Interview of Major General S B Asthana by South China Morning Post on Pangong Tso Incident and Related Issues

Sharing an email interview of mine taken by South China Morning Post (SCMP), regarding incident South of Pangong Tso, latest border standoff , between India and China and its possible implications on the India-China relationship. The interviewer is Mr Jiangtao Shi of SCMP. An interesting interview with questions on the incident and related issues from extremely popular Newspaper. My responses are dated 31August 2020. (5 minutes read).

Questionnaire by South China Morning Post

SCMP

We just learned that based on a statement from India’s defence ministry, Indian troops thwarted China’s “provocative” military movements and pre-empted the Chinese military activity on the southern bank of Pangong Lake. Some Indian media reports said there were “clashes” between the two sides. If confirmed, it’d be the first violent confrontation since the June 15 deadly scuffle. Pending further details of what actually happened, can I have your quick take of the latest development, what it means for the border standoff that began in early May and the deeply strained India-China relations? 

Major General S B Asthana

The current Chinese action on the southern bank of Pangong Tso, is part of overall ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’ of PLA to unilaterally alter the status quo along Line of Actual Control (LAC) in its favour, which resulted in the current standoff. The PLA’s ‘provocative military movements’ on the night intervening 29 and 30 August, were timely picked up by Indian Military, which moved its troops to dominating locations, strengthened its positions to thwart PLA’s design by a pre-emptive action, which denied PLA any opportunity to change the facts on ground. There was no violent confrontation of troops. It was followed by a meeting at local Brigade Commanders level at Chushul. 

This action signifies addition of one more point of engagement to the complex nature of ongoing talks, to convince PLA to move back to pre-standoff positions, as on April 20, this year.  Notwithstanding differing perceptions of LAC, PLA has entered areas, where it was not supposed to be located, junking all the CBMs signed between the two countries, so far. Its intention was to unfairly grab strategic piece of land, presuming that India will not be able to respond due to rising impact of COVID-19. Indian side was quick to react to halt further encroachment and stands strong to protect the territorial integrity of the country. Currently the build up continues with both sides getting ready for long haul, besides talks at various levels.

My take on latest development is that despite various rounds of talks at military and diplomatic level PLA doesn’t seem to be inclined to fall back to pre-standoff positions and continues to build up at few friction points. China continues to talk of peace, but its actions  speak otherwise, further refuelling Indian anger against China. There is a growing national resolve against PLA and Chinese leadership, fuelled by supreme sacrifice of 20 Indian soldiers (besides unspecified number of PLA soldiers). This has strained India China relations to lowest ebb, increased trust deficit and is slowly pushing India towards US and some other democracies facing similar aggression by China, to take action against it.       

SCMP

The latest incident occurred right after Xi Jinping convened a top-level national meeting on Tibet over the weekend, which was believed to be focused on border defences, frontier security along the border with India and quite probably the Dalai Lama’s succession. Is it a coincidence that border tensions rise again after the Tibet meeting? What does the incident tell us about China’s foreign policy thinking, when Beijing’s adversarial tensions with Washington and its growing international isolation are believed to have put China on the defence, with top diplomats traveling in Asia and Europe to mend fences?

Major General S B Asthana

Let me put this in context. Having made an unwarranted aggressive move in Ladakh, which has been criticised globally, along with similar activities in South and East China Sea, President Xi Jinping faces a sense of insecurity. China has major democracies standing up against his overambitious aggressive design, and only few bankrupt countries standing by his side. In context of Tibet, gross violation of CBMs by China has put all options on table of India to respond, at a place and time of own choosing, with no international pressure, in addition to responses in economic, diplomatic and other domains. A pull back may have a domestic political cost for Xi-Jinping, besides threat of its occupation by India. The Indo-Tibetan border is very long, and it is impractical for both forces to be strong everywhere. PLA is aware of its sensitive spots; hence President Xi is wanting to strengthen its defences so that it could ward of Indian threat in Tibet. The current action fits in this context, as an attempt of China to strengthen its tactical locations South of Pangong Tso by proactively encroaching dominating ground disregarding LAC/status quo. This is a part of ‘fortifying Tibet’ narrative. As this narrative is implemented along LAC, we might see some more actions like this.

