How China Views The Recent India-China Bilateral Talks On LAC – Analysis
By Observer Research Foundation
By Antara Ghosal Singh
The Chinese strategic community kept a close eye as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met the newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting on 2 March 2023. The meeting generated much concern within the Chinese strategic circles as it was understood to have generated more contradiction than consensus between the two sides. The mainstream Chinese discourse post the meeting was that “China needs to prepare for the worst at the LAC”.
From a Chinese perspective, India did not show a positive attitude during the meeting and did not reciprocate China’s so-called “goodwill gestures” such as it seeking to explore common grounds between the two countries beyond the border dispute or participating in defence exchanges and cooperation with India under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, etc. It was argued that the meeting only lasted for 45 minutes, in which Jaishankar made “a big fuss” about the border issue. He turned down Qin Gang’s proposal to put the border issue in an appropriate place and speed up the resumption of exchanges and cooperation in various fields, like resuming direct flights, facilitating personnel exchanges, etc. Instead, reiterated that the pre-requisite for the normalisation of Sino-Indian relations is that the border situation returns to normal—a move largely interpreted as Minister Jaishankar’s “arrogance” vis-à-vis the Chinese FM.
It is interesting to note how the Indian concern over “China’s non-compliance of existing pacts between the two countries – particularly, the pact not to amass forces on the border and not to try to change the Line of Actual Control (LAC) unilaterally” which it believes has led to the current crisis at LAC and its (India’s) principled stance that of not agreeing to “any unilateral attempt by China to change the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”, of not “compromising on the core issues”, of letting “the state of the border determine the state of the relationship” are being given a spin by the Chinese side to suit its self-interest.
While playing down China’s role in single-handedly destabilising the LAC during the peak of the pandemic, so as to coerce India and prevent it from benefitting from the intensified China-US rivalry and the resultant flux in the global order, the Chinese side counter-accuses India of asking for a sky-high price for normalisation of bilateral relations. It criticises India for being unwilling to accept the new status quo at the LAC set by China and instead demands China, whose overall “national as well as military strength far exceeds that of India”, to essentially accept and recognise India’s claims on the border issue and accept the border treaty advocated by India. A disinformation campaign is being run for the domestic audience, claiming that what India wants is “if India believes certain territory at the LAC belongs to India, China, despite its superior power and position internationally, must accept its demands, otherwise it will not agree to promote normalisation of relations between the two countries”.
What has been further riling the Chinese side is the urgency with which India is strengthening border deployment as well as military operations at the LAC. It is noted with concern that less than 24 hours after the meeting between the foreign ministers of China and India, there was news of India signing an arms purchase agreement with the US to purchase 18 to 24 advanced US MQ-9B armed drones, which when materialised will become the largest military cooperation project reached by the two countries in recent years. Furthermore, India, it is argued, has repeatedly sought closer relations with Japan over the past few years. This year being the first year when both sides launched actual combat training. Overall, there is much frustration among the Chinese side that unlike earlier times New Delhi doesn’t feel the compulsion or motivation to go the extra mile to appease Beijing over the border issue or to buy peace at the LAC on China’s terms, instead is seeking to use international pressure as well as military pressure to force China to make concessions on the border issue.
As per the Chinese assessment, India seems to be maintaining a tough stance vis-à-vis China due to certain factors. Firstly, India, they say, is using the power of the international community to deal with China. Instead of relying solely on its own strength to negotiate with China on the border issue, it hopes to internationalise the matter, allow multiple forces to participate in it, and increase its own bargaining chip vis-a-vis China. India’s choice of joining the Quad, and its actively approaching the United States (US), Japan, and other countries on issues related to China’s core concerns like the Taiwan and South China Sea issue are seen as obvious examples of this new trend in India’s China policy.
Secondly, it is argued that maintaining a tough stance on China is helping India to be in the good books of the United States (US) and the West and accrue benefits from them. Afterall, the Modi government has been longing to take over the industrial chain transferred from China by the West, which can be a major opportunity for India’s future development.
Thirdly, India, they say, has identified China’s weakness, that is, it(China) does not want Sino-Indian relations to worsen beyond a certain point so as to maintain its strategic focus towards its Southeast, the Taiwan issue, the Sino-US issue, etc and prevent itself from falling into a “two-front challenge”.
According to the Chinese calculations, India is following a two-fold strategy: 1) It is striving to extract greater concessions from China on the China-India border issue, in exchange for the normalisation of ties and reduction of “two-front” pressure on China and does not hesitate to introduce external forces on the Sino-Indian border issue; 2) But it is also not averse to maintaining a limited low-level tension with China, so as to benefit from its cooperation with the West as well as absorb the western capital withdrawing from China. Some Chinese observers are particularly concerned that India might play up the border row in a big way at an opportune moment, when China decides to use force to resolve the Taiwan Strait issue, thereby complicating China’s military strategy.
China’s course of action
Under such circumstances, what should be China’s preferred course of action? Chinese scholars seem to be of the opinion that, firstly, it must follow the policy of “先礼后兵”, that is first releasing goodwill, then sending the military. Thus China, must first strive to normalise ties with India through the release of basic courtesies or goodwill gestures (like supporting India’s G20 /SCO presidency etc.), of course, avoiding making any genuine concession on the border issue or other important issues of Indian concern. However, it must simultaneously strengthen military construction on the western border, and prepare to support a two-front struggle, lest its “goodwill gestures” get called out for being deceptive and superficial and fail to break any ice with India.
Secondly, China must strive to delay or limit the upgradation of and investment in Indian industrial chain, because more the West invests in India, India’s ego will get further inflated and stronger will be India’s position on the border issue. Thirdly, China must make good use of Russia, which has “turned completely” to China due to the Ukraine crisis. It must reach a consensus with Russia on the Sino-Indian border issue, make Russia oppose external forces intervening in the Sino-Indian border issue and thereby play an important role in reducing the geopolitical pressure on China in the Southwest direction and free up its hands to better deal with eventualities in the Southeast.