The much-anticipated meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping occurred on August 23rd during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg. The precise nature of their interaction remains undisclosed—whether it was a spontaneous discussion, an informal exchange, or an extensive and open dialogue. However, swiftly, the discussions became embroiled in controversy, with questions arising about who initiated the meeting and what transpired between the two leaders. Both sides issued contradictory official statements, tailored to their respective domestic audiences.
Initial reports indicate that the two leaders arrived at a general understanding aimed at restoring normalcy in relations while simultaneously defusing tensions along the border. This approach aimed to reconcile differing viewpoints that persisted over the past three years. India’s position emphasized the importance of border tranquility as a prerequisite for normalized relations, whereas China held the opposite stance. Nonetheless, China’s official statement following the meeting cast doubt on the prospects of an immediate breakthrough. Notably, China’s depiction of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin in the 2023 Standard Map, released on August 28th—merely five days after the meeting—further complicated matters. Despite these developments, both leaders are expected to meet formally at the G20 summit and potentially issue a joint statement, indicating a pragmatic way forward.
Analyzing the official declarations reveals that India took the initiative, with Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra stating, “…the Prime Minister emphasized the need for peaceful border areas and respect for the LAC as pivotal to normalizing India-China ties. To this end, the leaders agreed to prompt disengagement and de-escalation, overseen by relevant officials.” This restates India’s well-established standpoint, yet it’s apparent that disengagement and de-escalation are still in progress.
During a routine press briefing on August 25th, Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, conveyed, “President Xi Jinping conversed with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS Summit at Modi’s request on August 23rd… President Xi stressed that improving China-India relations aligns with both nations’ interests and global peace, stability, and development. Both sides should prioritize bilateral relations and skillfully manage the boundary issue to protect border serenity.”
He added, “I reiterate…the boundary matter is historical and doesn’t encompass the entirety of China-India ties. We should place it in its proper context and seek a reasonable and acceptable solution through peaceful discussions. Pending the boundary’s resolution, both sides must uphold peace along the border.”
Right from the start, the Chinese spokesperson subtly underscored that it was Prime Minister Modi who initiated the dialogue, though this was neither officially confirmed nor denied. This was countered by unnamed “sources” suggesting a “pending” bilateral meeting request from China. Similar to India, China reiterated its well-established positions on the border dispute and overall relations. While stressing the importance of border tranquility, China remained mute on any accord pertaining to disengagement and de-escalation. India, it seems, once again misconstrued China’s intentions. However, it’s worth noting that this aligns with China’s conventional approach, projecting a sense of superiority to account for any potential failure in subsequent detailed negotiations.
Evidently, India took the initiative in proposing a resolution to the border standoff. China, meanwhile, negotiates from a position of strength, controlling around 1000 square km of territory that was previously patrolled by India until April 2020. It has essentially redrawn the 1959 Claim Line, except for the Indus Valley section from Fukche to Demchok. Notably, China’s negotiation strategy suggests reluctance to compromise on Depsang Plains and the Charding-Ninglung Nala (CNN) junction. While agreeing to buffer zones north of Pangong Tso and on the Kailash Range, China’s dominance in certain buffer zones, including Galwan River Valley and Patrolling Points (PP) 15, 16, 17, and 17A, underscores its advantageous position. With the relinquishing of the Kailash Range in February 2021, India’s leverage has diminished.
India’s present dilemma stems from misreading China’s intentions politically and militarily, resulting in strategic surprise and unchallenged territorial maneuvering in April-May 2020. China’s restraint in not expanding beyond the 1959 Claim Line in 1962 and up to India’s main defenses in 2020 offers insight into its negotiation strategy for an interim or even permanent settlement. In Eastern Ladakh, China is unlikely to make further concessions concerning the 1959 Claim Line.
The Path Ahead for India
Importantly, decisive wars between nuclear-armed states are outdated, and the likelihood of even a limited conflict is minimal. This implies that borders are unlikely to shift substantially unless there’s an uncontested opportunity, as occurred in April-May 2020. Even incremental land-grabs are limited to less-monitored, poorly surveilled areas. This challenge can be tackled with Indo-Tibetan Border Police posts, robust preparedness, clear red lines triggering a military response, and a subtle delineation of the nuclear threshold. The current strategic impasse is manageable in terms of cost, and neither side can alter it short of a risky limited war. Despite the military disparity, potential border incidents can be balanced through quid pro quo strategies.
Hence, India need not hasten to reach an uneven settlement, driven by the G20 summit’s success or electoral concerns. While long-term peace along the borders is desirable for economic and military development, it should not come at the cost of an agreement that favors China, granting it a 1000-square-km advantage.
An honorable resolution for India could involve negotiating an equitable buffer zone between the Y Junction / Bottleneck and the LAC, roughly 2-3 km east of PPs 10, 11, 12, and 13. A similar arrangement is required for CNN Junction. Joint patrols or mutually agreed schedules for buffer zone visits should ensure ongoing claims. Transparency should underscore de-escalation and de-induction, and troop reserves should be proportional to deployment times from permanent bases. As part of the accord, demarcation of the LAC is essential.
Failing to secure this face-saving arrangement, India could cautiously maintain its current strategic posture, preventing China from declaring victory and demonstrating to the world that India isn’t cowed by a bully. Furthermore, India should vigorously pursue military transformation. If an agreement materializes in Eastern Ladakh, similar talks could be initiated for buffer zones along the MacMahon Line. Notably, China’s advantage in the information war must be addressed, and opacity and confusion, which erode democracy’s credibility, need reconsideration.
Lieutenant General H S Panag (Retd), recipient of PVSM and AVSM awards, served in the Indian Army for four decades. He commanded Northern and Central Commands and was a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal post-retirement. His perspectives are personal.