Even as China has continued to be amongst India’s largest trading partners in fact in fiscal 2024 so far the pole position has been achieved in the first two quarters [April to September], the narrative is that normalcy in relations will be restored only after People’s Liberation Army (PLA) restores the status quo on the Line of Actual Control [LAC] in Eastern Ladakh.
What is the status quo become unclear when senior leaders as Lt Governor of Ladakh remarks that not a single Chinese boot is on our side of the land. So how does one explain this paradox.
Firstly the trade figures, India’s imports from China figures as per the Data Bank of Ministry of Commerce and Industry, is $ 50.474 Billion for the period for the period April to September 2024. At 15.34 % the volume is highest for any country during the period, thus China’s imports are largest for India during this period. In terms of trade as well China has emerged as the premier trade partner during the period. For the whole year 2022-23 India’s imports were $ 98.505 Billion. If the current trends persist the same could exceed $ 100 Billion for the whole year 2023-24. These figures come at a time when the movement for vocal for local has gained special emphasis.
In terms of leadership contacts Chinese Premier Li Qiang attended the G20 Summit in September and later the Virtual Summit at India’s invitation on November 22. There was no bilateral meeting between the Indian and Chinese leaders Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in South Africa where both were present in August this year.
However, there was a “conversation,’ as highlighted by Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra. He said in a media briefing after the Summit, “It was a conversation with President Xi Jinping and other leaders on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. The prime minister had an interaction with other BRICS leaders. And in that conversation with President Xi Jinping, the prime minister highlighted India’s concerns on the unresolved issues along the LAC in the western sector of the India-China border areas.”
“Prime Minister underlined that the maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the border areas and observing and respecting the LAC are essential for the normalisation of the India-China relationship. In this regard the two leaders agreed to direct their relevant officials to intensify efforts at expeditious disengagement and de-escalation,” said Kwatra as per another media report. The Foreign Secretary added, “The interaction (between Modi and Xi) captures the essence of the relationship between India and China. Our leadership, my foreign minister, has made India’s position on India-China relations clear ample number of times, reiterated several times and I don’t think that position needs to be repeated.”
Disengagement and de-escalation on the LAC is thus the touchpoint.
However on the situation on the LAC, speaking to the Hindustan Times, Lieutenant Governor of Ladakh Union Territory Brigadier B D Mishra [Retired] stated that not a single step or Chinese boot is on the Indian side of the land. Lt Governor Mishra States, “There are concerns that some grazing grounds are now out of bounds for locals and some political p1f arties have raised the issue of Chinese incursions. They refer to satellite images and blame the government for not stating the extent of incursions. After the 1962 Chinese aggression, that was one thing which happened, which the government of the day was not prepared for and the Chinese came. But today, the idea which we have about the Line of Actual Control, there is not a single step or boot of the Chinese which is on our side of that land”.
“The perception is that they are in our area, the Chinese say that we are in their area. We say that LAC runs along a particular place so there is a bit of clash of perceptions, but despite that, no Chinese boot is on this side of that area,” he added.
There is also a political connect with Lt Governor’s Mishra’s statement as the main opposition party has been blaming the government for loss of territory to China including local grazing grounds which were frequented by the graziers.
Mishra explained this as, “As far as grazing land is concerned, land which was earlier there it is there. The deployment is along the no man’s land. That has to be maintained. And our boundary as per our perception runs in that no man’s land. When people say that they are not permitted to go anywhere, it is not that Chinese have come. It is because there is a no man’s land”.
This apparent contradiction between claims of no loss of land by Lt Governor of Ladakh and the insistence of the Indian side on status quo ante for normalization of relations with China is unexplainable.
At the same time framing the strain in relations on loss of lack of strategic trust between the leadership on both sides after China using tactical surprise occupied its perception of the LAC in April – May 2020 and refused to pull back preventing India from patrolling up to its side of the agreed upon line may be more logical.
In addition, China’s overall strategic behaviour has been disconcerting to say the least with attempts to revise the status quo, unilateral escalation and seizure of areas which were accepted as under dispute through tactical surprise. In the case of the LAC, several agreements arrived at by the two sides over the past two decades have also been violated by Beijing.
India is well within its rights to demand adherence to rule based norms by China in bilateral relations for normalcy and not only harp on the LAC issue, despite the internal political connotations. However, “boots on our ground,” is more emotive and thus is being used politically by both sides – India and China. There is another facet of this narrative as who moved first in J & K with the Chinese reference to India’s special status and bifurcation of then State with removal of Article 370.
For the PLA, which has adopted an aggressive posture on perceived fronts where national sovereignty is at stake from its own perception, Taiwan, South China Sea and the India China border – the year 2027 is important as it marks the 100th Anniversary of its raising. The PLA has an ambition of being regionally dominant by 2027 and globally by 2035.
Would this imply that the standoff on the LAC will continue till 2027 at least for the PLA to demonstrate to the Chinese people of success achieved vis a vis India, we will wait and see?