‘India and China can’t be seen to be weak, so they have to stand their ground, but at what cost’

By Indira Laisram
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Sydney-based professor Jingdong Yuan says the countries need to stop thinking about military operations

Tensions escalating on the disputed Himalayan border between members of Indian armed forces and Chinese soldiers his headlines with a recent violent face-off leading to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers. It is reported the 600 troops were fighting hand-to-hand with rocks and iron rods as weapons, in sub-zero temperatures.

“The real issue is whether this will further escalate involving use of weapons; that could become extremely serious, considering that both sides have mobilised significant sizes of forces along the line of actual control (LAC),” according to Associate Professor Jingdong Yuan, from the China Studies Centre and Department of Government and International Relations at University of Sydney. In conversation with Associate Professor Jingdong Yuan.

Yuan Jingdong
Do you think the recent Galwan conflict is the worst flare-up in five decades? 

In terms of the casualty, that certainly is the case because the last one occurred in 1975 with only four casualties. But if you look further, in 1967 there were several hundred casualties on both sides. That was the largest since the 1962 war. So, if you are talking about the past five decades, this was quite serious.

Beijing has been silent on PLA losses. When will the world know the real damage inflicted on the Chinese side? 

It is unlikely the Chinese news media or the official channel will release the real number to the public. You could get some estimate of Chinese casualties from the Indian side but these would be very rough numbers. And things could change because initially only three casualties were reported from the Indian side and, later on, was amended to 20.

“That part of the world (Ladakh, Siachen) is elevated and very cold and has extreme weather conditions so that’s why they need to have the infrastructure and reliability of roads so they can both mobilise and despatch troops to the frontlines. And that’s what they have been doing”

What led to this flare-up?

The exact trigger will be known later on as I get more reports, but the pattern has been there for quite some years. Over the last 20 years as negotiations or border talks continue at various levels of both the governments and also as top leaders make it clear they want to manage this problem, both sides have been building and strengthening their infrastructure from the interior up to the border area. The border area is inaccurate used because there is no border that is recognised by both sides, so it is what I call the line of actual control (LAC). Between India and Pakistan, there is a clear line of control (LOC) in Jammu Kashmir. In the line of actual control, the word actual is not defined.

Over the past 10-15 years, the effort on both sides has been to build infrastructure such as railway, roads and, maybe, some military outpost installations close to the line of control on both sides. That part of the world (Ladakh, Siachen) is elevated and very cold and has extreme weather conditions so that’s why they need to have the infrastructure and reliability of roads so they can both mobilise and despatch troops to the frontlines. And that’s what they have been doing. Once you build those infrastructures very close or even across what the other side consider to be the LAC, then they tend to push back. So both sides would be engaging in those kind of confrontational situation like it happened in 2013, 2014. Again, few years ago, there was a major face-off in the tri-junction Doklam area between Bhutan, India and China, that lasted for 10 weeks. The context is that you will one day again have a very close encounter, push, scuffles, altercations and physical violence.

Interestingly, the border patrol forces may have reached some agreement and they don’t carry firearms but they seem to engage in physical fights. But the incidents that get widely reported are of these close encounters as both sides are attempting to have some permanent features on their side of LAC. So, they need to push back. These so-called intrusions happen all the time as one side sends a squad of 10 soldiers to walk for few hours along the LAC, but because of the weather conditions there are no clear markers that separate the two borders. You could very easily slip into the other side a few hundred yards here and there and if it is considered to be intrusion both sides can report hundreds of those incidents every year. But they don’t get the media attention until something like this happens.

Is it due to China’s uneasiness around India making Ladakh a Union territory?

I think that is part of that. Observing Chinese foreign policy behaviour, if the factual situation on the ground says India controls Jammu and Kashmir and decides to separate into two regions, that’s fine. But once you make an official announcement that this is what we were going to do and this is what we have done, then China has to respond especially when comments about Ladakh also include territories that Pakistan ceded to China in 1963. And when India says Ladakh includes this official new region of the Aksai Chin then that invites Chinese response. That’s why China reacted quite strongly last year after New Delhi abrogated the special position in the Constitution. Sometimes they just look the other way if nothing is said about something. (laughs) That is very strange I know.

“India benefits from joining the quadrilateral kind of security arrangement and also striking a close relationship with the US to benefit from military skills, economic opportunities and investment, but it doesn’t mean that India would just blindly follow the US and then pick a fight with China”

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused the Indian Army of violating the consensus that the two sides arrived at, and New Delhi has accused Beijing of doing the same. Do you think the mistrust on both sides of the LAC can be overcome with better communication?

Basically due to overlapping claimed areas, one side would view the other side as intrusion until both sides agree to withdraw and retreat to their side of the LAC, but because they cant decide where the line is they can always argue that the other side is violating the consensus agreement. They have agreed over a line that they have never agreed on, there is no demarcation, no markers. If there is a line that both sides agree to then they can say one side or the other is abiding by the agreement. The Chinese would consider the southern line as theirs and the Indian would consider the northern as theirs, so they operate in between and when they get too close, they have a problem.

