clarification of the LAC at some stage. The Chinese have realised this and they are looking to shift the claims westwards, acquire more dominating heights, shift the LAC as far as possible till we arrive at a clarification of the LAC. So, that was their aim but then China has achieved nothing post this. They have gone back to status quo ante, all their forces have gone back, and all the landforms have been restored. They just earned a bad name and nothing else.

On Chinese casualties - India lost 20 soldiers in Galwan Valley, China has not yet said how many:

I don’t want to make an estimate. While the incident happened, we had our OPs sitting and observing the area. We were able to count a large number of casualties, which were being picked up on stretchers and taken back. More than 60 actually, but whether they were fatal or non-fatal, we can't say with authority so I will not give a figure. But recently, TASS, the Russian agency had put out a figure of 45 and I think that could be the figure we can look at.

Barring the statements from the Chinese defence ministry and foreign ministry announcing disengagement on February 11, there has been very little in the Chinese press, partly because of the seven-day lunar new year holiday that began on February 12. I’d expect to hear more in the coming days, but a few pieces I’ve seen today shared on WeChat accounts and online, many connected to military focused websites, offer a clue to how the narrative will probably take shape. Sharing a few selected excerpts below - courtesy Google Translate which I’ve cleaned up here and there where it messed up, so please use the translations as a rough guide to what the posts are saying; these only go so far as conveying faithfully the meaning of the posts but aren’t really exact and professional translations.


According to the consensus reached by the ninth round of military commander-level talks between China and India, the frontline forces of the Chinese and Indian armed forces in the southern and northern shores of Pangong lake began to organize disengagement in a synchronized and planned manner on February 10.

In the process, some Indian media claimed that the People's Liberation Army had withdrawn more than 200 main battle tanks in almost one day, and also transferred about 100 heavy vehicles to transfer troops. Such rapid deployment capabilities surprised the Indian military.

The report quoted an Indian government official as saying: "The speed of China's withdrawal since Wednesday demonstrates their deployment capabilities….”

However, with regard to the withdrawal of the People’s Liberation Army described by India, military commentators on Observer Network pointed out that India’s reports of this kind are probably more for the purpose of showing its merits. On the one hand, it exaggerated China’s actions in the Sino-Indian conflict and the size of the troops to create a "brilliant record" for the country’s army, which is a traditional operation that India has continued from 1962 to the present…

On the other hand, the 200 main battle tanks are already equivalent to the size of the PLA's 2 combined brigade/regiment level and it is impossible to deploy all of them in the narrow area on the south bank of Pangong Lake, and they will not be all concentrated on the front line so that the Indian army can observe them in the area.

Paitou Bolan (note the focus on Indian withdrawal, and not Chinese withdrawal - just as with Doklam in 2017 mirror-imaging in what both sides are saying about the other is just uncanny…)

There are many interpretations about the Indian army's choice to withdraw troops at this time, and there are probably three reasons for this: one is that the epidemic in India is raging, the economy is severely damaged, and the border problem has increased the disputes within the Indian government; the second is Biden’s China strategy has been adjusted. It is not as radical as during the Trump era. The United States’ China policy has changed, which has also affected India’s decision-making to a certain extent. The third is the harsh border conditions between China and India. The physical fitness and logistical support of soldiers are also considered to be inferior to the PLA.

This withdrawal means that China and India intend to control the conflict within a certain range. Although the Sino-Indian border issue is difficult to resolve quickly, there will not be another border war of the scale of 1962 between China and India.

Unlike in 1962, this time India did not misjudge China's determination and strength to defend its territorial integrity. In 1962, the Nehru government, then prime minister of India, always believed that China would not use force in the conflict, and even after the conflict in the eastern section of the Sino-Indian border, still seriously misjudged China’s determination, so it boldly followed the "forward policy."

This time, unlike 1962, the Chinese army did not retreat under Indian military pressure. Instead, it chose to increase its troops while increasing supplies to the frontline troops. These actions sent a clear signal to the Indian army: Don’t underestimate China’s defense. The determination of territorial integrity.

In addition, when the Modi government made decisions, these was less affected by its own nationalism, which is also an important reason why the conflict did not slip into war. The Indian media played an inciting role in the conflict, constantly agitating Indian nationalist sentiments, and even made up some appalling fake news in order to gain attention. But on the whole, nationalist sentiments have limited influence on the Modi government.

So, is it possible that this withdrawal agreement will be broken? Considering from many aspects, the possibility of the agreement being destroyed is still very high, because India may face a backlash and its international reputation is not very good. However, the current situation is very unfavourable for India. Even if the Indian army maintains the same scale deployment as the People's Liberation Army on the front line, it will be painful and laborious for them. China’s current strategic focus is not in the west. For India, perhaps the wisest choice is to take this opportunity to end the confrontation and focus on resolving domestic issues.

