A day after the first incident of firing along the Line of Actual Control in 45 years, New Delhi and Beijing were working the diplomatic hotlines to dial down the tension ahead of the proposed meeting in Moscow between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart, State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Monday’s incident came four months after the border standoff began early May and a violent clash on June 15 that killed 20 Indian soldiers and resulted in an unspecified number of Chinese casualties.
Diplomats in Delhi and Beijing were in touch with each other since Monday evening, The Indian Express has learnt, after the first gunshots were fired. Special Representative-level talks are likely to take place in the coming days.
National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who last had a video conference with Wang Yi on July 5, was briefed by officials from the military, intelligence and MEA, sources said. Subsequently, he briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi since Jaishankar had left for Moscow via Tehran Tuesday morning — he reached Moscow in the evening. New Delhi’s assessment, as of now, is that Beijing is “rattled” after a series of pre-emptive steps by Indian troops along the LAC on the south bank of Pangong Tso since August 29-30. They thwarted Chinese moves in the Chushul sector and occupied dominating heights on the south bank of Pangong Tso and Rechin La near Rezang La.
According to Indian officials, India’s perception of the LAC runs from the LAC Point to Point 5167 to Black Top to Magar Hill and then to Rezang La and Rechin La. The LAC runs from north to south in almost a straight line, except a bend after Point 5167 where Black Top is located.
On Monday, officials said, a group of about 30-40 Chinese soldiers came armed with spears, machetes and guns to charge at Indian troops and occupy the heights at Mukpari, a point between Magar Hill and Rezang La.
The Indian troops, armed and present in larger numbers, used the portable public address system to warn Chinese troops that if they did not halt their advance, India would be forced to fire. According to Indian officials, Chinese troops fired shots in the air.
Sources said the fact that the Indian presence was numerically stronger than China’s and that the soldiers had been instructed to follow the new rules of engagement — which is shoot if under threat — prevented a repeat of what happened in Galwan June 15.
This was clearly articulated by the Indian side through an official statement by the Ministry of External Affairs on Tuesday.
“India… is committed to disengagement and de-escalating the situation on the LAC, (but) China continues to undertake provocative activities to escalate. At no stage has the Indian Army transgressed across the LAC or resorted to use of any aggressive means, including firing,” the MEA said.
“It is the PLA that has been blatantly violating agreements and carrying out aggressive manoeuvres, while engagement at military, diplomatic and political level is in progress… On September 7, 2020, it was the PLA troops who were attempting to close-in with one of our forward positions along the LAC and when dissuaded by own troops, PLA troops fired a few rounds in the air in an attempt to intimidate own troops. However, despite the grave provocation, own troops exercised great restraint and behaved in a mature and responsible manner,” the statement said.
“The Indian Army is committed to maintaining peace and tranquillity… however (it) is also determined to protect national integrity and sovereignty at all costs. The statement by the Western Theatre Command is an attempt to mislead their domestic and international audience,” the MEA said.
South Block Tuesday also picked holes in the Chinese Defence Ministry’s statement that Indian troops made a “gunshot threat” to patrolling Chinese border guards who came forward for negotiations and that the Chinese guards were forced to take “countermeasures.”
Senior Colonel Zhang Shuili, spokesperson for the Western Theatre Command of the PLA, demanded that the Indian side “earnestly investigate and punish the personnel who fired shots.” This, incidentally, is at variance with an earlier statement where Beijing talked of a “threat.”
On Monday, Jaishankar, speaking at Express Adda, had framed the contours of a diplomatic exchange with China. That, officials said, applies to the circumstances after Monday’s incident as well.
Jaishankar underlined a “number of understandings” with China on border management which go back to 1993 which “clearly stipulate” that both countries will keep forces at the minimum level at the border.
“And the subsequent agreements we had, they shape the behaviour of troops, and what are the restrains which should be on them. If these are not observed, then it raises very, very important questions. At this moment, I note that this very serious situation has been going on since the beginning of May. This calls for very, very deep conversations between the two sides at a political level,” Jaishankar had said.
This is the conversation that Jaishankar hopes to flag off when he is likely to meet Wang on the sidelines of the SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting anytime between September 9 and 11.
Russia Tuesday said while SCO does not allow any bilateral dispute to be discussed, it will encourage Indian and Chinese leaders to talk.
Roman Babushkin, Russian Deputy Chief of Mission in Delhi, said his country has “no doubt that Indian and Chinese friends would find a mutually acceptable solution through dialogue.”
“We are very encouraged to know that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met his Chinese counterpart, as well as Dr Jaishankar would also meet his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) event,” he said. “We would be very happy to see positive results of these discussions.”
Meanwhile, in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reiterated the Chinese Army’s position, and said, “This is a serious military provocation of an egregious nature.” He said the Chinese side has lodged protests through diplomatic and military channels on the Monday incident.