NEW DELHI: On ‘Talking Point, Lt Gen S.L. Narasimhan(Retd), Member of the National Security Advisory Board(NSAB) and Director General, Centre for Contemporary China Studies and Nitin A. Gokhale, Founder & Editor-in-Chief, StratNews Global and BharatShakti in discussion with StratNews Global Associate Editor Amitabh P. Revi.
Editor’s Note: These quotes are edited for space, understanding and conciseness. For the whole context, watch the complete discussion. (SLN = Lt Gen S.L.Narasimhan, NAG = Nitin A. Gokhale)
Does China Want To Resolve The Boundary Issue?
SLN: Firstly, the boundary issue is a very, very complicated issue. We need to be rational. Both sides are negotiating, both have their own positions. Each position needs to be negotiated in a very, very detailed manner. It takes time. It’s not going to be easy on a 3,488 km border. Secondly, we need to accept that both sides should maintain peace and tranquility along the LAC to facilitate that process. There are 25 to 30 areas with issues. If we understand each other’s positions on the LAC, the face-offs can be reduced. Thirdly, all the protocols and standard operating procedures that we have signed so far have proved ineffective after the summer of 2020. So we need to look at more effective ways of managing this. That process also, I’m sure, is on. So these are the things that we need to look at. It is not a question of somebody wanting to stall or somebody not wanting to stall. It is a difficult process which will take time and we need to understand that.
14th Round Vs 13th Round
SLN: I think it’s gone off better than the previous one. Last time when the talks finished, there was no joint statement and also, the tenor of reporting after that was not really very positive. But I think the 14th round of talks have gone better than that definitely. The joint statement also is more conducive to continuing these talks to find a mutually acceptable solution to the problems that they are discussing. So to that extent, I think the 14th Corps Commander-level talks have been one better than the previous one, definitely.
NAG: The statement itself is quite positive, so we’ll have to wait and watch but we’ll have to also watch the traps that the Chinese can certainly spring on the interlocutors.
New Corps Commanders Meet For The First Time
SLN: General Yang Lin, who came from the other side, has taken over the South Xinjiang military district and so it’s his first time and on our side also GoC 14 Corps has just taken over, General Anindya Sengupta. So both of them would have met for the first time. Notwithstanding that, I think the last time why the talks went a little on the tough side is basically because I think the previous representative who came from the Chinese side was actually the Chief of Staff of the Xinjiang military district. He did not actually have the appointment as well as the mandate. Maybe that seems to have been the reason why things had probably gone a little south that time. But I think that seems to have come back on track and both sides have also agreed to hold the next Corps commander level talks quickly. So that I think is another positive sign and, hopefully, some more progress will be made in the next talks whenever they take place.
Are Talks Of Any Use?
SLN: We should not compare the South China Sea and the LAC. These are two different things and we need to deal with them differently. On the viewer’s question whether we should continue talking to the Chinese, unless he has got a better option, I think talking actually helps. Secondly, the moment talks take place, everybody expects a result to come out. I just want to remind the viewers of only one thing; please go back and think about Sumdorong Chu, which took us seven years. The fact of the matter remains that unless we have a better option, speaking to each other is always good. It builds mutual trust and confidence over a period of time, though things go wrong once in a while, like on the LAC. Number two, the change in tone is also visible in other things. If you look at the Chinese spokesperson, the Foreign minister speaking, it seems that there is a thinking of working towards some kind of a solution. The other thing is, we have always been asking for clarification of the Line of Actual Control, so that such faceoffs, when they take place, do not escalate into something like what they did in the summer of 2020. So that is the next step we need to look at, at least in the disputed areas, the sensitive areas. We need to continue speaking to resolve these locations one by one. PP 15 is the next one. Thereafter, we need to look at resolving Depsang and the Charding Ninglung Nallah (CNN) junction. So I think that is a way to go forward. A joint statement means that both sides have agreed on the text. So to that extent, I think it is a positive sign. And we need to look forward to the next Corps Commander level meeting.
3D Formula; Resolved, Unresolved Issues
NAG: The first disengagement took place in February 2021 at the Kailash range, when the armour element from both sides first withdrew. Then the area between Finger Four and Finger Eight was vacated by the Chinese and it was decided that no side will patrol the areas there. In the next few rounds, the Gogra area face-off was resolved. As the Army Chief has pointed out, three main areas remain: PP 15, Depsang, and Demchok-CNN in south-east Ladakh or facing Aksai Chin. Depsang and CNN disputed or friction points predate the current crisis, which started in May 2020. And, as the Army Chief pointed out, eventually India is looking at the ‘3D’ formula: disengagement, de-escalation and de-induction. That will likely take a long time but we have the resilience. The Sumdorong Chu standoff in Arunachal Pradesh in the mid-1980s got resolved only in the early-1990s. We have to be patient. This round has gone far better than anyone expected, given the experience of the 13th round, where there was a lot of acrimony and both sides issued separate statements. The 13th round was the fastest round, also because the person who came from the Chinese side was not authorised, not even aware or knowledgeable about the whole issue. So, I think we have put that behind us. And I think the next round should come up with at least a PP 15 resolution if nothing more.
