File photo of Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation Army soldiers in September 2019 | Photo: ANI

This is part-3 of a Report on the subject. Now that military delegations of a higher level held talks on June 6 and, as reported in Part-2, published on June 8, agreed to peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas”, the issues involved may be understood in an objective and cool manner.This part also deals with a “strategic policy shift” and how it is related to a new Forward Policy.

Part-1 was published on June 5 : Flood of Misinformation on the eve of India China Talks. Indian media in all languages indulged in a jingoistic propaganda on what they alleged were  China’s aggressive “intrusions”, even while they were officially denied, into Indian borders, almost all along the LAC, it was pointed out in that part.

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Jingoistic claims and cheap gimmicks resumed

For weeks together, the Covid-19 pandemic was the only news in media, mixed up with Tablighis and muslims for sometime. With lockdown lifted, the economy in shambles and the atrocious migrant labor issue exposed all pretence of India’s welfare society and a humane culture, laying bare the bitter class divide. Then came nationalism in the form of jingoism, occupying the media space : China, Nepal, and border issues, apart from the usual whipping horse Pakistan; and now slowly politicking also started, on the sensitive issue:   

Even as India and China “agreed to peacefully resolve the situation in the border areas”, and more rounds of talks are ahead, as per official statements, BJP leaders spoke in jingoistic terms, and started exploiting the issue for their electoral ends. Times of India June 9 reported:

“Amid a tense standoff with China, two members of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS)- Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Home Minister Amit Shah – while addressing virtual rallies of BJP workers at the interval of barely two hours, said that India will make no concessions to anyone at the cost of its national interest and national pride.

Shah also struck a combative tone saying that India, like US and Israel, has the capability to carry out pre-emptive strikes to defend its territory, he recalled…“PM Modi did not sit silent like previous PMs. He answered with airstrikes and surgical strikes by entering Pakistan and teaching them a lesson…”

News18.com reported cheap gimmicks by BJP and Congress:

Shah had on June 7 Sunday said “ India’s defence policy has gained global acceptance and the world agrees that after the US and Israel, if there is any other country that is able to protect its borders, it is India.”

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi in another tweet alleged: “The media is muzzled and terrified. The truth seems dormant. But it flows in the blood of every single Indian army officer and soldier. They know exactly what is happening in Ladakh…”

He said this in response to a defence analyst claiming that China has changed the frontlines in Ladakh and occupied Indian territory, but India is talking of “military and diplomatic engagement”.

Thus both the ruling class parties resumed politicking on  serious issues in a frivolous and jingoistic way.There are more virtual rallies ahead in Bengal, Odisha etc.

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Indian Media Narrative Vs Reality

There is persistent jingoistic propaganda in Indian media, painting as if China is a notorious aggressor.The reality

“ China has borders with 14 nations, and except for India, it has resolved its disputes with all, including Russia. India has borders with six countries, and excluding Bhutan, it has disputes with all five.”

– Subramanian Swamy, Sinologist, Ex-Union Minister, and  BJP MP (Frontline 2000 Sep 2: Sino-Indian Relations Through the Tibet Prism)

That was 20 years ago. Is there a change in subsequent period? India-China border issue remains unresolved despite dozens of meetings at various levels. There were two issues ever since: Doklam,which is being recalled now by many, and the present episode.

Doklam was then a new trouble spot, with a face-off between India and China; that was painted by Indian media, for weeks together, as if China violated India’s border, which was not the case. The Chinese government had released a map to accuse India of trespassing into its territory, and in a detailed statement in the first week of 2017 August, it said “India has no right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan.” In fact, the process of demarcating the boundary between them had been initiated but got stuck up. Bhutan at a later stage had clarified that it would sort it out with China as already bilateral discussions were underway, which irked an India that felt it was its prerogative. Finally, India-China face-off was amicably resolved through diplomacy.

What was the situation vis-a-vis India in the last 20 years?

The former Northern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. (retd) D.S. Hooda, said reports suggesting China had over the recent years “nibbled away” at parts of Indian territory were incorrect

“In the past 15-20 years, there has been no real change in what we felt was the alignment of the LAC. Those [points] are sacrosanct to the Indian Army.”

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, as if corroborating the above, said on June 02, 2020:

“There will hardly be a year when there is no face-off on the border between both the Indian Army and the Chinese Army. ”

Mr. Singh did not respond to a direct question on whether Chinese troops crossed over into Indian territory. Instead he said there were differing perceptions on the alignment of the LAC due to which both sides patrolled across the LAC till their lines of perception. (The Hindu, June 03, 2020)

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“Border tension more serious than in the past”: Why?

