Awful silence: On India-China standoff

India must publicly clarify the seriousness of the situation with China along the LAC

May 30, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 02:57 pm IST

Nearly a month after the first skirmishes on the LAC between Indian and Chinese soldiers were reported, the situation on the ground still appears to be tense. While there has been no official explanation of what has happened there since May 5, the day the first clash at Pangong Tso (lake) was reported, there is enough information to conclude that this is the most serious such standoff India and China have seen in years. As reported by The Hindu , sources say that the number of Chinese soldiers, the aggression with which they have dealt with Indian soldiers, as well as the number of points of conflict, indicate strategised action by Chinese commanders. While both governments have been careful to keep the tone of their comments sober , the fact that both sides have repeatedly mentioned that talks are on is also proof of an ongoing situation. A full de-escalation will entail soldiers being able to return to their normal LAC patrols, something military officers say will probably need a high-level political intervention and for the Indian side, an insistence that Chinese soldiers, who appear to have been the aggressors, returning to positions they previously held.

In the midst of these sensitive negotiations, the interventions by the U.S. come as inopportune distractions. The first comment, last week, by a then senior State Department official, accusing China of being an aggressor on several fronts and posing a “threat” to its neighbours , was followed by President Donald Trump’s offer , this week, to mediate between Delhi and Beijing. Neither comment appears to have been made in consultation with India. India has made it clear that it will not accept Mr. Trump’s offer and has denied his claim that he spoke to Prime Minister Modi on the issue. The government’s first priority now must be to end the current standoff, and then for its senior officials to enter serious talks on LAC demarcation. Given all the new infrastructure being built by India , it may also be necessary to negotiate new border management protocols that were last updated in 2013. The government must also investigate how a big build-up of Chinese soldiers was not acted upon earlier. Beyond this, it must make a full assessment of just what China’s final aims are: is the summer conflagration meant to deflect attention from Beijing’s current problems over the coronavirus pandemic , to deter India from its infrastructural push for roads and bridges to connect its northern frontiers all the way to the Karakoram pass, or to “remind” New Delhi of its geographical vulnerabilities as it contemplates a closer maritime relationship in the Indo-Pacific with the U.S.? In all three scenarios, the first steps for the government would be to publicly clarify the seriousness of the situation at the LAC, and to build consensus around its plans for a firm pushback and an assertion of its position along the disputed line.

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