The seventh round of the corps commander-level talks between India and China on Monday has not led to any notable advance on the Indian demand of a comprehensive disengagement by China from all the areas of the ongoing standoff in Ladakh. The prospects are receding for any significant reduction in force mobilisation before the onset of winter.
This round was held in the background of the foreign ministers’ meeting of India, the United States, Japan and Australia in Tokyo on October 6 under the “Quadrilateral” security dialogue format. In these days of most high-level meetings being virtual, the Quad ministers met in person, in a sign of both the agenda’s urgency and the imperative of confidential confabulations secure from any cyber snooping. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo travelled to Tokyo despite President Donald Trump being stricken by the Wuhan virus.
Mr Pompeo did not mince words and named Chinese Communist Party for its “exploitation, corruption and coercion”. He elaborated: “We have seen this in the South, in the East China Sea, the Mekong, the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits.”
In contrast, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar refrained from pointing any finger at China, let alone the CCP, despite the ongoing aggressive actions by the People’s Liberation Army in Ladakh.
On the same day, the German delegation at the UN General Assembly delivered a joint statement on behalf of 39 countries conveying their “grave concern on the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the recent developments in Hong Kong”. The statement called on China to “respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet”.
The statement was signed inter alia by India’s three Quad partners – the US, Japan and Australia -- and also by several other important strategic partners like Canada, France, Britain and Germany. But India was conspicuous by its absence from the list of signatories.
In an angry response, the Chinese ambassador to the UN termed the well-founded accusations as “groundless” and said that China “opposes interference in internal affairs”. This is ironic as China has repeatedly backed Pakistan in its futile efforts to raise the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council, which is clearly an internal matter of India.
India has also refrained from making any official statements on possible upgrading of its ties with Taiwan or on the unilateral actions by China in Hong Kong in violation of its treaty obligations with Britain.
This cautious approach by South Block is in contrast with strong public opinion across this country, expressed vociferously in the mass media, that India openly favour Taiwan’s independence and Tibet’s autonomy. On October 7, many Indian newspapers carried full-page advertorials by the Republic of China (Taiwan) celebrating its October 10 national day. The Chinese embassy was hurt by this pinprick and in an open letter reminded its “media friends” that “there is only one China in the world”.
South Block is carefully calibrating its response to China’s aggression in Ladakh by going full throttle on military preparations, mobilising our strategic partners and sensitising public opinion for a lengthy standoff, but simultaneously keeping the dialogue with China civil and keeping all channels of communication open. South Block is taking care not to take formal positions in multilateral fora from which it may be difficult to walk back if the border standoff is resolved.
The forthcoming American presidential election is of critical importance for a global response to an aggressive and unilateralist China and its “wolf warriors”. While President Donald Trump has openly identified China as the US’ main future adversary on all fronts -- technological, economic and strategic -- and has the toughness and resolve to strongly push back, it will take time for a future Joe Biden administration’s China policy to evolve. Recent Democratic Presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama made tough statements on China, but practised a non-confrontational policy, allowing China to expand its occupation of the South China Sea and emasculate the manufacturing sector in the US and elsewhere, including India.
In television appearances after returning from the Tokyo Quad meeting, Mr Pompeo criticised China’s aggressive behaviour and noted that “Indians are seeing 60,000 Chinese soldiers on their border”. The Trump administration is sending a strong signal to China that it stands by India by scheduling the next 2+2 dialogue of the foreign and defence ministers of the two nations on October 26-27, 2020, a week before the November 3 election.
The two principal options for India are either to declare open adversarial relations with the world’s second biggest economic and military power or, in Mr Jaishankar’s words, to seek a “new equilibrium with China”. The Narendra Modi government is now following the second option of not engaging in verbal duels with China in full view of the world, defend its interests robustly at the borders and negotiate with China both at the military and diplomatic levels. The basic premise is that both China and India would prefer to avoid an all-out confrontation. This is the basis on which the new equilibrium is being sought in India-China ties, while keeping all options on the table.