This time the widely held view is that border tension is more serious than in the past. But why despite the following :

“Normal face-offs happen every year, they don’t lead to these kind of incidents,” added Hooda. “This is much more serious. They have come completely well prepared and prepared to do things by force…”

“The fact of the matter is some kind of planning has gone through before these multiple face-offs,” said Lt. Gen. (retd) S. L. Narasimhan, Member, National Security Advisory Board. “Earlier, they used to take place in one place. This time there have been multiple face-offs and geographically spaced out, in Sikkim, Pangong Tso and Galwan.

Both were speaking at a webinar organised by the Institute of Chinese Studies.  (The Hindu, June 03, 2020)

“Planning has gone through before these multiple face-offs”…Face-off is that wherein both are engaged;obviously there is planning by both sides.

New Infrastructure and patrolling led to trouble: 

Gen. Narasimhan said one possible reason for the current stand-off is that the Chinese “aren’t clear why infrastructure is coming up” on the Indian side. “They are unsure of what we are doing in our area.”

“We urge the Indian side…to comply with the agreements signed, refrain from unilateral actions complicating the situation,” said China’s MFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian.

“All Indian activities are entirely on the Indian side of the LAC. In fact, it is the Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns,” said MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava, May 21…although India didn’t accuse the PLA of crossing into Indian territory.

Earlier on May 19 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said that Indian troops were attempting to “unilaterally change” the status quo at the boundary between them and “blocking” patrolling by Chinese border guards. On May 21, China repeated and added: Chinese troops “firmly” dealt with what it called the Indian troops “crossover and infringement activities…(thehindu.com, May 22, 2020. The Foreign Affairs editor, and a Defence Specialist reported.)

The Hindu May 22, 2020 commented:

With four incidents along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in recent weeks, the India-China border is witnessing the highest tensions since the Doklam stand-off in 2017. In the three years since.. a clear message was sent to the two militaries to abide by the detailed protocols already in place, such as those agreed to in 2005 and 2013…The broader context for the tensions is the changing dynamic along the LAC. India has been upgrading its roads as it plays catch-up, with China already enjoying an advantage in both terrain and infrastructure…

An Indian military official, in Times Now channel, said India for the first time was seeking to assert its claims on the ground.This is the new element, a new “Forward Policy”, as described by senior Indian diplomat P. Stobdan (Retd), hailing from Ladakh.

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A New Forward Policy?  

“This is our Forward Policy…We will take Aksai Chin… This is not about LAC…. we have now become offensive…”

There are in circulation many expert views and commentaries by experts on the face-off, but one of the most significant is this one mentioned above:    

The above are ominous words that came from a responsible ex-diplomat of India, P.Stobdan. His words carry weight as earlier he had served in National Security Council Secretariat. The ex-Professor was Director, Centre for Strategic Studies in JK, is Founding President of Ladakh International Centre, now Senior Fellow at IDSA, specialist in Tibet, Xinjiang, Myanmar, Trans-Himalayan Affairs…He is also the author of the book, The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance. More than all, he is an elite resident of Ladakh, recently re-organized as a Union Territory.

Stobdan, ex- Indian envoy, during a show on Hindi news channel Aaj Tak May 29, blamed Dalai Lama “sitting idle in Dharamshala”, not speaking out for India in the current face-off, referring to the Ladakh sector, reported theprint.in reported on 31 May, 2020. “We have let him create a government in Dharamsala. He should offer a clarification that this is not Tibet’s land; it is India’s…”

He added that China wants to “change the narrative” by attempting to push the LAC through repeated transgressions.

“We (India) also want to do it (change the narrative). We also decided that after abrogating Article 370 we will take Aksai Chin. This is not about LAC… We kept talking about it but never made any progress. But they kept coming in,” Stobdan said.

“Not anymore. LAC is a perception. This is going on for the last 70 years. We will not tolerate this anymore,” he said.

Stobdan alleged that the real reason why the Chinese are now reacting is because “we have now become offensive, because we are now building roads, constructing infrastructure there and doing deployment. This is our Forward Policy and we need to be firm on this. If we have to fight we will, if we have to die we are ready for it”.

(For more  https://theprint.in/diplomacy/former-diplomat-stobdans-comments-on-dalai-lama-spark-row-leh-markets-shut-on-monday/433018/)

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Modi Govt.’s “strategic policy shift”will force Beijing to open a second front anywhere along LAC”

This was what Lt Gen (Retd) HS Panag said 8 months ago, in Sep 2019.

And Stobdan’s words are not a mere guess, or speculation. We may recall Home Minister Amit Shah’s assertions in August 2019 in parliament – that PoK is ours, Aksai chin is ours, they are part of JK, we will get them, and you will see this in future…This was during the debate on re-organization of JK and Art 370 in August 2019. And he revived this in his virtual rally, mentioned above. The detachment of Ladakh from J&K gave the leeway for the Centre to freely play its own politics, local as well as global.

Thus Shah’s were not mere words. They indicated a “strategic policy shift.” And now he spoke in the same vein in the rally.

