“We are indeed committed to a peaceful resolution of the current situation, but at the same time I assure this House that we are prepared to deal with any eventuality”. This observation was made by Indian Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, in his statement on the Sino-Indian border situation to Parliament on 15 September on its reconvening after nearly six months of stalling due to the new corona epidemic. The latter has resulted in the Modi government being questioned widely for its ineffective response to the epidemic and for the economic recession it has wrought. Against the backdrop of rising nationalist sentiment in India, the Opposition has continued to make a fuss about the border issue, accusing the Government of not being tough on China. Singh’s speech pandered to this domestic sentiment. Transferring responsibility for the border dispute on China, he packaged India as the victim and asserted resolve to “protect India’s sovereignty”. The five-point agreement reached by the Foreign Ministers of the two countries last week will not be conducive for further engagement if the Indian side still accuses the Chinese side in the follow through,” Qian Feng, a Chinese expert on India, told the Huan Qiu Shi Bao.
Want Peace, Blame China, Show Grit
Indian public opinion was very concerned about Singh’s speech, with plenty of speculation in the media in advance. The Opposition parties kept pressuring the Modi Government on the border situation, demanding that the Government release more information. This was the first comprehensive official statement by the Indian Government since the standoff along the Line of Actual Control in the Western sector of the China-India border in May this year.
Singh stated that India and China agreed that maintenance of peace and stability in the border area is vital to the further development of bilateral relations. The border issue between the two countries has not yet been resolved, and a solution acceptable to both parties has not yet been reached. Later, he shirked his responsibility and stated that “in the recent incident, the violent actions of the Chinese Army violated all past agreements”. The Chinese side “mobilized a large number of troops and equipment along the line of actual control” necessitating counter deployment by India, actions that he (SIngh) described as “appropriate”.
“Singh issues a strong warning to China in Parliament”, the New Delhi TV report proclaimed in a hyped headline. “I want to tell Parliament and, through Parliament, tell the nation that we are ready to deal with any eventuality for defending India’s sovereignty,” Singh is reported to have said. Referring to his recent meeting with Chinese Defense Minister, Wei Fenghe, he said, “I also conveyed that we hope to solve this problem peacefully and that China will cooperate with us. At the same time, I made it clear that we will go all out to defend India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. “.
The “Hindustan Times” headline was titled “Indian Defense Minister says China does not respect the customary and traditional alignment of the boundary between India and China”. The item reported Singh as having said that any serious problems on the LAC would certainly affect bilateral relations. He expressed his condolences for the 20 Indian soldiers killed in the conflict in the Galwan Valley on June 15. According to the Associated Press, the Indian Defense Minister accused China of militarizing the border areas and “trying to unilaterally change the status quo” in violation of the border agreements.
Referring to the June 15 clash in the Galwan Valley, Singh said: “our brave soldiers have sacrificed their lives but after making China pay a price, including casualties”. Quite clearly, on the one hand, the report seeks to project how the Indian side has been restrained and courageous. On the other hand, it puts the blame for the tension on China, and tries to showcase “the resolve of the Indian Army” to the country.
Qian Feng, Director of the Research Department of the National Institute of Strategic Studies at Tsinghua University, told the Huan Qiu Shi Bao that the outstanding (main) point of Singh’s speech was resolution of the problem through negotiations, which was spoken for the Chinese side to listen, while the first part is addressed to the domestic and international community in an attempt to package India in the role of a victim. The BJP government is under pressure on the domestic economic and epidemic fronts, so Singh had to project the Modi government’s posture of safeguarding national interests on border issues. A few days ago, the Foreign Ministers of China and India put forward five points of agreement. But if India still blames China in the follow through, that will not be conducive for further engagement between the two sides, and this attitude will not be beneficial for the new round of military commander level talks that is about to commence.
