The complex border landscape between India and China has long been a focus of diplomatic deliberation and strategic manoeuvring. The recent series of military talks between two Asian giants have brought to the fore the urgency of expediting the disengagement of troops in the combative region of eastern Ladakh.
These discussions, lastly hosted as the 19th round of talks on 14 August 2023 at the Chushul-Moldo border point on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), have run on addressing persistent issues in areas like the Depsang Plains and Demchok.
Leadership and Diplomatic Context
The central figures in these ongoing military conversations, including India's Lt Gen Rashim Bali from the 14 Corps and the commander of China's South Xinjiang military district, exemplify the intent of both nations to foster trust and understanding. The intricacies of border issues necessitate seasoned leadership to guide the resolution process, thus remaining a paramount concern.
However, it is crucial to recognize that these military deliberations are interwoven with a broader diplomatic landscape. The exchanges between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Chinese diplomat Wang Yi underscore a larger vision that seeks to restore stability in border regions, ultimately serving as a bedrock for normalized bilateral relations. India's principled stand on normalized ties being contingent upon border tranquillity further reinforces the symbiotic nature of these matters.
Context and Timing
The significance of these military dialogues is underscored by their timing, occurring near the BRICS summit and G-20. This chronological alignment signifies the mutual commitment of Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi to engage in productive discourse, even amidst the challenges that have plagued the two countries' bilateral relationship.
The aim and objective is to rebuild the trust that has been lost after events like the 2020 Galwan Valley clash followed by the Arunachal Pradesh border clash last year. A common concern at the local public level is that China cannot be trusted the way they have been objecting to India's issues on terrorism at the multilateral platforms. Even though the Chinese too have been suffering from attacks from terrorists.
The BRICS summit meeting and G20 meeting in New Delhi, where a potential face-to-face bilateral encounter between the Indian and Chinese leaders awaits will be observed by nearly all top US and Western countries leaders.
On the contrary, the Chinese Premier will keenly observe the sideline G 20 meeting of the QUAD. All eyes finally will be on the Delhi declaration, signalling unity or opposition of the developing countries keeping in view the Ukraine conflict and the US – Russia cold war.
The Delicacy of the Situation
The evolutionary trajectory of the border situation, starting from the initial Pangong Lake clashes to subsequent disengagement in select areas, highlights the nuanced headway achieved through diplomatic means.
Yet, it remains imperative for both nations to uphold their commitment to ongoing discussions and de-escalation efforts. While the focal point of India-China military talks is centred on specific friction points, their ramifications extend into the people-to-people and economic spheres of both countries.
The stability of the border region holds direct implications for existing trade and business ties, which have already begun to falter.
Amidst the navigation of the India-China military talks, the overarching implications for the larger geopolitical landscape and economic interdependence of both nations come into view.
The stability of the border region directly influences trade relations, lending even greater weight to the need for amicable resolutions.
Addressing persistent concerns in areas like Depsang and Demchok. The 18th round of military dialogue in April 2023 underlined India's emphasis on resolving these longstanding friction points.
Progress has been evident through a series of military and diplomatic dialogues, resulting in disengagement milestones such as the withdrawal from the north and south banks of Pangong Lake and the Gogra area in 2021. While these steps signify a positive direction, however, the ongoing talks demand more areas that China needs to disengage to stabilize border regions and thereby pave the way for a more harmonious bilateral relationship.
Amidst the backdrop of these geopolitical dynamics, India has strengthened its infrastructure in border areas of Ladakh with massive construction of metallic motorable roads, bridges, tunnels and repaired airfields.
India's armed forces have strategically reoriented their focus from Pakistan to China. In addition, India’s enhanced collaboration with the United States and its allies, fostering joint exercises, intelligence sharing, and enhanced training for its border forces, leading to increased mutual defence preparedness is further enhancing India’s defence alignment on the borders.
The tragic events of the 2020 border clash and the death of 20 soldiers acted as a catalyst for India's accelerated realignment. This shift manifested through a significant redeployment of troops, fighter jets, and surface-to-air missiles from the Pakistan border to the Chinese frontier.
Meanwhile, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has exerted an additional influence on India's strategic realignment. Concerns over relying heavily on Russian arms have compelled India to diversify its defence procurement.
This has resulted in diplomatic headway, as demonstrated during Prime Minister Modi's visit to the United States, where agreements were made to acquire advanced weaponry and collaborate on domestic fighter jet production. This departure from traditional postures is evident in various domains, including diplomacy, defence capabilities, and global partnerships. Recent defence agreements, including the procurement of fighter jets and submarines, underscore this transformative shift.
China's motivations behind its actions in the Indian border region remain multifaceted. In addition, China's actions remain shrouded in complexity. China's reaction could be attributed to factors such as the construction of Indian infrastructure facilitating extensive patrolling, stalled negotiations on border settlements, or attempts to counter India's developing partnership with the United States and the West.
From a broader perspective, India's realignment represents a transition from a non-aligned foreign policy to a more proactive multi-aligned approach. If issues of the specific friction points on the borders are not resolved, there are going to be dire consequences for the economy.