Lt Gen (Retd) HS Panag on 19 Sep 2019 wrote in theprint.in :

Despite formal claims on Pok and Aksai Chin, India accepted Loc and LAC as de facto borders. But now Modi Govt “strategic policy shift” rattled both Pakistan and China. They will force Beijing to open a second front anywhere along LAC.”

This he wrote more than 8 months ago. He was ex- GOC in C, Northern and Central Command too, and should know…Thus it appears the present situation, the face off, indicates a “strategic policy shift” and is related to a Forward Policy.

India took a shift in policy and that could be seen when it joined hands with the West in the cold war, to press for a resolution in WHA of WHO blaming china on Covid-19.

The Chinese media, too expressed concern that India is pushing ahead, is provocative. China had protested when JK was re-organized last August. It took note of Amit Shah’s assertions in parliament.

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China believes India wants Aksai Chin back. PLA has likely secured 40-60 sq km in Ladakh

That is the title of an article by Lt Gen (retd) H S Panag, 28 May, 2020:

The starting point of any conflict between two nations is the political aim. Military actions are merely the means to achieve that aim. I will reverse the process and analyse the military situation and strategic importance of the areas of the India-China ‘face-offs’ to derive the political aims….

Something unusual has been happening on the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between India and Tibet, for the past four weeks. On 10 May, the Indian media broke the news about scuffles between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the north bank of Pangong Tso on the night of 5-6 May and at Naku La in north Sikkim on 9 May…

Since then, reports have emerged about intrusions and ‘face-offs’ in the Galwan River , on the north bank of Pangong Tso, and possibly at Hot Springs in Chang Chenmo River valley, and at Demchok. Mirror deployment has been carried out by both sides with additional troops, and reserves have been positioned  to cater for any escalation. There are also reports of increased helicopter activity and ‘one-off’ deterrent fighter aircraft mission by India.

China is extremely suspicious of India. It believes that in the long term, India’s strategic aim is to restore the status quo ante 1950 by recovering Aksai Chin and other areas captured/secured by China.

Lt Gen (retd) H S Panag significantly said:

India’s alignment with the US, the presence of Tibetan government-in-exile in India, and the aggressive claims on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan — through which the prestigious China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes — only strengthen China’s suspicion.

Much as I would like to speculate about China’s broader political aims, the direct political aim is simple–to maintain the “status quo” along the LAC on its own terms, which is to forestall any threat, howsoever remote, to Aksai Chin and NH 219….

https://theprint.in/opinion/china-believes-india-wants-aksai-chin-back-thats-why-it-has-crossed-lac-in-ladakh/430899/

So the Lt General says : China wants to maintain status quo. Obviously India wants to change it. And that is at the root of the face-off.

In the talks on June 6, India reportedly wanted restoration of status quo. It needs to be pointed out that status quo ante 1950, mentioned above, implies restoration of colonial claims of British India: Because China, the PRC, was yet to reach and establish itself in Tibet area by that time.

It was only later in 1951 that Tibet had signed a 17-point Agreement with new China, the PRC (that emerged in 1949 October) re-affirming China’s sovereignty over Tibet. Dalai Lama was party to this. The National Assembly of Tibet asked the Govt to accept that agreement, under which TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) was an autonomous part of China. PRC conducted census in 1954 that included TAR and its population of 12.7 lakh people.  

The Agreement was repudiated by the faction led by Dalai Lama in 1959, even as he left Tibet to be accommodated in India.

Dalai Lama a “geo-strategic” asset ?

Two key Ladakh monasteries, and a Merchants Association, have demanded an apology from Stobdan, who questioned the Dalai Lama’s silence on border tensions and even asked if he was collaborating with China. His comments on Dalai Lama –he called Dalai Lama a “geo-strategic” asset, apart from being a religious leader – sparked a row, a protest, Leh markets to be shut on June 1. It is a measure to mobilize public opinion in the new UT Ladakh, preparing them to live with the face-off in the tensed up border zone.  (theprint.in, 31 May, 2020)

https://theprint.in/diplomacy/former-diplomat-stobdans-comments-on-dalai-lama-spark-row-leh-markets-shut-on-monday/433018/)

The protesters said it is an insult to a great Buddhist, Dalai Lama. But this is not the first time he was called a strategic asset. As Dalai Lama turned 80, Brahma Chellaney had called him a “strategic asset and the embodiment of India’s leverage on the issue with China” (Hindustan Times 2015 July6)   There are many who see him more as a political figure, being used by anti-China lobbies, who floated a so-called Tibet Government-in-Exile (TGE). Despite all the aura built around his name and his causes, not a single country recognises the regime he founded, with help from imperialists, US in particular.

In the event, what are the implications of a new Forward Policy ? Is this policy drawing India into the cold war by US against China?

And is this shift in policy in the interest of India and its people? Is Dalai Lama a potential asset for India in this great game?  These are questions that need further discussion.

Ramakrishnan is a journalist


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