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The fallout of China's Depsang plains transgression

May 06, 2013 18:21 IST

It is clear that overall the Chinese transgression will leave its scars for a long time to come on the bilateral equations, even as India will have to learn from lessons in statecraft to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, says Srikanth Kondapalli.

The ‘compromise’ solution arrived at the Indian and Chinese troops at Depsang plains and diplomats at Delhi and Beijing on Sunday had lifted the pressures building up between the two countries in the last three weeks ever since the Chinese troops crossed 19 kilometres into Indian claimed areas in Ladakh sector. This is also expected to pave way for the Indian foreign minister’s visit to Beijing and then China’s premier visit slated for this month.

However, as details of the compromise are not available -- and could remain so for at least a year or so -- it is difficult to surmise on the reasons first of the Chinese intrusions and their exit at will in the Ladakh sector. However, what is clear is that some trends became quite obvious for us to reflect on this issue.

First, the incident triggered intense diplomatic activity with hardly any military moves by India after the incident was reported on April 15. A number of flag meetings were held and diplomatic visits ensued. Could India have done better in getting these tents vacated? Could Indian troops acted similarly as the Japanese coast guard did as in September 2010 when they arrested 15 crew members of an intruding Chinese ship in the Japanese claimed but Chinese contested Senkaku islands?

If the Indian defence secretary had told the parliamentary committee on defence that the Chinese troops had intruded 19 km into the Indian territory, then did India have not acted in the initial stages by handing over the intruders at the borders?  Was escalation on the border the fear in the Indian political leadership?

No clear answers are forthcoming, but indicated to the Chinese that the Indian resolve had chinks in its armour and more needs to be done if a similar incident occurs in future. It is interesting to compare, in 1962 as well, the Chinese side stayed almost the same time they did as this time and walked away later.

It is also not clear if the Indian side had agreed with China on the latter’s three main demands viz, to stop infrastructure projects in Ladakh, discontinue patrolling up to the Line of Actual Control, de-activating the Daulet Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyoma airfields. Similarly it is not clear if there is a reciprocal demand that China should stop such projects in Tibet, adjoining the Line of Actual Control. The ground level situation in the coming months and years will indicate the variations and compromises, if any.

Secondly, Indian foreign minister’s suggestion for possible postponement of his May 9 visit to Beijing if there is no ground level improvement in the situation could have put pressures on the Chinese side, preparing as they were for premier Li Keqiang’s  first overseas visit to Delhi after he took over in March. Also, the anti-China public perception in India -- which the Ladakh incident triggered -- mainly in the media and Parliament -- could have consequences to the bilateral relations.

Thirdly, the Chinese policy makers -- the politburo and the central committee members -- grew up in the tradition of understanding the “correlation of forces” in the international system. Was the Chinese leadership paying attention to the Japanese deputy prime minister Taro Aso’s visit to Delhi this week and his comments that Japan and India are in the same boat?

Specifically on his comments that India and Japan should strengthen maritime cooperation must have unnerved the Chinese side, dependent they are on the Indian Ocean for energy and increasingly trade with the region.

Fourthly, although not exhibited prominently, there is a movement after the Ladakh incident erupted, in India for the boycott of Chinese goods. This move, if successful, could pinch the Chinese economy reeling as it were under the global economic crisis. On an average, China had been exporting manufactured goods worth $30-40 billion officially to India a year. Cumulatively, these figures could have been higher if we consider the dumping of goods in the Indian market.

When Turkish Prime Minster R T Erdogan gave the slogan for boycott of the Chinese goods in the aftermath of the July 5, 2009 incident at Urumqi that killed 197 people in two hours, China made amends to Turkey and today has flourishing commercial and military relations. 

It is clear that overall the Depsang plains incident will leave its scars for a long time to come on the bilateral equations, even as India will have to learn from lessons in statecraft to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at JNU, New Delhi


Srikanth Kondapalli