Interview of Major General S B Asthana by South China Morning Post on Forthcoming Meeting of Wang Yi and FM Jaishankar, 10 Sep 20

Sharing an email interview of mine taken by South China Morning Post (SCMP), regarding Forthcoming Meeting of Wang Yi and FM Jaishankar scheduled on 10 Sep 20 in the backdrop of of situation in Eastern Ladakh. and future of border standoff between India and China. The interviewer is Mr Jiangtao Shi of SCMP, an erstwhile diplomat and seasoned Journalist. An interesting interview by an extremely popular Newspaper. My responses are dated 09 Sep 2020. (5 minutes read).

Questionnaire by South China Morning Post

SCMP

Following the first meeting between defence ministers of India and China in Moscow since early May, Wang and Jaishankar look set to have bilateral talks on Thursday, Sept 10. While Wang Yi has appealed that both sides should set aside border dispute and avoid irreparable damages to overall ties, Jaishankar has dismissed the suggestion, saying that “the state of the border cannot be de-linked from the state of the relationship”.

How important is this meeting considering the fresh flare-up of border tensions since late August and particularly the firing of the first bullets since 1975 this week? What should we expect from the meeting? Is there any chance that both sides could break the deadlocked talks over disengagement and de-escalation and reach some sort of agreement? With Jaishankar claiming he’s known Wang Yi well, will their personal ties and interactions help bring about positive results?

Major General S B Asthana

The meeting between Wang Yi and FM Jaishankar is certainly important, but the events prior  to it indicate hardening of positions both side. India is unlikely to buy the idea of China having marched in areas, where it was not supposed to be, after junking all CBMs and expecting India to set aside border dispute and look at overall ties, while Chinese troops continue to be sitting in Depsang, Finger 8 to Finger 4, Gogra  and some other areas, which indirectly means ‘Accept Chinese encroachment’ which is totally unacceptable to India. That explains Dr Jaishankar’s response “the state of the border cannot be de-linked from the state of the relationship” which you quoted above. I do not expect any variation to this stance in the upcoming meeting.

In my opinion, while both sides don’t want a conflict, but in any faceoff a graceful/face saving exit becomes difficult, because no side seems to look weak and compromising, to its domestic constituency. China having moved forward of its positions of 20 April 20, has started the standoff and Indian demand of status quo ante (April 20 positions) is unlikely to change. India is determined not to compromise its territory and sovereignty at any cost and the stance of Foreign Minister could be no different. India certainly wants peace and tranquillity on the borders, but not at the cost of territorial compromise. The disengagement and de-escalation is a possibility, only if China is willing to go back to pre-standoff positions otherwise I am not too hopeful of any meaningful outcome. Personnel ties create good environment to talk, but are unlikely to over ride national interest and sentiments.

SCMP

What do you make of the flared tensions near the Pangong Lake in east Ladakh? Neither sides have shown willingness to back down, while sparing spiritedly over who was responsible for provocative military moves and who fired the first warning shots. Do you agree the prolonged border tensions between the two nuclear-armed powers risk getting out of control, with both sides talking past each other and showing little flexibility in the long-stalled talks amid pessimism about an early solution? When and how do you think this round of border standoff, which started since early May, would end? Is it really possible that the standoff over their Himalayan borders may continue into the winter?

Major General S B Asthana

In my opinion, Chinese occupation of Finger 8 to Finger 4 and movement of unprecedented amount of Forces in Galwan Valley, adjoining areas and heights triggered the standoff and flared tensions near the Pangong Lake in East Ladakh. The Indian actions in areas South of Pangong Tso was to defend its area within its LAC, by strengthening its positions to avoid repeat of Chinese encroachment exhibited in May 2020. Chinese are continuing with their probing actions to get some more un-held/lightly held tactical features, but are getting frustrated, being unable to find some.  With two forces operating in close vicinity and the CBMs already breached on Night 15/16 June 2020, firing is possible, whenever any side wants to come dangerously close to other, as it happened when Chinese troops armed with weapons and rods came closer to Indian positions, got surprised by the alertness of Indian troops already sitting there, fired and went back to avoid their own casualties.

I agree that the prolonged border tensions between the two nuclear-armed powers and their troops being in close vicinity is undesirable and dangerous, because of accidental triggers like firing, which could result in casualties and escalation. I still feel that the situation is still not out of control, if Chinese political will allows PLA to pull its troops back to pre-standoff positions. I feel that the China India border will be resolved, only when the political cost of resolving it, will be less than the political cost of Not resolving it, for the Chinese. So long Chinese verifiable withdrawal does not happen, we can expect the standoff to roll over to winters and India is certainly prepared for it. Till then some more incidents of tug of war between two forces can’t be ruled out, every time Chinese try to probe into Indian positions.

SCMP

How to make sense of China’s hardening stance on the border dispute with India and Beijing’s overall diplomatic strategy in recent weeks? It happens at a time when China’s top diplomats go into damage control mode, trying to mend ties with key target countries in Asian and Europe and counter Washington’s efforts to forge an anti-China coalition in the South China Sea and across the Indo-Pacific. Is it still too early to say Beijing may have begun to rethink its diplomatic overreach and re-calibrate its foreign policy orientations in the wake of the worst international push back in decades?

Major General S B Asthana

China’s hardening of stance on the border dispute with India indicates its frustration. China expected that India will not be able to respond to its move to unfairly grab strategic piece of land in Eastern Ladakh, due to rising impact of COVID-19. Indian military was quick to react to halt further encroachment and stands strong to protect the territorial integrity of the country. A strong Indian posture and growing national resolve is making the position of PLA and Chinese leadership very awkward in domestic as well as international community and making it difficult for them to pull back, due to fear of loss of face and fear of occupation of vacated land by Indians.

Strategically and diplomatically President Xi Jinping miscalculated global anger against himself, while trying to make best of Chinese early recovery from COVID-19 in an unfair manner. His aggressiveness at multiple fronts to make quick territorial and maritime gains, may have been 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 has outpaced his capacity to take on multiple fronts, exposed sea lanes of communications and his vulnerabilities. Having made unwarranted aggressive move in Ladakh, along with similar activities in South and East China Sea, President Xi Jinping faces a sense of insecurity, as he has only few bankrupt countries standing by his side. Chinese diplomats with arrogance of power, following ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ further angered many countries. All these actions have made it easy for Washington to muster global grouping of angry democracies against China.

This realisation has brought  China to some damage control mode, with top diplomats traveling in Asia and Europe to swing the global mood in its favor. Beijing is realising the dangers, but in an autocratic/authoritative system, China is finding it difficult to strike a balance between over-ambition of its leadership and reality, as the critics find it difficult to advise the ‘Core’ and loyalists take decision making away from reality to adventurism. Its right time for Beijing to control its over ambition, revisit its diplomatic overreach and re- calibrate its foreign adventurism, in the wake of major democracies standing up against it, as the worst international push back in decades, before it’s too late.

(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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