On the Chinese side, the narratives are varied, some declaring victory, some expressing disappointment the way the PLA left the occupied areas, and still others declaring it a loss of face for China.
On 10 February, Wu Qian, spokesperson of the Ministry of National Defence of China, announced that according to the consensus reached at the ninth round of the commander level talks between China and India, “the Chinese and Indian frontline troops at the southern and northern bank of the Pangong Tso Lake start synchronised and organised disengagement from 10 February.” This was confirmed by Wang Wenbin, spokesperson Ministry of Foreign Affairs during a conference on the same day. On the following day, Rajnath Singh, Minister of Defence (MoD) also told the Rajya Sabha in a statement that India and China have agreed to disengage from the Pangong Tso area in eastern Ladakh.
Rajnath Singh told the House that “In response to the Chinese mobilisation of large number of troops and armaments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as well as in the depth areas,” India responded to the “unilateral action of China” and “showed valour and courage on both South and North bank of Pangong Tso”. The minister revealed that India’s approach during talks with China was that “(i) both sides should strictly respect and observe the LAC; (ii) neither side should attempt to alter the status quo unilaterally; and (iii) all agreements and understandings between the two sides must be fully abided by in their entirety.” The agreement envisages that the “Chinese side will keep its troop presence in the North Bank area to east of Finger 8. Reciprocally, the Indian troops will be based at their permanent base at Dhan Singh Thapa Post near Finger 3. A similar action would be taken in the South Bank area by both sides.” MoD’s statement also read that “both sides will cease their forward deployments in a phased, coordinated and verified manner” and that “any structures that had been built by both sides since April 2020 in both North and South Bank area will be removed and the landforms will be restored”.
How did this happen and at what cost? What do the Chinese state and social media say about it? What kind of future awaits an unsettled border? In India, most people, including the Army, believe that it was China that unilaterally violated the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) as well as the LAC, and that it was after the Indian Army took control of the commanding heights in Kailash range and Finger 4 that the Chinese side was forced to come to the negotiating table. This perspective is best reflected in Lt Gen Y.K. Joshi’s interviews to the Indian print and electronic media. Lt Gen Joshi calls it a win-win for both the sides. However, he gives the impression that the status quo ante that existed before April 2020 has been restored, which is only partially true. It is true for the reason that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been forced to go to the east of Finger 8, the Indian claimed LAC. But it is also true that status quo has been altered by forcing a “buffer zone” between Fingers 4 and 8, and neither side will be able to execute any military activity in this area including patrolling. This is similar to what China imposed at patrolling point 14 in the Galwan valley.
On the Chinese side, the narratives are varied, some declaring victory, some expressing disappointment the way the PLA left the occupied areas, and still others declaring it a loss of face for China. Starting from 19 February, the Chinese media launched a large-scale propaganda in the form of a series of videos and articles in the state media accusing India of “nibbling Chinese territory” and held India responsible for provoking the conflict. It was also hyped as a victory aimed at inciting patriotism. China’s news agency, Xinhua posted a video titled “Video from ground zero of the conflict in the Galwan River Valley revealing desperate struggle between our soldiers and foreign troops”; the People’s Daily and the PLA Daily also published an article entitled “Heroes stood their ground at Karakoram: Heroes and soldiers defending the country and border approaching the New Era”; while an opinion article by the PLA Paper titled “Sing the heroic song, strive to win with a strong army” declared victory against the “foreign army” by the New Era soldiers made of “iron and steel” having the “Party, People, Responsibility and Commandments in Heart”. The articles also revealed the names of the Chinese soldiers who lost their lives in the bloody clashes. Besides there are many other articles by anonymous writers on portals such as xilu.com, huanqiu.com and dongfangjinbao between 20 and 24 February.
It is perhaps the revelation of the names after eight months of secrecy, and the manner in which the PLA had to vacate the occupied areas, that drew the ire of the Chinese netizens and commentators in China and beyond. A netizen with the screen name “Spicy Pen Xiaoqiu” (labi Xiaoqiu) commented, if those who went to “rescue” our soldiers were also martyred, it implies that the number of fatalities is more than four. No wonder India was the first to declare its casualties, said the netizen. Chinese social media was abuzz with similar posts which forced the Party to crack down on such people, pronounced as “bedbugs” (chouchong) by one of the earlier-mentioned articles published by the official media. The article said that these “bedbugs” have been “criticising and discrediting the heroes”. Fortunately, such “social bugs” have received their “due punishment”. Not surprisingly, “Spicy Pen Xiaoqiu”, along with one certain Chen from Beijing, and another netizen named “well-known Zed” (Zhiming Zed) from Mianyang, Sichuan were detained by the public security bureau on 20 and 21 February. Lin Muyang, a US based Chinese commentator says in News Insight broadcast on 20 February that the Chinese suffered heavy losses and lost face in the process of the standoff, albeit his channel is critical of mainland China.