PRC Negotiations: Stalling, Deception, Pressure, Long-Winded Dialogue
SLN: We should also do the same. I’m not saying that we should stall, what I’m trying to say is firstly, we should not come under any pressure. I don’t think any of our people who are in the discussions come under any kind of pressure. We should not work to a timeline. The moment you start fixing a timeline and you want to achieve something, then obviously the negotiating style changes. So, don’t fix a timeline but look at what you aim to achieve out of these negotiations. And then keep sticking to it and then keep giving those arguments which need to be supporting that. I’m sure over a period of 70 years of negotiations with the Chinese, we also understand how things should be negotiated. We also have synergy between the civilian and military establishments, which is another plus for us because both of them support each other. It gives us more institutional memory. So I think the negotiation styles are understood. Therefore, we should not be under any suspicion that we will not be able to negotiate better. We are good enough and we understand how the negotiation needs to be done.
SLN: A lot of people think the Chinese are at an advantage in the Depsang plains. I don’t think they are. If we’re not able to go across the bottleneck, they’re also not able to come across the bottleneck to their claims. So to that extent, I wouldn’t say, we’re if not in a better position, we’re at least on an equal position along with the Chinese.
NAG: The faceoff and bottleneck is from both sides. If the Chinese don’t allow us to go to the patrol points, which are beyond the bottleneck, we also don’t allow them to come to their line of perception, which is further down south and southwest of where the faceoff takes place. In any case the Chinese are much more sensitive about the Depsang plains because they think we have plans to threaten the G 219 highway. It’s not so difficult a target if some sort of conflict was to occur, because armour can be used there. One of the sensitive points that the Chinese have is also that we have increased our strength and capability in those areas. This issue about India having lost some 1000 square kilometres in Depsang and Depsang being threatened and thereby even Siachen being threatened because of the Chinese presence there is all exaggerated. It is half-baked knowledge of people who do not know the topography or the kind of deployment the Indian Army has in that area.
Can The Chinese Be Trusted With Withdrawal Agreements?
SLN: There’s a Hindi saying: “zindangi umeedon par kayam hain”(hope springs eternal). Similarly, we need to look at positives. If they have gone back from three of four different locations, we should think they will go back from the fourth. Trust but verify. If they accept that they will go back, I believe they will. I have dealt with them soldier to soldier and if they commit, they do it. So I expect that they will go back. Even if we accept that they’re going back and the agreement is done, even then, it was all mutually verifiable. Even in the earlier locations, when they withdrew, the clause that was there was mutually verifiable kind of disengagement. So obviously we need to verify; keep monitoring those areas so that there are no changes that take place subsequently.
February 2021 Disengagement Put Down On Paper?
SLN: If it happened even earlier, we don’t actually know. But whichever way it is, there’ll be some kind of commitment given from both sides as to how the disengagement should take place, and that we should trust. So you need to trust that but verify whether this agreement has taken place, whether any further modifications are being done to those areas. We need to continue to keep monitoring and verify.
SLN: I have served extensively, more than 12 years in the Northeast. The issues we suffer from when we want to do infrastructure development, one is the treacherous terrain itself. The making of infrastructure takes a lot of time and effort. The second thing is the various kind of procedures that we were following earlier have improved a lot. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to constantly keep doing infrastructure development. Those areas are all divided into deep, narrow valleys. Each river meets a short valley. Those valleys are the ones you need to defend and they are extremely difficult areas to deal with. But one thing I can tell all your viewers is just be confident of your troops. They are the best in the world. They seek so much less from you and they give you so much more. That is the strength that we have to actually cater against any kind of adverse reaction that could come from across. So, we need to be confident of that, infrastructure needs to continue, we need to keep doing whatever we need to build our capability in terms of equipment, in terms of modernization, in terms of surveillance, those things we need to continue to do so that we are in a better position.
China’s Dual-Use Villages
NG: The Chinese have adopted a strategy of dual-use villages. That’s something they’re building for the past five to six years at least, where they want to use them for both military and civil purposes. And they are pushing the envelope, even in disputed areas like Longju in Arunachal Pradesh, they have improved their infrastructure and built some villages there. Bhutan is a different cup of tea. They know that Chumbi Valley is important for them. They need some depth there and they’ve been putting pressure in the north of Bhutan. That is where there are disputed areas they want to swap or tell the Bhutanese that you can keep them and give us the western Bhutan-China border areas so that they get the depth in the Chumbi Valley, which of course has ramifications for India’s deployments and security. But again, there is only that much one can do with Bhutan and tell them or request them to withstand the pressure. Beyond, there are certain other ramifications there which will be known to only the Bhutanese and the Indian interlocutors, but it is certainly a sensitive area.
