China never provided tenable explanation for 2020 border actions: Jaishankar

Sep 27, 2023 08:43 AM IST

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Jaishankar offered perhaps the most elaborate explanation in recent times of India’s border crisis with China

External affairs minister S Jaishankar has said that China never provided a “tenable” explanation for its actions at the border in 2020 and that India warned Beijing after it amassed troops that the situation could lead to trouble before the Galwan clash took place, and China’s violation of agreements have immediate, medium term and even possibly long term implications.

S Jaishankar, external affairs minister. (Bloomberg)
S Jaishankar, external affairs minister. (Bloomberg)

He said China’s actions have disrupted ties and contacts and left the relationship in an abnormal state with “a high level of military tension”, and impacted public sentiment in India, warning that tensions between the two biggest countries of Asia will have consequences for the world.

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Acknowledging the increase in Chinese naval presence and activity in the Indian Ocean, Jaishankar said that past governments perhaps underestimated the importance of port development by the Chinese. He added that India will prepare assuming greater Chinese naval activity in the region, and pointed out that the relative reduction in US presence in the region had left space for “problem actors” who were more technologically adept.

Speaking to Kenneth Juster, who was the US ambassador to India when the Galwan clash happened in 2020, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Jaishankar offered perhaps the most elaborate explanation in recent times of India’s border crisis with China, how things went wrong due to China’s opaqueness and actions, the nature of the current stalemate acknowledging high levels of tensions, and the scale and implications of China’s actions in the maritime space in the Indian Ocean and Quad’s role in the maritime domain.

“We cautioned the Chinese”: The 2020 story

When Juster asked him whether there was any explanation for China’s actions in 2020 and about the future of India-China relations, Jaishankar said, “One of the pleasures of dealing with China is that they never quite tell you why they do things. So you often end up trying to figure it out. There is a certain ambiguity up there.”

Recalling that he had been ambassador to China between 2009 (“immediately after the global financial crisis”) and 2013 and had seen the “change of guard” — Xi Jinping took over in that period, an elevation that led to China’s aggressive foreign policy and security behaviour in the subsequent decade — Jaishankar acknowledged that the relationship had not been an easy one, with the war in 1962 and other military incidents. After 1975, however, the minister said, there had been no combat fatality at the border.

Tracing the history of ties, Jaishankar said that with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, relations were normalised. “In 1993 and 1996, we did two agreements with China to stabilise the boundary. Boundary, by the way, is disputed and negotiations are going on. In the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it was agreed that neither of us would mass troops but if we brought more than a certain number of troops, we would inform the other side,” the minister said.

There were then subsequent agreements in 2005 and 2012, Jaishankar said. “In many ways, it was a unique situation. What would happen in the boundary areas was that troops on either side would step out of military bases - they had designated bases, they would do their patrolling, and they would come back to their bases. If they happened to intersect, there were clear rules about how they would conduct themselves, and use of firearms was prohibited.”

This was how it was till 2020. But then, Jaishankar said, when India was in the middle of a Covid lockdown, and China had managed to get the first wave of Covid behind it, India saw “Chinese troops, in very large numbers” moving to LAC. It was in this context of a complete lockdown that India had to “mobilise and counter deploy”, which India did.

“We had a situation where we were understandably worried that troops were much too close. We cautioned the Chinese that such a situation could create problems. And sure enough, in the middle of June 2020, it did. We had a clash in which 20 of our soldiers died. They claim four of their soldiers died but it is again one of the things we will never know,” Jaishankar said

The minister said that “before that, during that, and after that”, he had been in regular touch with his counterpart and other colleagues had spoken to their counterparts. “At various points, the Chinese have given different explanations. None of them are really tenable.”

Abnormal, high level of tension”: Post-2020 stalemate

Since that point, Jaishankar said, they had been trying to disengage since both countries have forward deployment ahead of their regular bases. “We have been partially successful. Out of let’s say 10 places, we would have resolved seven or eight of those forward deployments. There are still some we are discussing,” he said, perhaps alluding to the impasse that persists over Demchok and Depsang.

The basic problem, however, Jaishankar said, was that a large number of troops remained amassed at the border “in violation of agreements”.

This, he said, had “completely impacted” the relationship. “Because it is very hard to try to be normal with a country that has broken agreements and done what it has done. If you look at the last three years, it is a very abnormal state, contacts have been disrupted, visits are not taking place, and we have, of course, this high level of military tension. It has also impacted the perception of China in India. It was not positive in the 1960s and 70s because of the war we had in 1962. But we had started to put that behind us when this has happened,” Jaishankar said.

He added there was an immediate issue, a medium-term issue, and possibly, longer than medium-term issues. “If you have really the two biggest countries of Asia, of the world, with that degree of tension between them, it has consequences for everybody else.”

“Prepare for more presence”: China in the Indian Ocean

Asked later in the conversation about Chinese motivations in the Indian Ocean — with the questioner suggesting that the term “string of pearls” was perhaps too benign — and what Quad should be doing in that regard, Jaishankar began by saying, “Pearls look benign unless you ask the oysters,” as the audience laughed, in on the code that China’s actions have been anything but benign in the waters.

Locating the increased activity to the bigger size of the Chinese navy, the minister said, “Yes, if one were to look at the last 20-25 years, there has been a steady increase in Chinese naval presence and activity in the Indian Ocean. But there has been a very sharp increase in the size of the Chinese navy. When you have a much bigger navy, that navy will obviously be visible in terms of deployment somewhere. I guess when you come out of the east coast of China, you go into the Pacific or turn westwards and to the Indian Ocean.”

In India’s case, Jaishankar said, it had seen port activity, port-building activity, referring to Hambantota and Gwadar among others.

“Looking back, governments and policymakers of the day perhaps underestimated the importance of this and how these ports could work in the future. Each one is a little unique. Certainly, we obviously do watch many of them very carefully for any security implications they have for us. From an Indian point of view, I would say it is very reasonable for us to try and prepare, not to actually prepare, for a far greater Chinese presence than we have seen before.”

But along with this, Jaishankar said, maritime concerns were not between just two countries but issues for countries to deal with, referring to issues such as piracy smuggling, and terrorism. “If there is no authority, no monitoring, no force out there to actually enforce rule of law, it’s a problem.” Jaishankar then said that if examined historically, the US presence today was much less than in the past. “What it has done is it has left gaps when threats have increased because problem forces, problem people are much more technologically adept than they were before”.

But he said that he did not think of Quad as a grouping pointed towards another country, terming this as a bit “old fashioned”, and underlined there were global commons to be safeguarded and concerns out there which were better addressed if Quad countries worked together. He then gave an example of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

“When we had the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, the biggest and very speedy naval presence was of the US. If something happens today, I am not sure whether God Forbid something happens today, we will see a repetition of that. Times have changed. Capabilities have changed. Force levels have changed. And among those that have gone up, China is one of them.” Jaishankar then added, quite pointedly, “But there are countries which we work with. And there are others which we do not work with or work less with. And you can see that.”

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