Politics over the LAC crisis
Welcome to The India China Newsletter.
In today's longer than usual issue - you may wish to click on the headline to read in your browser - I'll be looking at the political storm in India over the past week over the crisis along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
I try and not pay too much attention to political debates on the border only because a lot of it is noise and fleeting, and doesn’t necessarily have a substantive impact on the relationship.
Last week however, four different issues regarding China all came up around the same time and became embroiled in a quite heated political debate: a flag raising ceremony held by the PLA in Galwan Valley; the issuing of ‘standardised’ names for 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh by the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs; the construction of a bridge across Pangong Lake by China; and a letter from the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi to MPs protesting their attendance at a Tibet event.
All of these ended up in an all-out political slanging match. The opposition accused the government of bowing to China and of obfuscation. The government meanwhile accused the opposition of playing politics with national security and not backing it when it should. In this newsletter, I’ll try and break down what those issues are and ask if the ‘noise’ is merited, and will look at how domestic politics is impacting the government’s options in dealing with the border crisis.
In the previous issue, I mentioned the somewhat strange start to the New Year with an exchange of sweets along the LAC in 10 posts, including in some of the sites of recent tensions, even as China issued “standardised names” for 15 places in Arunachal. There was also this tweet on New Year’s Day by a reporter with Chinese state broadcaster China Global Television Network sharing a video that was widely shared in the Chinese media:
This tweet led to a storm on social media, and the opposition Congress party’s spokesperson had this to say:
"Mr Prime Minister, the entire country and the world want to know as to how the Chinese unfurled the Chinese flag in Galwan Valley and wrote in the Chinese language that they will not give an inch of land back. Why is the Prime Minister quiet and silent? Why is the Defence Minister not uttering a word? It is a bounden duty of our government and Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to ensure that Chinese transgression into India's territories is defeated decisively.”
Then followed the news of the construction of the bridge across Pangong Lake. My colleague Dinakar Peri explained the significance in The Hindu (partial paywall):
China is constructing a bridge in Eastern Ladakh connecting the North and South Banks of Pangong Tso which would significantly bring down the time for People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to move troops and equipment between the two sectors, two official sources independently confirmed on Monday. “On the North Bank there is a PLA garrison at Kurnak fort and on the South Bank at Moldo and the distance between the two is around 200 kms. The new bridge between the closest points on two banks which is around 500m will bring down movement time between the two sectors from around 12 hours to 3-4 hours,” one of the sources said. The bridge is located around 25 kms ahead of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the source stated.
NOTE: ‘25 km ahead of the LAC’ means 25 km on the Chinese side of the LAC.
This led Rahul Gandhi of the Congress to tweet:
Then we had the development of a political counsellor in the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi ill-advisedly warn Indian Members of Parliament to not attend a Tibetan event. From The Hindu (partial paywall):
The Embassy of China has written to a group of parliamentarians asking them to “refrain” from supporting the cause of Tibetan independence. The move, which is being interpreted as a rare and undiplomatic interference, came after six MPs from the All-Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet attended a meeting at a Delhi hotel.
“As is known to all, the so-called ‘Tibetan Government-in-Exile’ is an out-and-out separatist political group and an illegal organisation completely in violation of China’s Constitution and laws. It is not recognised by any country in the world,” wrote Zhou Yongsheng, Political Counsellor of the Chinese Embassy in India.
I’ve seen the message sent to the MPs. It began saying the Chinese Embassy “noticed” they had attended an event and said they “would like to express our concern” before going on to say it hoped they “could understand the sensitivity of the issue and refrain from providing support to Tibetan independence forces”.
All of this led to a chorus of accusations of China’s muscle-flexing and the Indian government’s reticence in calling it out. The Ministry of External Affairs reacted somewhat belatedly, and had this to say at its weekly press conference on January 6 (excerpts):
On the Galwan video:
I think the media reports that you are referring to or have been by all these journalists are not factually correct. And various Indian media outlets have released photographs contradicting the claims. So I really don't have much to say on that anymore.
On the renaming of places (which the MEA had immediately reacted to earlier on the same day it was done, but this was a stronger response):
Calling Tuting as "DouDeng” or River Siyom as "XiYueMu” or even Kibithu as "Daba” does not alter the fact that Arunachal Pradesh has always been and will always remain an inalienable part of India. We hope that instead of engaging in such antics, China will work constructively with us to resolve the outstanding friction points in areas along the Western Sector of the Line of Actual Control in India-China border areas.
