Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

A case for quiet diplomacy to resolve standoff

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Depsang Plains

Mains level : Paper 2- India-China relations

Apart from the recent one, there had been several stand-offs between India and China over the border issue. The use of quiet diplomacy to diffuse the situation underlies all these stand-offs. However, politicisation of stand-off could make the situation difficult to resolve. This article explains the use of quiet diplomacy and problems posed by the politicisation of the stand-offs.

Process to diffuse tension began but not at all points

  •  Both sides have agreed on a broad plan to defuse four of the five points of discord.
  • The situation at the fifth, Pangong Lake remains uncertain as also in Galwan valley and north Sikkim.
  • At Pangong Tso, the Chinese have entrenched their positions with tents and remain on India’s side of the LAC.
  • There is a major point of difference which will not be easy to resolve.

Let’s look into the strategy used by India in the past to resolve stand-offs

  • The pattern of resolution of past stand-offs underlines the key role played by quiet diplomacy in unlocking complicated stand-off situations.
  • Both the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments have followed an approach that has coupled quiet diplomacy with a strong military posture, while at the same time allowing the adversary a way out.
  • This has been the broad strategy in dealing with challenges from China across the LAC.
  • And this strategy has generally worked.

Let’s look into three specific incidents

1) 2013-Depsang plains

  • In 2013, when Chinese troops pitched tents on India’s side of the LAC on the Depsang plains, similar to Pangong Tso.
  • The UPA government was under fire, both for being weak on China and for its reticence.
  • While the government was being publicly attacked for doing nothing, it had privately conveyed to China that if the stand-off didn’t end, an upcoming visit by Premier Li Keqiang would be off.
  • If that demand had been made public at the time, China would have only dug in its heels, even if the government may have won the headlines of the day.

2) Chumar stand-off

  • The government adopted a similar strategy during the 2014 stand-off at Chumar, which coincided with President Xi Jinping’s visit to India.
  • Mr. Xi’s visit went ahead, while India quietly but forcefully stopped the Chinese road-building and deployed 2,500 soldiers, outnumbering the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
  • The PLA withdrew.
  • Both sides disengaged and followed a moratorium into patrolling into contested areas, which was observed for many months thereafter.

Ultimately, in both cases, the objective was achieved. China, faced with firm resistance, was prevented from changing the status quo.

3) Doklam stand-off in 2017

  • In 2017, the government came under particularly intense fire because it stayed studiously silent through a 72-day stand-off at Doklam.
  • Indian troops crossed over into Bhutan to stop a Chinese road construction on territory India sees as Bhutanese but China claims.
  • By extending the road, India argued, China was unilaterally altering the India-Bhutan-China trijunction.
  • Beijing demanded an unconditional withdrawal.
  • When both finally disengaged, neither divulged the terms.
  • It would later emerge that the deal struck involved India withdrawing first.
  • China then stopped construction, and the status quo at the face-off site was restored.

Stand-off politics in the country

  • Politics over border stand-offs is not new.
  •  The Opposition and the media are certainly right to hold the government to account.
  • Indeed, neither the Opposition nor the media would be doing its job if they weren’t.
  • The tensions on the LAC are neither the first nor likely to be the last.
  • With every incident, they are, however, getting increasingly politicised in an environment where there is a 24/7 demand on social media for information — and unprecedented capacity for disinformation.
  • Rather than wish away this reality — and adopt a stand that it is above questioning — the government needs to come to terms with it. 

Dealing with the politicisation of stand-offs

  •  First, it needs to keep the Opposition informed, which it is clear it hasn’t.
  • Second, it needs to proactively engage with the media, even if that may be through low-key engagement as was the case on June 9, that does not escalate into a public war of words.
  • At the same time, expectations of having a public debate about the intricacies of every border stand-off — or for the Prime Minister to weigh in even while negotiations are ongoing — need to be tempered.
  • This will only risk inflaming tensions, and reduce the wiggle room for both sides to find an off-ramp.
  • The broader objective shouldn’t get lost in political debates.
  • That objective is to ensure India’s security interests remain protected — and that the status quo on India’s borders isn’t changed by force.

Consider the question “Border issue between India and China has several times resulted in the stand-off between the two countries but the use of quiet diplomacy helped defuse the tension. But the politicisation of such issue could complicate the situation in the future. Comment.

Conclusion

  • Past incidents have shown that quiet diplomacy, coupled with strong military resolve that deters any Chinese misadventures, has been more effective than public sabre-rattling, even if we may be inhabiting a media environment that misconstrues loudness as strength, and silence as weakness.
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