27 October 2020 11:22 AM



What Was a MEA Official Doing at the 6th India-China Senior Military Commanders Meet?

Too much of the same

The Joint Press Release of the 6th round of Senior Commanders’ Meeting between India and China on the standoff in Eastern Ladakh released on September 22, 2020 reads. “On September 21, the Indian and Chinese Senior Commanders held the 6th round of Military Commander-Level Meeting. The two sides had candid and in-depth exchanges of views on stabilizing the situation along the LAC in the India - China border areas. They agreed to earnestly implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, strengthen communication on the ground, avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments, stop sending more troops to the frontline, refrain from unilaterally changing the situation on the ground, and avoid taking any actions that may complicate the situation. The two sides also agreed to hold the 7th round of Military Commander-Level Meeting as soon as possible, take practical measures to properly solve problems on the ground, and jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border area”.

The surprise from the Indian side was inclusion of a Joint Secretary from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in these military talks. Why it was done remains a mystery. Was this because videoconferencing through which MEA officials have been talking to their Chinese counterparts has no security. Has MEA policy changed given the reports that Vikram Misri, our Ambassador to China has been meeting a Major General of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Beijing?

Wonder what will be achieved by establishing such personal equations – will the PLA withdraw to April 2020 locations?

Misri, incidentally has had no earlier posting to China or ever served on a desk in MEA dealing with China but has served as Principal Secretary to Prime Ministers Inder Gujral, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi. In any case, this Joint Secretary (MEA) could have hardly conveyed anything to PLA officials in a forum like this.

If the government wanted to show added seriousness by sending the Joint Secretary (MEA) to join the Senior Military Commanders Meet it doesn’t impress unless the aim was to favour him with the visit to a field area and meet with PLA officials under such conditions. But possibly he did contribute to the joint press release which may become the norm for similar meetings in the future.

However, reading through the joint press release, it is clear that the only two new points are: one, agreement to stop sending more troops to the frontline, and; two, decision to hold the 7th round of Military Commander-Level Meeting as soon as possible.

The rest is all jargon including the “candid and in-depth exchanges of views” that are part of the earlier joint agreements and numerous dialogues with China including between Special Representatives as well as the recent bilateral discussions at Moscow between the Defence Ministers and now the Foreign Ministers – all of which China has not respected and violated repeatedly.

As to the bit about “stop sending more troops to the frontline”, China recently inducted 10,000 additional troops in Eastern Ladakh and does not need more beyond the two Divisions plus it already has in the region.

It has been amply clear from day one that China will not withdraw these current intrusions especially since the Indian Government refused to admit intrusions and call China the aggressor. This helped China brand India as the aggressor from the very beginning.

China is in a position of strength but happy humouring India with these marathon talks while PLA consolidates its positions and plans its next move. The news reports that in other areas Divisional and Brigade-level talks will continue to be held including in Depsang (where PLA has intruded and consolidated 20-km deep at Y-Junction) actually amounts to stupidity with no results especially because local commanders have no authority to take such decisions.

For the government these talks are deflecting attention from its blunder of misreading China, gross intelligence failure, pusillanimous delay in reacting to Chinese intrusions and the existing ground situation.

The slogan of “total disengagement” is a misnomer unless we want to create another buffer zone by withdrawing back into our own territory – giving an opportunity to the PLA for another surge.

Our troops occupying the heights South of Pangong Tso and in areas of Chushul and Kailash Range was a good initiative. But these were all unoccupied features in our own territory and by no measure can be termed an offensive. Hopefully, we will not vacate these in exchange to China’s promise to withdraw from ‘some’ intrusion areas. That would be a strategic blunder. As for the military level talks, we can continue endlessly patenting the above joint press release till China says no more.

Lt General Prakash Katoch (Retd) is a veteran of the Indian Army. Views expressed are personal.

File cover photograph

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