On the Pangong Lake bridge construction:
Regarding reports about a bridge being made by the Chinese side on Pangong lake, government has been monitoring this activity closely. This bridge is being constructed in areas that have been under the illegal occupation by China for around 60 years now. As you're well aware, India has never accepted such illegal occupation.
On the letter to the MPs:
We have seen reports about the political counsellor at the Chinese Embassy, writing letters to Honourable Members of Parliament on their participation at an event. The substance, tone and tenor of the letter are inappropriate. The Chinese side should note that India is a vibrant democracy and Honourable Members of Parliament as representatives of the people undertake activities as per their views and beliefs. We expect the Chinese side to refrain from hyping normal activities by Honourable Members of Parliament and complicate further the situation in our bilateral relations.
So what do we make of the four issues and the subsequent debate about them?
I would view these four issues separately. Make no mistake, I think they all are important insofar as reminding us that for China the border issue is front and centre again as its actions on the LAC have already shown since the summer of 2020. The border has also become important in terms of the PLA’s domestic propaganda, which is another new development. At the same time, as I’ll explain, the Galwan video and the renaming are mostly signalling with no real tangible impact on the ground.
The bridge across Pangong Lake will, however, have a tangible impact even if it’s across the LAC on the Chinese side, and is part of a number of recent moves to upgrade infrastructure in forward areas, as the previous issue of this newsletter discussed, and is hence worth noting.
The lecturing of Indian MPs, to me, is a snapshot of China’s current mood at the moment, even if it was in my view, entirely counterproductive. It may have pleased the higher-ups in the MFA in Beijing (something that guides diplomats’ behaviour more than we realise) but at the end of the day, I would say the net result is it will all but guarantee that the MPs attend the event next year (and only further worsen perceptions of China as far as the Indian public opinion is concerned).
I would note that both the Galwan video and Pangong construction are as far as we know on China’s side of the LAC so in my view, it is somewhat unreasonable to demand action being taken on something happening on the other side of the LAC. That detail seems to have gotten lost in the noise. In that sense, this is very different from the LAC transgressions (more of that later in this issue).
In my perhaps unpopular view, the response to the Galwan flag video was, for this reason, an overreaction. The flag video, I understand, was not in or near the buffer zone and somewhere on the Chinese side of the LAC in Galwan. People have probably forgotten that even well before the LAC crisis, there were such videos routinely shot, for instance, on the Chinese side of the LAC on Pangong Lake, designed to show the Chinese audience that the lake belonged to China (leaving aside the fact that it was only a part of the lake that was under Chinese control). I wonder how many people were aware that even prior to 2020, most of the Galwan Valley lay on the Chinese side of the LAC, except the area up to 1 km east of the bend of the river, marked by the pin below:
The LAC in India’s view ran around 1 km east of the pin. Since April 2020, China has been contesting that LAC and claiming it lies on the bend, which is what Chinese maps show as China’s border, pushing the LAC around 1 km westward (so the entire dispute is over this stretch which is now a buffer zone). The Chinese could have pretty much carried out the flag raising anywhere in this image above from the pin to the far bottom right hand of the map and still claim they were in Galwan Valley, although this entire stretch has largely been under Chinese control since at least 1962. I’m not sure how many people would have gotten this distinction.
In any case, given the attention of last week, I’m sure the Chinese military and media are only going to put out more stuff that not only serves the domestic agenda at home but riles up people in India and puts the Modi government under pressure. I’m guessing even they were probably surprised by the furore caused by the Galwan video, no doubt for them pleasantly so. So I was not in the least bit surprised to see this in the Global Times over the weekend, right on cue:
The Western Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army debuted on Chinese social media on Friday, drawing applause from netizens hoping to be a lucky winner of a special gift sent by the command - a stone taken from the Galwan Valley. Such a move happened to be the latest episode of recent stories centered on the Galwan Valley following Indian media's hyping of Chinese soldiers' oath-taking video in the place.
The PLA theater command opened its official account on Twitter like Sina Weibo on Friday and released a notice that on February 1 it will randomly choose 10 lucky netizens from those who reposted the notice and send them a stone from the Galwan Valley as a present. A picture with Chinese soldiers patrolling the Galwan Valley, with a rockface seen in the post reading in Chinese characters "Splendid landscape, no inch to give up" was posted together with the notice. The post quickly went viral across the internet, with many netizens not only reposting the notice but also leaving comments in the hope that they would win one of the lucky stones.