Military academy thirty four

Just a few days ago, in the evacuation video released by the Indian media, the Indian T-72 and BMP-2 armored vehicles can be clearly seen, while our retreating armed forces can only see relatively old tanks such as 88A. What's interesting is that the Indian media also adjusted the video playback speed quite "schemingly". When the picture of the Indian army appeared, the speed increased and the tank appeared to be highly mobile. When it came to our army tank, the playback speed was slowed down, which appeared to be slow.

A photo that we released afterwards let the Indian media see it. The photo shows that when the People's Liberation Army evacuated at the Reqin Pass (Rechin La), there were at least a dozen tanks at the scene. Although the picture was not clear enough, at least 6 Type 99A main battle tanks could still be distinguished. If the Type 88 tank is at best tied with the Indian T-72, then the 99A is a crushing presence in front of the T-72 tank.

The image of the 99A tank on the plateau appeared "accidentally" in an official video a few days ago, and it was not introduced as a key point at the time. This time, China generously publicized the situation on the front line and showed the real situation to the people of China and India. This made everyone realize that our military deployment is much stronger than imagined.

From the details of our army's withdrawal from the confrontation scene, we can see these points.

One is to show strong military confidence. Some people worry that the Indian army has always been engaged in petty thefts. What if they cannot leave after our army has withdrawn? In fact, there is no need to worry. Since our army has the ability to transfer hundreds of main battle tanks and all officers and soldiers in one day, it also has the ability to transfer more troops in a short time…

The second is to show a strong guarantee capability. It is not easy to deploy troops on the plateau. Roads, traffic, transportation, food, and ammunition all require a strong support network. The confrontation between the Chinese and Indian militaries since last year was only with the help of a group of friendly nations and it barely lasted for a few months, and it is now at the end of the fight.

The third is to show a strong level of industrialization. The gap in the deployment capabilities of the two militaries is actually the gap in the level of industrialization between the two countries. To some extent, India can only be regarded as an agricultural country, and its industrialization has just begun. China is a country that has fully entered industrialization and has reached a considerable degree of informatization. The clean withdrawal of our troops is a demonstration of strong industrialization capabilities. In the face of the industrialized power, no amount of eggs can dash against a stone.

Cheng Yijun, Shibao Kandian

With the cooling of the Sino-Indian border situation, Sino-Indian relations have also begun to pick up, and China-India bilateral economic and trade cooperation seems to have entered a new situation.

British media reported that as border tensions eased and the cold relations between neighboring countries began to thaw, India is preparing to approve some new investment proposals from China in the coming weeks. " In addition, the Indian government is still considering allowing some Chinese companies to invest in certain industries "automatically approved” route, or without government review.

It seems that India has finally given up its "face". Prior to this, since the Sino-Indian border conflict broke out, India has begun "all-round retaliation" against China. For example, the sudden termination of commercial cooperation, the boycott of Chinese products, and the ban on Chinese apps... all kinds of mischievous tricks were frequently used, and the results did not hurt the opponent much, but instead the people of the country.

Although the process has been bumpy, it seems that China-India relations are moving in a positive direction. Faced with this scene, the United States is the most unhappy one! In the eyes of the United States, India is a pawn to contain China and an important part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Even after the Biden administration took office, the United States showed no signs of softening its Asian security strategy.

On February 18, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and the foreign ministers of Japan, Australia and India will hold an online "four party talks” [ie Quad]. In fact, Washington has been trying to promote the establishment of a "four-party security dialogue" among the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, in an attempt to counterbalance China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

The United States very much hopes that India can get close to the United States on the issue of China and become China's enemy. But now that the Indian side has released a positive signal to China, China-India relations are also likely to "reconcile".

Of course, Russia is also happy to see the cooling of Sino-Indian relations.

Next, India will naturally be pressured by the United States. On February 12, a magazine published an article analyzing that the United States may impose sanctions on India, which will seriously affect the relationship between the United States and India. According to the US’s CAATSA act, if a country purchases weapons and equipment from a hostile country, the United States will impose corresponding sanctions on it. India’s purchase of the S-400 has always been a knot in the United States’ mind.

Of course, India’s purchase of the S400 can also be seen as India’s “true thoughts”. With regard to the border issue, India may only be a temporary compromise. As long as the domestic farmers’ protests and demonstrations are over, Modi may not be sure and may want to come to the border area to make trouble.

Regarding the withdrawal of troops from the Sino-Indian border, many Indian media boasted that the initial withdrawal agreement was a "victory of the Modi government." In addition, some officials boasted that India’s ability to “convince China, the rising superpower with the world’s largest standing army and rising superpower, to return to their permanent base is a remarkable achievement.”

To sum up, India’s reports are still “beautifying” itself, which also shows that India’s “speculative” nature remains unchanged, and it is bound to take the opportunity to make trouble in the future. For China, we must maintain a high degree of vigilance. I have to guard against it.

Guofang Shibao Paitou Bing

After more than nine months of confrontation, the Chinese and Indian armed forces finally heard good news at the border.

As soon as the news came out, the people of the two countries breathed a sigh of relief, which means that the policy of getting along set by the leaders of China and India has been effectively implemented.

