June 8, 2020 4:00:59 am
In its typically laconic statement on Saturday’s talks between senior Indian and Chinese generals, the ministry of external affairs sounded surprisingly positive about the nature of the conversation and said there will be more military and diplomatic engagement to resolve the current crisis in Ladakh region. Saturday’s military talks followed inconclusive local-level engagement between the two armed forces in the last few weeks. On the eve of Saturday’s talks, there was intensive diplomatic consultation between the two sides that reaffirmed the mutual political interest in a peaceful resolution of the issues at hand. That the talks between senior generals were held in a “cordial atmosphere” is a relief. Delhi’s affirmation that the two sides agreed to resolve the situation in accordance with the bilateral confidence-building measures instituted over the last three decades is welcome. It is reasonable to conclude that the talks mark a good beginning in the effort to resolve yet another military crisis on the China frontier.
Before Saturday’s talks, Delhi was careful to downplay the prospects for an early breakthrough and suggested an extended process is at hand. The government’s caution was complemented by widespread pessimism within the Indian strategic community about an immediate resolution. That scepticism was rooted in the fact that India was taken unawares in April by the big forward push by the People’s Liberation Army across multiple locations along the so-called Line of Actual Control separating the two sides. That the PLA had dug into the new positions and had brought in heavy weapons systems seemed to suggest China was here to stay in the new positions it had secured. With China having seized some ground that it did not control before, Delhi’s task of getting Beijing to undo the new facts it had created in Ladakh appears rather difficult. But having publicly signalled its case for the restoration of the status quo that existed in April, Delhi has little room to back off. Therefore the government’s suggestions that the Indian armed forces are in this for a long haul.
The strategic community fears two negative implications of Delhi’s current engagement with Beijing. One is that Delhi might be tempted to ease the standoff in return for some cosmetic steps from the PLA to defuse the current crisis. The other is that Beijing might demand rather costly political concessions from Delhi in return for a full restoration of the April status quo. Given the unenviable situation Delhi finds itself in, South Block’s upbeat description of the talks suggests that the outcomes on Saturday may have exceeded initial expectations. But there is no forgetting that the April surprise has given the upper hand to the PLA. Delhi will have to press all its leverages — on the military, diplomatic and political fronts — to persuade Beijing to restore status quo ante in Ladakh. If Delhi, however, is seen as making unreasonable concessions to ease the current crisis, it will face a domestic political backlash and considerable diminution of its regional and international status in relation to Beijing.
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