How did the Americans get intelligence on the conflict even before India and China released details of the conflict?

The clashes have been going on since early May, there have been number of smaller skirmishes and some pushes. You have even video recording of heated arguments through interpretation and one video of a Chinese soldier near an armoured vehicle, lying on the ground with Indian soldiers looking at him, while the Chinese vehicle goes back not saving the soldier. So, you have those kind of encounters and perhaps the United States picks up some of these and that probably led to more closer monitoring perhaps using human intelligence, I don’t know.

Is China trying to deflect attention due to its internal economic woes?

You could say that especially if you take the India arguments including comments by former high-ranking military officers. Basically, India has been building the road for the last decade, it is not something India is building today that triggered the incident. It has been OK, nothing has happened during that period of time but suddenly in April/May it became an issue. That could have been the case.

But on the other hand, it is easy to imagine a disconnect among local commanders and they think they need to do everything with regards to protecting sovereignty, upholding strong positions and pretty much thinking in military operational terms in that type of typology. However, for the top leaders this would be just a small part of their discussion. This disconnect creates those kind of situation because at the local level they cant be thinking too much about diplomacy unless something has been agreed to through diplomatic channels and then clear instructions given for them to abide by. Otherwise their default position would be to guard national interest, national sovereignty and maintain ‘this is our line’.

How unhappy is China with India’s alliance with America?

I think the public opinion and when some media like Global Times and other dailies do this kind of reporting they can evoke some strong Chinese reactions. Some Chinese analysts also make similar comments. But I think various analysts would consider Indian position as still very flexible. Of course, India benefits from joining the quadrilateral kind of security arrangement and also striking a close relationship with the US to benefit from military skills, economic opportunities and investment, but it doesn’t mean that India would just blindly follow the US and then pick a fight with China. When India will pick a fight with China is when India considers its national interest, which can align but not be identical with US interest. So, I don’t think the Chinese public appreciate that nuances and differences so they may be persuaded or convinced to have a strong reaction on why India is joining US efforts to contain China, and so forth. But analysts would distinguish these differences and they will try to analyse the situation on a more case by case basis.

You think both countries are run by strong leaders and nationalism is also running high?

Because they are both rising powers with aspirations to be on top of the world. Both are great powers and great civilisations so they carry a lot of baggage. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping are also both very strong leaders. Now because of the casualties, the populace through media would demand the government not to make concessions, to do something. With China of course, they control the media and from the Chinese one learns about this that they probably will not be as emotionally engaged or upset as the Indian population will be, so there is a slight difference. Both can’t be seen to be weak, so they have to stand their ground but I think both sides clearly recognise that if you allow this to simmer and escalate there are bigger risks.

“They need to pursue parallel diplomatic channels but also local commanders in the border region to detach, to at least stop what is going on until they can find better solutions. That’s what I very much hope both sides will adopt”

At the end of the day, even though this territorial dispute has been there for seven decades, I don’t think both leaders would give up everything to fight it. I don’t think it’s that crucial or vital that they would be willing to fight a war over this. In the late 1980s, they decided this is a tough issue which can’t be resolved easily and better focus on more important business. The recognition of the potential risks and the fact that both are nuclear armed is something that will bring cooler heads to talk about this. The irony of this incident is it happened during the process of detachment, they were trying to be disengaged and then something happened. Clearly, they had some agreement but in implementing this, something just happened. I think the most important point is to stop thinking about military operations, instead think about freezing this and think it over.

China has settled boundary disputes with all its neighbouring countries except with India. Does China want to settle with India on its own terms?

There are two schools of thought. One is, China wants to settle this based on the fact on the ground, which is recognise each other’s boundaries and then start demarcating the line of actual control. But it is very difficult to have a clear marker because of the topography. Typically, countries divide on the mountain, say, bottom ridge or middle of the river or something but this one is very difficult to divide. China was for some time prepared to do that but since the 1980s and 1990s, it slightly modified its position wanting to include in this swap Tawang but India will not give because it is part of Arunachal Pradesh. So, the argument is that China has continued to push for the inclusion of Tawang in this overall swap but India will not agree to that. So, if you talk about the Chinese term maybe that is the term. They want that because there is a symbolism there, maybe because religious and political leaders in Tibet want that as well.

It would be interesting to see in the following days what kind of communication channels or engagements they open instead of blame games. They need to pursue parallel diplomatic channels but also local commanders in the border region to detach, to at least stop what is going on until they can find better solutions. That’s what I very much hope both sides will adopt. I cannot imagine one side or the other coming on top if they pursue military solution or allowing this escalate. They already have the mechanisms for solutions, they need to use them.


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