Year after Gogra trespass, PLA dragging feet over restoring status quo ante
On May 17-18, 2020, Chinese troops of the South Xinjiang military district transgressed into areas of Kugrang nullah, a tributary of the Chang Chemo river, near patrolling point 15, north of Hot Springs, patrolling point 17 A Gogra and north of Pangong Tso.
It is quite evident that the military move had sanction from the Central Military Commission (CMC) headed by President Xi Jinping, as a deliberate and calculated attempt was made to unilaterally change the status quo on the ground with Western Theatre Commander tasked to impose the 1959 line on 1597 km Line of Actual Control (LAC) in East Ladakh. The 1959 line runs through Kongka La, general area Kugrang river, and finger four of the north bank of the saltwater lake and the Galwan Valley. The 1959 line was categorically rejected by India at that time only.
Nearly a year after the transgression at Kugrang and after 11 rounds of military dialogue, the military situation along the 3,488 km LAC is largely stable with China heavily investing in the construction of aircraft hangers to guard against Indian airstrikes and dramatically increasing connectivity to its last posts on the border through optical fibre cables, high tech camera and surveillance radars. The only fully disengagement and de-escalation completed between two sides is at the Galwan river and that too after the Indian Army refused to allow PLA to cross the patrolling point 14, resulting in bloody clashes that led to casualties on both sides.
While the PLA has taken the first disengagement steps north and south of Pangong Tso due to Indian counter-move on August 29-30, 2020, the military commanders of the two sides are now trying to restore the status quo ante in the Gogra-Hot Springs area. The process despite interventions at the level of State Councillor and foreign minister has been very laborious with Xi Jinping wanting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to resume business as usual without resolving the fundamental friction between the two countries.
To add to Indian discomfort is a raging pandemic with origins in Wuhan in November 2019. While authoritarian, single-party China has been able to enforce large-scale covid protocol compliance through strong-arm tactics on the citizens, India is hampered by the fact that it is a raucous, multi-party democracy with elections, religious festivals and protests going on side by side with vaccination. It is quite evident that China will make the fastest economic recovery out of the pandemic, while India will be economically scorched if discipline is not enforced by the rule of law with elections and protests being put on the back-burner.
Although President Xi did write a letter of support to PM Modi on the resurgent pandemic, the missive made no mention that the two sides will restore peace and tranquillity on the LAC. “It was like a letter written by an Emperor, who likes to talk and hear about good things,” said a former foreign secretary, as President Xi chose to ignore the fundamental problem afflicting a relationship with huge potential.
State Councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi has held several rounds of dialogues with external affairs minister S Jaishankar and with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval as Special Representative on boundary issues but the Chinese refuse to recognise that there can be no serious relationship with the Modi government till such time status quo ante is restored and 1993/1996 peace and tranquillity agreements implemented. PM Modi and his military advisors are not comfortable in carrying out an economic relationship on a separate track with Beijing while Indian soldiers are deployed in all readiness at the LAC with PLA increased activity across Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh border. It is more than clear that the time for parallel diplomacy as practised during the previous regimes is over, with India in no mood to allow PLA to change the ground situation unilaterally. The Chinese posture towards India in nuclear supplier group, terrorism emanating from Pakistan and increased maritime activity in the Persian Gulf and on the eastern board of Africa are all under notice and New Delhi is no longer squeamish about being a prominent member of QUAD as its agenda is far beyond than challenging China.
“As of now, there is no 12th round of military talks on the horizon but the Chinese have been supportive in the Indian fight against Covid after External Affairs Minister Jaishankar spoke to State Councillor Wang Yi. Beijing has taken the action India requested including allowing cargo flights to Spice and Indigo and reinstating some of their own flights for transporting essential Covid related supplies,” said a diplomat.
While the Chinese privately communicate that status quo ante will be restored in East Ladakh, Beijing’s public posture lacks trust and is viewed with suspicion on Raisina Hill. China broke trust at Kugrang and Pangong Tso last May, the onus is now on paramount leader Xi to restore it. India is ready to play either way.