Lin opines that if the TASS report is to be believed, China lost 11 times more than the reported fatalities. In the same vein, Shen Dan, a US based critic says in an article written on 20 February, on a website called www.aboluowang.com that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) rather than winning, failed both strategically and tactically on the Sino-Indian border. According to Shen, “It is more likely that the CCP originally intended to provoke conflict and divert attention, for the CCP has been all along wanting to assert power and further consolidate its military strength through local war along the Sino-Indian border. In the end, they failed to achieve their goals and had to claim victory and conceal their actual defeat”. Shen further says that unable to cope with two fronts, “the CCP is forced to retreat from the west to deal with the military pressure emanating from the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait”. The article further argues that strategically, the conflict cemented India-US relations further and gave birth to the “Mini NATO” in the Asia-Pacific. Another article in xilu.com titled “Sudden withdrawal of troops on the Sino-Indian border is a calculated move by India”, on 24 February does acknowledge that “China’s core interests still exist in the southeast coast and the South China Sea”, but is quick to mention that “it is also impossible for the PLA to retreat unconditionally to areas prior to April 2020”, an indication that China’s withdrawal from other areas of friction is going to be a tough task.
China may have retreated from Finger 4 to the east of Finger 8, owing to India’s control of the Kailash range, however, we know that it is just a minor disengagement from a small pocket; other areas such as Depsang, Hot Spring and Gogra heights remain plausible flash points. India needs to be prepared for the long haul and possibly for a live northern border. As pointed out by the xilu.com commentator, “we may still see escalation in the next few months along the Sino-Indian border”.
Secondly, India has sent a strong signal to China that irrespective of stark economic and military asymmetries, India will not allow China to replicate the “three step strategy” (laying claims, reclamation by force, changing the status quo and presenting it as fait accompli) of South China Sea along the India-China border. In fact, as a “psychological warfare” tactic, China has been boasting of better weaponry, infrastructure and logistics support before, during and after the standoff. It is strange to note that some Chinese analysts have argued that India’s very economic asymmetries with China were behind India’s “offensive” on China along the LAC. An article entitled, “This is the basic reason and motive for India to provoke China” in Fenghuang Net and Jinri Toutiao on 20 February, argues that India’s GDP, electricity, steel, cement, production, petroleum consumption is merely 20%, 23.2%, 11%, 12.5%, 37.8%, of China’s, respectively. It says that India dreams to become the “Centre of the world manufacturing” but has been “bullied and pushed over” by the biggest “hegemon” China, therefore, by way of “border provocations”, “flaring up anti-China sentiments” and “boycotting Chinese goods” India wishes to achieve this goal. Behind India’s military provocation, there are economic reasons, argues the anonymous author. It cautions that “In the long run, India is likely to emerge as the biggest geopolitical adversary of China, and it would be foolish to underestimate a country as large as India. For such an ambitious and arrogant neighbour, it is necessary to formulate a long-term response and even a fundamental solution” concludes the article.
Thirdly, from the sequence of events, China’s posturing, and negotiation strategy, it is obvious that by way of realising “buffer zones” in friction areas, China is reinforcing the idea of establishing a demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the border. In fact, China has been advancing such a thinking for quite some time in unofficial talks, but India’s response has been somewhat lukewarm, as the DMZ, according to India, will not be based on the concept of “equal and mutual security” enshrined in the CBMs. Nonetheless, I believe, it could be established if the LAC is identified, but since China has shown no interest in the identification of the LAC, such a possibility is ruled out.
Fourthly, the internal dynamics in China is also in play in the disengagement. Factional politics in China is heating up as is visible from the crackdown on Jack Ma’s Ant Group, for the investors have been found related to the Shanghai clique. This is important because China is about to hold the Two Sessions in March, the first centenary of the CPC in July, and finally the 20th Party Congress next year. Any blunder on the border will be detrimental to Xi Jinping’s power and image and could intensify the latent faction feud inside China.
Finally, since both India and China has not given up their respective territorial claims in all sectors of the India-China boundary, the best way forward is the East-West swap as suggested by Premier Zhou Enlai in 1960 and elaborated by Cheng Ruisheng, a former ambassador of China to India. According to Ambassador Cheng, China would agree to hand over 90,000 square kilometres of disputed land (in Eastern Sector) to India and make major compromise…and India would hand over 33,000 square kilometres of land in Western Sector to China. As rightly pointed out by Professor Zhang Jiadong of Fudan University, “Neither of them has the ability and willingness to force the other side to accept its claims by military means.”
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.