An India-China truce with a difference: Why the disengagement may work this time

The declaration of truce on July 6, the 85th birthday of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama and two days after the Dharma Chakra Day on July 4, reminds of Buddha’s message that was carried by Indians to China, writes Rajendra Shende for South Asia Monitor

Rajendra Shende Jul 07, 2020
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The Indian media, centres of strategic studies, retired diplomats as well as so-called China-watchers over a couple of months has spent hours in airing their old-wine-in-new-bottle views on the India-China conflict in the Himalayas. The stand-off between the two Asian giants was filled and punctuated with fistfights, wrestling, and punching. It led to barbaric club wars in May 2020 and later in June 2020 between the Indian Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  In the Galwan Valley of Ladakh, in which the violent clash occurred, the history of India-China conflicts and wars was retold, reiterated, and recounted.  

Right from fleeing of Dalai Lama in 1959 from Tibet to the latest clash, the Indian audience was bombarded almost every day with raucous debates on TV and long columns in the newspapers. Freedom of expression was freely used to the fullest degree in the world’s largest and noisiest democracy to such an extent that viewers felt that they are seeing the ‘real battle’ on TV and social media among Indians as much as they were hearing about the two armies facing each other in the Galwan Valley. However, the mainstream Chinese media did not give much prominence to the India-China conflict. For them, priority was the trade war with the US, protesters in Hong Kong, and the situation in the South China Sea. 

The fire was still simmering even after the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Ladakh when a major announcement was made on July 6 following two hours of truce talk on July 5 between India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi  that the troops have moved back around 2 km from the site of the June 15 clashes in the Galwan Valley. 

While the truce would help in de-escalating the situation and bringing down the tempers at least in India, the question remains as to how real and different this disengagement process will be from the first disengagement announced by two sides on  June 1, 2020, and earlier in Doklam in 2017.

The clue is offered by the statement that appeared in the Chinese media on July 6.  There are three major official newspapers in China that are fully controlled by the Chinese government. They are People’s Daily, PLA Daily, and Economic Daily. There is a fourth one, Guang Ming Daily, which predominantly contains opinions of government-friendly intellectuals from the Communist Party of China.   

Indian media normally has access to two main English daily from China, both again controlled by the Chinese government, i.e. Global Times and China Daily. It is important to note the detailed statement that appeared on  June 6 in People’s Daily in Chinese in order to understand the extent to which the issue of ‘disengagement’ was discussed.

The Chinese statement (in English translation) appears below:  

“On the evening of July 5, Wang Yi, China's special representative on the border issue between China and India, State Councillor and foreign minister, held a telephone conversation with Indian special representative and Indian National Security Advisor Doval.   

"Wang Yi said that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and India. China-India relations have gone through trials and tribulations and withstood the test of times. It was not easy to achieve the development that we see today in both countries. 

"Recently, what happened in the western section of the Sino-Indian border in the Galwan Valley is very clear. China will continue to vigorously defend its territorial sovereignty and maintain peace in the border area. Wang Yi stressed that the realization along with the revitalization of development is the top priority of China and India. In this common direction, China and India have long-term common strategic interests. The two sides should always adhere to the strategic judgment so that the situation does not pose a threat to each other and serves as an opportunity for each other's development. 

"The two sides attach great importance to the complicated situation faced by the current bilateral relations, and agree to work together to overcome and reverse the same as soon as possible. It is hoped that India and China will stand together, appropriately guide public opinion, maintain and promote cordial interactions and cooperation between the two countries, avoid expanding and complicating disputes, and jointly safeguard the overall the situation of China India relations.            

"The two sides exchanged candid and in-depth views on easing the current border situation and reached a positive consensus on the following: 

*The two sides agreed to abide by the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, believing that maintaining peace and stability in the border areas is crucial to the long-term development of bilateral relations. The border issue should be placed in an appropriate position in bilateral relations, to avoid the turn of differences into disputes. (an apparent reference to informal summits between PM Narendra Modi and President XI Jinping ) 

*The two sides reiterated that they would abide by a series of agreements signed by the two countries on border issues and work together to ease the situation in the border areas.            

*The two sides agreed to strengthen communication through the special representative meeting mechanism, hold continuous meetings on China India border affairs consultation and coordination mechanism, and constantly improve and strengthen the construction of confidence-building measures in the border areas, so as to avoid the recurrence of incidents affecting peace and tranquillity in the border areas.           

*The two sides welcomed the progress made in recent military and diplomatic meetings between the two countries agreed to continue to maintain dialogue and consultation, and stressed that the consensus reached at the level of military commanders of the border defense forces of the two countries should be implemented as soon as possible so as to complete the process of disengagement of the front-line forces of both sides as soon as possible.”

The earlier statements of June 1, 2020, by Zhao Lijian, spokesmen of Chinese Foreign affairs and Anurag Srivastava, spokesman of Indian Ministry of External Affairs were brisk without any historic references and connotations. This time there are references to "development opportunities" that both countries have "long-term development of bilateral relations" that countries should keep in mind and "appropriate placement of boundary issue in (overall gambit of) bilateral relation". 

Statement this time from China indicated emphatic references to the "two leaders" - Modi and Xi talks during informal summits. 

A lot seems yet to be worked out during the inclusive talks with military commanders. However, the statement points out to the conclusion that barring glitches in implementation, the withdrawal of armies would be done expeditiously. 

Modi’s diplomacy worked

There are three reasons why this time the withdrawal and disengagement should work. Firstly, China is internationally facing isolation and is exposed as aggressive expansionist as evident from its dealings with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and muscle-flexing activities in the South China Sea. Even Russia has refused to take sides in the conflict between India and China. 

Secondly, for China, it is important to focus on resolving the issues with the US on trade and on reportedly being called the source of the coronavirus. Thirdly, PM Modi’s veiled, slow but direct diplomacy seems to be working. The threat through choking the investment and banning the digital apps may appear to be insignificant tactics to many economists but they are good enough considering the isolation China faces now. Election of India on June 17, after the deadly face-off in which 20 India’s soldiers were killed on June 15, as one of the 10 non-permanent members of United Nations Security Council (UNSC), with overwhelming support has also rattled and embarrassed China. 

On June 18, PLA Daily had reported that "the Indian Army violated its promise and again crossed the actual control line for illegal activities on the evening of June 15, deliberately launching provocative attacks, which triggered fierce physical conflicts between the two sides, causing casualties". China has, since then, certainly, come far from that position when one reads the statement of July 6.  

The declaration of truce on July 6, the 85th birthday of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama and two days after the Dharma Chakra Day on July 4 (which commemorates Buddha's First sermon to his first five ascetic disciples at the Deer Park, Rsipatana in the present-day Sarnath near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh), reminds of Buddha’s message that was carried by Indians to China across the Himalaya and which offers yet another non-political but significant dimension to the chequered India-China relations.

(The writer is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director, UNEP. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at shende.rajendra@gmail.com)