“The overall situation on flash points remains unchanged”
Before the Indian Defense Minister’s speech, many Indian media paid attention to the latest statement of Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong. On the evening of the 14th, Sun Weidong spoke on recent media questions and bilateral meetings between the Foreign Ministers of China and India. “I have noted the overall positive assessment of the five-point agreement by Indian public opinion. I believe that both sides displayed political will to resolve the situation on the border. I hope and believe that as long as the two sides follow through on the agreement reached by the two Foreign Ministers, take it to the front-line troops, and adhere to the right path of dialogue and negotiation, the two sides will be able to find a way to overcome the current difficulties,” he said. Sun Weidong mentioned the recent statement issued by the relevant Indian government departments that the Indian troops had taken “pre-emptive” measures against the Chinese side in the area south of Pangong Lake, as fully establishing their illegal crossing of the border and unilateral change of the status quo in the border area.
Reuters, citing two Indian officials, reported on the 14th that Chinese troops were laying underground optical cables in the Pangong Lake area on the Sino Indian border,. An unnamed former Indian military intelligence official said that optical cables enable secure communication, for “radio calls can be monitored, but optical fibre communication is safe”. According to the report, an Indian official said that since the two Foreign Ministers met last week, the two sides have neither significantly withdrawn nor significantly strengthened their front-line forces. “The tension is the same as earlier,” the official said.
However, Wang Wenbin, spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, denied the claim of Indian officials that China was “laying underground optical cables”. He simply responded: “as far as I know, the relevant reports are not true.”
“The overall situation at the flash points has not changed and is still tense.” An Indian government source said on the 14th that the overall situation on the “flash points” in Eastern “Ladakh” has not changed four days after the Foreign Ministers of China and India reached a five point agreement, and the two countries’ armies still strictly guard their respective positions along the LAC, the Times of India reported.
“Hindustan Times” said on the 15th that senior commanders of India and China may meet near the LAC this week to seek to ease military tensions. Commanders of the two armies have met five times before, but failed to break the deadlock. India’s Tribune newspaper said that the two sides once again tried to solve the military confrontation on the LAC in the “Ladakh area”. The next week or two will be crucial to decide whether the two countries will achieve peace or maintain hostility.
“Modi faces a turbulent Parliamentary session”
At present, nationalism runs strong in India, and this may put pressure on the border commander level talks. After nearly six months of interruption due to the outbreak of the new corona pneumonia, the new session of Parliament began on the 14th. “We hope that the Parliament and all MPs will unite to send a message: the country stands with our soldiers,” Prime Minister Modi observed in his customary remarks on the eve of the session. Some Indian media interpreted this to be a “tough” message on the border to China.
But this “tough” message was not credible for the Indian opposition parties and some media. The Indian news website, “The Print” published an article complaining that Modi had not named China as yet. Similar complaints have been cropping up in India since the conflict in the Galwan Valley in June. Rahul Gandhi, leader of the National Congress party, the main opposition party in India, has repeatedly declared that “the Chinese have occupied our land” in order to attack the Modi government’s failure to deal with the border confrontation.
Zhao Gancheng, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, told the Huan Qiu Shi Bao that the Indian opposition and media’s criticism of the Modi’s Government for not being tough enough was mainly because of India’s domestic politics. In so-called democratic countries, the opposition party always seizes opportunities for criticizing the ruling party wantonly. As regards the fact of the confrontation between China and India having lasted for such a long time, he said “I think the main reason is that India’s decision-making establishment takes a tough approach towards the border issue”. The upsurge of nationalism is the result, not the cause. It was deliberately played up by the Indian government’s propaganda departments initially. Now nationalist sentiment reacts to border conflicts; the two feed each other.
In a despatch headlined “Modi faces a turbulent Parliamentary session on reconvening of Parliament,”, the Associated Press said that the Government’s response to outbreak of Covid, the contraction of the country’s economy and tensions with China had set the tone for a volatile Parliament session. On Monday, India had more new infections than any other country in the world, with over 92000 new cases and more than 79700 deaths. India’s economy shrank nearly 24% in the last quarter, the worst among major economies. In addition, rising unemployment rate and resolution of the military confrontation with China is also a headache. The despatch said that the Foreign Ministers of China and India agreed to ease border tensions, ending of the deadlock can be expected to be a long drawn out process.
(The full text of the statement made by Shri Rajnath Singh in the Lok Sabha on September 15, 2020 can be seen here, with the agreed provisions with China and the Indian position highlighted in bold, to facilitate a comparison of the omissions and inclusions in this first report of Huan Qiu Shi Bao on the Lok Sabha discussions for its readers in China.)