So they could pretty much take a pebble from anywhere in that map deep into the Chinese side and still crow about it being “in Galwan Valley”. Expect to see a lot more of this given how much consideration is being put towards “winning the narrative”, both domestically and abroad.
The larger problem is nothing of all what I’ve said above has been conveyed by anyone in government. It took seven days for a response to the Galwan video, and when it came, it was hardly ideal. Rather than explain the geography of the valley - you can hardly expect people to know where the LAC runs, it leaves even folks who follow this issue scratching their heads from time to time - you had more reticence. We also had the Indian Army putting out its own photographs from the valley that were tweeted by Government ministers (a new year celebration four days late, and an obvious response to the Chinese flag video.)
You also had a somewhat bizarre effort at trying to claim that the Chinese flag raising was, pardon the pun, a false flag drama staged by actors. Here’s one such article, from the website Opindia - it was one of several articles making this claim (and these links were, I am reliably told, shared with Indian reporters by people close to the government):
The communist government in China have been left red-faced after some users on the Chinese social media platform Weibo revealed that the Xi Jinping government used Chinese actors to shoot the entire propaganda video on Galwan Valley. It may be recalled that the video was shared by journalist Shen Shiwei and CCP mouthpiece Global Times wherein PLA personnel were seen unfurling the China flag at what they claimed to be the Galwan Valley. The Weibo users have pointed out that that the CCP staged the dramatic flag-raising event on the first day of 2022 with Chinese actor Wu Jung and his wife Xie Nan.
This was, safe to say, not the best rebuttal. Leave aside the fact that the actor Wu Jing is misspelled “Wu Jung”, that the CCTV reporter looks nothing like his wife, and that using a widely popular household name such as Wu Jing to stage a video — it would be like India using Salman Khan or the U.S. using The Rock for a comparable exercise - defies all logic, the articles were then picked up by Chinese media and social media, and amplified to show the incompetence of the Indian media. The ‘actors’ story, incidentally, made it to the most watched English language prime time news show:
Some thoughts here on the government's response.
As I said, the furore on the flag was an overreaction, and the opposition doesn’t come out looking very good in all of this. But I’m less concerned by opposition behaviour, as misinformed as it is, as they aren’t running the government and this is an opposition doing what an opposition always does. Accusing them of being anti-national or not supporting the government won’t solve the problem. Rewinding to what Prime Minister Modi had to say when in opposition in 2013 during the Depsang stand-off:
“China comes into our border and occupies land. What do we do? We make deals with China by withdrawing from our own land. I ask the PM what is happening in this country? Why are we so soft?”
He said it is shameful that the external affairs minister, despite the repeated incursions by China,went to Beijing and praised the city, going to the extent of saying that he wished he could stay there.
Moreover it is unrealistic to expect the opposition to toe the line when at every stage the initial attempt has been to answer as little as possible about the LAC crisis rather than try and take them along on what’s a serious matter of national security. Last month, the Indian Express reported:
Parliament question asked in Rajya Sabha on whether the Chinese crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh has been disallowed citing national security as the reason, BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy has alleged. “It is hilarious if not tragic for Rajya Sabha Secretariat to inform me today that my Question whether the Chinese have crossed the LAC in Ladakh, cannot be allowed “ because of national interest”!!!” he tweeted on Wednesday.
A final word: If there’s silence, noise will always fill a vacuum. If the general practice of wanting to say as little as possible wasn’t being followed, the fallout of the controversies of the last week could have been easily avoided or at least mitigated. Not doing so creates more space for more Chinese propaganda - Galwan Valley stones now, Pangong Lake water next? - which in turn, if not responded to credibly, will only lead to more pressure in a vicious cycle. And there’s a larger problem here which explains to some extent the reason behind the silence and which is more troubling, which is that right from the beginning, the concern has been as much (if not more) about protecting the image of the government than being fully transparent.
All of this, incidentally, has been taking place in the lead-up to the 14th round of military-level talks on the LAC, which are taking place on Wednesday, January 12, after quite a long gap. The last round in October ended with both sides accusing the other (India of China stalling and not offering any forward looking proposals, China of India making ‘unreasonable’ demands).