China knows that Dalai Lama has global following and nomination of its successor by China will ignite protests within and outside Tibet. Although under the garb of ‘Strategy of Three Evils’ China has already done enough Sinicization of Tibet, but Tibetan movement is a potential danger on its internal security. Dalai Lama is revered by all Buddhists globally and his successor appointed by China may not have global acceptance; hence President Xi Jinping, who wants to appoint, will like to start the preparatory work of quelling dissent from now onwards, as is evident from his statements, which you mentioned in the question.       

Looking at the bigger picture, apparently, President Xi Jinping miscalculated global anger and resolve against itself, and tried to make best of Chinese early recovery from COVID-19 in an unfair manner. His aggressiveness at multiple fronts was to make quick territorial gains, while the world was struggling with the pandemic. It also helped him to divert domestic attention from some of his internal problems, by playing nationalism card, by selling the narrative that US and other powers ganging up against China. His adventurism outpaced his capacity to take on multiple fronts, confronting powers like US, having four times its defence budget consistently and determined to push the trade war ahead. With multiple fronts and exposed sea lanes of communications, China may soon find its vast inventory of military assets too meagre to cover its vulnerabilities.

Chinese diplomats with arrogancy of power, following ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ further angered many countries. The buzz words on twitter of global grouping of angry democracies against China conveys it all. China, now, seems to be trying to repair the damage with top diplomats traveling in Asia and Europe to swing the global mood in its favour, but it is a tough task unless Chinese leadership controls its overambition and adventurism.  

SCMP

The Modi government has been criticized domestically for being not tough enough in its response to China’s perceived aggression in the aftermath of the June 15 deadly clash. What do you think Modi should do in the face of Xi Jinping’s assertiveness as well as the rapidly changing regional landscape?

Major General S B Asthana

The nation stands behind PM Modi in its resolve to respond appropriately to Chinese aggression. India is a democracy, wherein people enjoy right of speech and some may be wanting him to do more and immediately. China has broken all the CBMs with its aggressive moves; hence India retains the right to respond in the manner, place, modalities and time of own choosing. The country has appreciated all his economic responses like banning Chinese Apps as well as diplomatic responses. No country wants war and talks at various levels are still on. India would like to have peaceful borders, provided PLA goes back to pre-standoff positions, but I feel that talks alone are unlikely to make PLA recoil. India will have to raise the cost of PLA’s aggression. All options exist on the table from continental to maritime domain and decision makers have to evaluate the cost-benefit of each of the option. Incidentally, PM Modi’s approval ratings are much higher after COVID19 and Chinese aggression, and most Indians feel that Chinese leadership (Not people) is responsible for both these problems. 

Apparently China has failed to recognise that a hostile India, partnered by US and other democratic countries can be a disaster to Chinese dreams. Certainly post Chinese aggression, most Indians feel commonality of  their interests with US.  China is also failing to recognise that most of its neighbours are fed up of its strategy of talking peace, and continuing with encroachment/adventurism. An emboldened Taiwan, angry Hong Kong, and rising global criticism of Xinjiang and Tibet are not comfortable signs for Chinese domestic stability. Irrespective of Chinese diplomatic language and intent, China has left no stone unturned to push India into strategic orbit of US, by its actions in Ladakh.  

Major General S B Asthana

(The views expressed are my personal views and do not represent official views or views of any organisation). The author can be reached at Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, @asthana_shashi on twitter, and personnel sitehttps://asthanawrites.org/email shashiasthana29@gmail.comLinkedIn Profilewww.linkedin.com/in/shashi-asthana-4b3801a6   My Youtube link  

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl50YRTBrOCVIxDtHfhvQDQ?view_as=subscriber

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