SLN: These are part of 628 villages with the Chinese building as part of something known as ‘xiaokang’, which actually means to develop a moderately well-off society in an organised way. They have taken up approximately 628 villages to be built. Out of that, approximately 200 are along the Line of Actual Control, the remainder in depth areas. We need to be careful of such villages which come up in disputed areas along the LAC. The second thing is on the border disputes between Bhutan and China. They’ve already held 24 rounds of talks. Recently, they also signed a three-step process to resolve the boundary issue. So this is something that has been going on for a period of time. I think they have taken a call to probably move ahead and do something to resolve the boundary issue. But we also have almost the same three-step process with the Chinese from 2003. So, the issue that comes up is very simple. You need to be careful about the areas in which the villages are coming up in areas that are disputed and sensitive. In the depth areas, what they do is their business and so we don’t really look into it. How these villages are going to be used–that we need to be constantly watching and monitoring so that we can take any kind of action that is required to be taken at that time.
Psy Ops & Info Warfare
NAG: We are catching up on that too. The Chinese use this, they have it inbuilt in their warfighting doctrines, white papers: information warfare, the way they use foreign media rather than their own media. The kind of bizarre statements, if you recall in 2017 when the Dolam crisis was on, they went to the extent of saying India will face the same music as in 1962. They dug up some of the People’s Daily editorials about how India will be decimated again like in 1962. So they use the three-warfare strategy. India has again learned and absorbed lessons. The military officers who are leading the negotiations, they have also learned over the years. There is institutional memory. More and more specialization is happening in the Indian military. There’s always been specialization in the MEA. All that is needed now is to have a centralized, coordinated information or perception management counter to the Chinese efforts. But we being a different, democratic society, system, we will always have our limitations unlike the Chinese who can have uniform policies, which can be enforced. We have our strengths, which the Chinese will never realise and they are very afraid about the Indian media, why it can’t be reined in by Indian officials. We should play to that strength rather than join the game with their rules. We have to play to our strength of an open and democratic society.
Xi Jinping & Internal Dynamics
SLN: One of the reasons why the events of 2020 took place that was talked about was that Xi Jinping was trying to divert internal issues and the attention of the people. I’m not into all those things. What I’m trying to say is, China is a very big country. It will have its own internal issues, its own internal problems and the leaders of that country will also face problems like our leaders face. Our country is also a large country with n number of issues that need to be dealt with by the leadership. So, I’m sure he also will be having the same kind of issues. There are problems which will be there in any country. China will also have a lot of internal issues that need to be dealt with. The Party Congress is going to take place in October and that is going to be a major, major event to decide on the next level of leadership. It is almost given that Mr Xi Jinping will continue for a third term because he’s got the term limit for the President and Vice President waived. So he will go through for a third term but the leadership, the standing committee of seven people will see churn and change. So this is something that will happen. The second thing is economically, a lot of actions have been taken on major companies that have been dealt with, education, gaming companies, which have actually been put on some kind of notice. The implications of those will be telling on the people, in the sense that the common man is expected to benefit out of all these all these actions that have been taken by Mr Xi Jinping. The Party Congress is going to be a huge event that will decide on the leadership for the next five years. And that is going to be a major event that we need to keep watching. Other than that, like any country, political opposition and other things will be there. At the moment we see that Mr Xi Jinping has got his place and will continue to do whatever he is expecting to do in the coming months.
Stand-Off In Second Winter
NAG: This is unprecedented. Such a large number of troops in the winters being deployed at those altitudes and that weather is unprecedented on both sides. India has had the experience of deployments in Siachen, Ladakh and in Kargil, where the temperatures can be daunting. To sustain such a large body of troops, you require great logistics. India proved in 2020 and 2021 that it can sustain such a large number of troops. These logistics operations are now quite efficient and can be taken to the next level when required. China has actually done us a favour. What we would have done in the next five or seven years in terms of building infrastructure, slowly raising the capability. India has been forced to telescope the timeline in getting the infrastructure in place, getting more acclimatized troops in that area. Yes, there are enormous strains, wear and tear on the equipment, officers and men go through a lot of problems initially, but India has proved time and again, that the troops are the best in the world. They can adapt to any situation, adopt new systems or make necessary adjustments. It’s the Chinese, who must be facing more problems than the Indians, but even they’re fast learners. Let’s not underestimate the Chinese troops by saying that they haven’t had the experience, because they have proved in at least the last two decades, that they learned very fast in all respects. But India is in a great position. As the army chief said, if there were to be a conflict, we will come out victorious.
Kailash Range Type Repeat Ops
SLN: Indian troops will definitely hold ground when it is required to be held and so there is nothing to be worried about. As far as the question which came up, these are in the operational domain. That is our job when we command formations, command corps, division, brigade etc. These are the things that we keep talking about. I would just like to say that rest assured those things are being catered for in the plans.