Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on March 7, 2021 that the right and wrongs of what happened in the border area last year are clear, so are the stakes involved. He added, “It again proves initiating confrontation will not solve the problem. Returning to peaceful negotiation is the right way forward."

“China and India are each other's friends and partners and not threats and rivals. Both need to help each other succeed instead of undercutting each other we should intensify cooperation instead of harboring suspicion over each other,” he further added.

Incredibly, while the 16-hour long 10th Corps Commander-level India-China talks held at Moldo on February 20 were inconclusive, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh stated at an election rally in Tamil Nadu on February 21, “After nine rounds of military and diplomatic dialogue, the disengagement process is complete.”

Looking at Wang Yi’s statement of March 7, China continues to blame India for the aggression in Ladakh last year – a case of the pot calling the kettle black, which is the usual style of China’s Communist Party.

Although there is occasional reference to India reminding Beijing about the remaining friction points, this is more for public consumption. Apparently it is going to be status quo after the disengagement from both banks of Pangong Tso was completed, with India vacating heights like Kailash Range and losing the strategic advantage.

Rajnath Singh’s statement indicates that New Delhi is somewhat reconciled to the new reality despite China gaining big strategic advantage in the Depsang Plains. Notwithstanding rhetoric in the media of standing up to China, our policy makers appear to have been cowed down because of the neglect of our military over past decades.

This should not have happened given the many advantages our army has in Ladakh over the PLA. We should not have vacated Kailash Range since it is in our territory, or at best done this after China withdrew at least from the Depsang Plains which gives the PLA strategic advantage in progressing future operations towards Daulat Beg Oldi, even though China may be content with holding on to what it presently has. Apparently, the 16-20 hour marathon sessions of 10 rounds of military talks were used by China to its advantage.

China is already back as India’s largest trading partner. Media reports that the government is in the process of clearing multiple investments by China. Bharti Airtel has just cleared a deal worth Rs 300 crore with China’s Huawei for expanding its communication network. The government will probably wash its hands off by saying that this is a deal directly between Bharti Airtel and Huawei but obviously caution has been thrown to the winds.

All this, while China continues to cyber-attack India. Chinese communication equipment and networks have backdoors and Huawei being notorious for it, has been shunned by many countries. Whatever happened to the prime minister’s call for ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’? Or is it that for the corporate money is above everything else?

The next BRICS summit is to be held in India perhaps in the later half of 2021. India is BRICS Chairman for 2021. Chinese President Xi Jinping will most likely attend as he has not missed a single BRICS summit. Given the indications, he will likely be accorded a red carpet with Beijing singing full support to India on BRICS and talking peace, prosperity, economy and business with India.

Despite the Chinese ingress in Ladakh, the Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai era is quietly being revived once again. After Xi’s visit, the armies may again commence with ‘hand-to-hand’ exercises.

The question is where do we go from here? Our measly defence budget for 2021-22 indicates that the government is not in any mood to build ‘hard’ power. Besides, we continue to remain at adverse strategic disadvantage vis-à-vis both China and Pakistan at the sub-conventional level.

China has just announced a defence budget of a whopping $209 billion. This being the official figure, actual defence budget may be to the tune of $300 billion. The irony in India is that the defence secretary, not the defence minister, is charged with the defence of India. The NSA was tasked to work out a national security strategy in 2019 but the same appears bogged down in the bureaucratic labyrinths or worse maybe the politics of it.

As a senior veteran says, “I guess, in the long run, we have no options other than to show the other cheek - Gandhi philosophy. The only other option will be to join China as Pakistan has shown the way. Of course, the Chinese will demand their pound of flesh and we will probably justify the move and tell the domestic crowd as to how beneficial the deal is!”

After all, the partial disengagement in Eastern Ladakh is being bandied as a terrific achievement of having avoided war. It would also not be surprising if just before the 2024 general elections, the Union Home Minister again thumps the table in Parliament to say Aksai Chin is ours,we will take it back.

Lt General Prakash Katoch is a veteran of the Indian Army.