The stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh has come against the backdrop of warming diplomatic ties between both countries, leaving some officials and analysts to wonder if there was a disconnect between the Chinese military and government on taking forward ties with India.
Even as officials from China’s Foreign Ministry – India’s main point of contact during the recent strains – had assured their counterparts in recent exchanges this past week that China wanted stability and peace in border areas and to defuse tensions, the military stepped up patrolling and appeared unwilling, until Tuesday, to hold a flag meeting.
Even on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry sought to play down the tensions. “The two sides have kept sound interactions and cooperation on the border issue,” spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing, calling on both sides to “work together to properly solve this issue” and “create good conditions for sound development of bilateral relations.”
Shen Dingli, a leading Chinese scholar of strategic affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, in an interview with The Hindu, however, rejected the notion that there was a disconnect between the Foreign Ministry and the People’s Liberation Army leadership.
“The Chinese civilian [side] controls the military,” he said. “All orders come from the civilian [side].”
“Certainly [more communication between ministries of defence] will help,” he said, “but this cannot replace the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”.
He discounted the proposition that the frontier troops could have acted under the orders of local-level commanders without the knowledge of the higher leadership either in the Lanzhou Military Area Command headquarters, under whose jurisdiction the area in question falls, or in Beijing.
“In Chinese experiences, the Indian Army repeatedly incurred [into the] Chinese side of the LAC,” he said. “We never ask the question, did they do it on their own, or get a permit from above?”
Officials say both India and China have been routinely carrying out patrols up to where they see their territorial claims end. However, neither side had taken the step of setting up a tented post in a disputed region where claims overlapped. The move has been seen as an unexpected escalation, coming weeks ahead of a much anticipated visit to India by new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Asked if he was surprised by the timing of the incident ahead of Mr. Li's visit, Mr. Shen said “it could have a reason.” “Simply because there is a different view of the exact place of the LAC, the Chinese side may not think it is acting within Indian side of the line,” he said.
Mr. Shen suggested that too much should not be read into Mr. Li's visit, which has been projected as an indication of how the new leadership might engage with India considering it will be Mr. Li’s first overseas visit after he took over last month.
“Every and each such visit is important, not just this one,” he said. “Therefore, none of them is particularly important.”