Krishn Kaushik at the Indian Express reminds us where things are:
Of the friction points that had, according to the government, come up in May 2020, disengagement has taken place in four out of five, while Hot Springs remains outstanding. However, there are two other points in the region that remain unresolved.
In Depsang Plains, close to India’s Daulat Beg Oldi base, Chinese troops are blocking Indian soldiers from accessing their traditional patrolling limits: PP10, PP11, PP11A, PP12 and PP13. In Demchok, some “so-called civilians” have pitched tents on the Indian side of the Charding Nala, which marks the LAC. Till now, the two sides have disengaged from PP14 in Galwan Valley, north and south banks of Pangong Tso, and PP17A in Gogra Post. The first disengagement took place in Galwan Valley just days after the deadly clashes in June 2020, in which 20 Indian and at least four Chinese troops were killed. After that, there was a long stalemate, and China refused to move from other areas.
At the end of August 2020 Indian troops outmanoeuvered Chinese forces to capture previously unoccupied heights of Kailash Range in the Chushul sub-sector south of the Pangong lake. The heights, including Mukhpari, Gurung Hill, Rezang La and Rechin La allowed India to dominate not only the strategically sensitive Spanggur Gap, but also China’s Moldo Garrison. In subsequent days, Indian troops also occupied positions above the Chinese troops on the north bank of Pangong Tso in the finger area. Warning shots were fired by both sides during this jostling for heights. Troops and tanks were barely a few hundred metres apart at some of these positions in the Kailash Range, and in an unprecedented deployment, soldiers spent harsh winters at these heights.
It was during the discussions between the Corps Commanders in January 2021 that a breakthrough was achieved. In February 2021, both sides pulled back their soldiers and tanks from the forward positions on the north and south bank of Pangong Tso, including the Kailash Range positions. The next thaw came in July 2021, as the two sides reached an agreement to disengage from PP17A in Gogra Post. In all the positions where the disengagement has taken place, a temporary no-patrol zone has been created. Both India and China have over 50,000 troops each in the eastern Ladakh theatre, along with additional missiles, air defence assets, tanks and artillery guns.
Rajat Pandit at the Times of India adds that while there could be some progress on PP15, Demchok and Depsang remain two difficult-to-resolve issues:
Sources, however, said any resolution of the much more tougher stand-offs at the Charding Ninglung Nallah (CNN) track junction at Demchok and the strategically-located Depsang Plains, followed by overall de-escalation along the frontier in eastern Ladakh, is not on the horizon as of now. The Depsang Bulge, in particular, remains a major hotspot. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been actively blocking Indian soldiers, around 18-km inside what India considers its own territory, from even going to their traditional PPs-10, 11, 12, 12A and 13 in Depsang since April-May 2020.
COMMENT: So here’s where we are at: very modest hopes of progress while 100,000 soldiers from both sides remain deployed in forward areas that are seeing additional infrastructure being constructed, all while the domestic politics on the LAC is getting increasingly heated….
Finally, two reading recommendations to leave you with on the LAC issue:
Praveen Swami writes in The Print on the dilemma Delhi faces and it’s worth reading in full:
The worst-case scenario, then, would be for New Delhi to be drawn into a Line of Control-like commitment to defend each centimetre of its territory against a logistically superior adversary. Instead of seeking to match each PLA bridge, road or battalion, it needs to focus on long-term military capacity development and modernisation, even at the cost of territorial concessions.
For developing such a policy, though, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will need to transparently communicate his dilemma to the public, and build a consensus on next steps—no small ask for a leader whose public image is built on machismo.
Sushant Singh writes in The Hindu (partial paywall):
Delhi has run out of proactive options against Beijing that will force the Chinese leadership to change course on its India policy. Tibet and the Dalai Lama were often projected as a trump card but evidently are not. Beijing does not care for its declining popularity among the Indian populace….The best Delhi can do is to prevent any further loss of territory to China with extensive military deployment on the LAC, while hoping that Beijing, either with Moscow’s urging or otherwise, will give Mr. Modi an honourable diplomatic exit out of this crisis.
That’s it for this issue, and thank you for reading. The newsletter will be back next week including with an update on the 14th round of the border talks as well as an update on the Chinese economy and how it’s handling the costs of the still in force “Zero Covid” approach, here in Hong Kong and on the mainland, even as China continues to battle fresh local outbreaks.
Enjoy the rest of your weekend, stay safe, and see you soon.