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As Ladakh border standoff continues, questions over timing

A day before President Xi Jinping of China travelled to India for a state visit from September 17-19, China’s foreign ministry in Beijing termed the visit “a new historical starting point… of great significance”.

Yet, on Thursday, when Xi echoed that sentiment in New Delhi after talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, describing his visit as “a historic opportunity to renew ties”, that prospect had already been scuttled by a brewing confrontation on the de facto Sino-Indian border in Ladakh.

Even as the leaders talked, some 500 armed Indian soldiers stood eyeball-to-eyeball with as many Chinese border guards, a paramilitary set-up that works under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In the run-up to Xi’s visit, the Chinese had intruded three to four km across what India perceives as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), travelling in vehicles along a road the PLA had earlier built.

That face-off near Chumar Post is continuing, with tensions rising as neither side is backing off. This 14,000-feet-high enclave is a known hotspot where the LAC is disputed. Chinese troops claim they are on their side of the LAC, while the Indians are intruding.

There is no way to know whether President Xi knew about the Chinese intrusion ahead of his visit, or whether it had his tacit or explicit sanction. Indian analysts say there are three possible explanations, and none of them make Xi look good.

The first option is that Xi was taken by surprise by the intrusions. If this is correct, the PLA, long thought to be firmly under Xi’s control, is pursuing its own agenda boldly enough to undermine a presidential visit to India.

That would seriously question Xi’s reputation as China’s paramount leader. Many have argued that the quickness with which Xi consolidated power – assuming three key posts of president of the People Republic of China; general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party; and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – makes him China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiao-ping.

This, say Indian policymakers, would complicate New Delhi’s calculations by having to factor the PLA as an independent, or at least semi-autonomous, actor.

A second possibility is that Xi knowingly permitted the intrusion to coincide with his visit, to put brakes on the strategic and security relationship even while dangling the bait of $ 20 billion in Chinese investment to boost the economic relationship with India. By this logic, Xi wants access to India’s markets without having to service a real strategic partnership with Delhi, which Beijing views as inherently adversarial.

New Delhi has noted that Xi travelled to Delhi via the Maldives and Sri Lanka, where he splashed out cash for various projects – an inter-island “China bridge” in the Maldives, and $ 1.4 billion in financing to Sri Lanka to build a new port outside Colombo. India regards this as a part of China’s “string of pearls” strategy, which involves creating a network of allies to undermine India’s predominance in the Indian Ocean.

Over the preceding year, Beijing has energetically pursued the reactivation of the ancient “maritime silk route”; a trade corridor linking the Maldives and Sri Lanka with India, Myanmar and south-east Asia. Maritime specialists in New Delhi say this proposal has the same objective as the string of pearls strategy – to expand Chinese influence along India’s maritime periphery.

A third possible reason could be Xi’s belief that China’s border management should not be constrained by an improving relationship with India. In this view, the PLA is allowed to run an aggressive border policy, while relying on the network of confidence building agreements – the 1993 Peace and Tranquillity Agreement; further agreements in 1996, 2005 and 2012; and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013 – to prevent escalation.

This proactive border management would ensure that, when maps are exchanged or a border delineated, China is well poised to claim as much territory as possible.

This explains the PLA’s use of civilian border populations to establish fresh territorial claims, as reported in this newspaper (“China’s border guards target populations along LAC”, September 17).

Even so, the intrusion has undermined the prospect of Sino-Indian strategic convergence. It has taken some of the focus off trade and commerce and retrained the spotlight on the need for an early border settlement. Government sources say Modi raised this requirement twice with Xi.

Addressing the media with Xi standing by his side, Modi expressed his unhappiness with Chinese transgressions; said peace on the border is “an essential foundation” for the relationship; urged a resumption of the process to clarify the LAC (that is, exchange maps); and “seek an early settlement of the boundary question”.

In his speech to a New Delhi audience later that day, Xi declared his willingness to “settle the boundary question at an early date”.

New Delhi still has to announce a successor to Shivshankar Menon as the prime minister’s special representative on the border dialogue, which began in 2003. So far, 17 rounds of talks have been held.

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