After the disengagement order was issued, the Chinese border forces moved quickly and retreated within a short period of time. This has quickly become the focus of coverage of many Indian media.

The speed of the Chinese army has surprised the senior Indian army and national security policymakers. They said, "The retreat of the Chinese troops is too fast. This is enough to show the mobile deployment capabilities of the Chinese troops."

The Indian withdrawal rate was also faster than expected.

The rapid withdrawal of troops by both sides shows the attitude of the two countries to resolve the issue. This has paved the way for the next step of negotiations between the two armies. It is reported that the senior commanders of the two armies are likely to conduct the tenth round of military negotiations in late February to discuss disengagement at other friction points.

Some analysts said that the reason why China and India reached an agreement to withdraw troops at the same time was because the high levels of the two countries did not want Sino-Indian relations to decline rapidly. After all, in the past half a year of the confrontation, the two countries have been sluggish in exchanges and cooperation in the fields of politics, economy, and science and technology, which seriously affected the relations between the two countries.

For India, the Sino-Indian border confrontation is very unfavorable for the Indian government to handle domestic affairs. The epidemic is severe, which has led to tight fiscal expenditures; farmers protested, causing people to complain. On the other hand, China has effectively contained the epidemic and the economy has fully recovered. If India continues to confront China, it will inevitably fall behind more economically, and it will not help solve various domestic problems.

However, the Modi government issued an order to withdraw troops, which was disapproved by the opposition party and some figures in the strategic circles. They believe that Modi is "a coward who cannot fight China." However, some Indian media who do not understand the situation boasted that the initial withdrawal agreement was a "victory for the Modi government."

Someone asked, is there any US factor in the rapid easing of Sino-Indian relations?

The author believes that this is mostly the consensus of the top leaders of China and India, but the US factor is not excluded.

At the time of the Spring Festival, Sun Weidong, the Chinese Ambassador to India, published a signed article in the Indian media on February 10. The article is very clear about China-India relations. China and India are both large developing countries, both at the critical stage of development and revitalization, and both shoulder the historical mission of developing the economy and improving people's livelihood. The cooperation between the two sides far outweighs the differences, and the common interests far outweigh the contradictions.

After the Biden administration came to power, it continued to observe and test China, and finally defined its relationship with China as a "competitive relationship" instead of the "antagonistic relationship" during the Trump era. This greatly reduced the trend of confrontation between the two countries.

Prior to this, India was also watching the development of Sino-US relations. Some analysts say that if the Biden administration, like its predecessor, ran against China unprincipled-ly, and viewed China as an enemy, India is likely to follow in the footsteps of the United States and increase its efforts against China. Now, Biden has eased his attitude towards China, which has also allowed India to change its attitude towards China. After all, the influence of China and the United States on the world is much greater than the influence of India on the world.

However, the Biden administration attaches great importance to the Indo-Pacific strategy and stated that it will stand with friends, partners and allies to promote the common prosperity, security and values of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. In this regard, China must not take it lightly.

At present, US-India military cooperation and strategic coordination are constantly strengthening. The U.S. wants to draw India into its own camp to contain China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. India wants to use the United States to expand its bargaining chips with neighboring countries.

It is a good thing for China and India to lift the confrontation and resolve the dispute through negotiation. But negotiations do not mean to relax guards. The Chinese military will always be vigilant and not let an inch of land be lost.

And finally…

The last week has been good for consumption in China. The South China Morning Post reports:

Chinese consumers spent about 821 billion yuan (US$127 billion) on shopping and dining during this year’s Spring Festival holiday, an increase from 2020 but still below the amount in 2019, which was over 1 trillion yuan, according to government data.

China has been battling Covid-19 outbreaks in a number of provinces this year. As a result, the annual Lunar New Year mass migration home and consumption were disrupted as health authorities required people from high- and medium-risk areas to spend the holiday where they worked or studied, and avoid large gatherings or unnecessary travel.

The 2021 figure, released on Wednesday by China’s Ministry of Commerce, also revealed the hit to last year’s holiday spending, as statistics for that period were not published last year.

Consumption for the holiday in 2021 saw a 28.7 per cent increase from 2020, which meant last year’s spending stood at about 638 billion yuan.

“2020 was a highly unusual year that saw complicated domestic and international macro-environments, especially due to the serious impact from Covid-19,” said a January 2021 report by the Ministry of Commerce that evaluated consumption in the last year.

“The pandemic has hit the consumer market like never before, with the total retail sales of consumer goods falling by 20.5 per cent compared to the same time last year,” the report said.

But as the outbreak came under control, consumption rebounded. Total retail sales of consumer goods recorded positive growth again in August last year, and maintained a growing trend in the past five months, reflecting the vitality of China’s domestic demand, said the ministry report. China was the only major economy in the world to record economic growth in 2020, at 2.3 per cent. The World Bank estimated a 3.6 per cent contraction for the US economy last year and 7.4 per cent drop for the euro zone.

Thank you for reading this issue!