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Strangely coy

Doormat diplomacy


The government appears to be strangely coy about asking China why it staged the Depsang intrusions even three weeks after the event. Such diffidence is foolhardy.

Anybody listening to Chinese and Indian government spokespersons would think Depsang Bulge is where the two armies stopped for chai and samosas. After three weeks of a seemingly intractable boundary violation by the Chinese, and a face-off situation with the Indian army, the foreign minister decided it was not important to ask the Chinese why they violated a key boundary agreement, or what were they thinking of when pitching tents 19 km inside what is acknowledged Indian territory.

Frankly, if it wasn't for the raucous Indian media, which kept the nation's attention riveted to the issue, despite formidable challenges posed by the chit fund and 2G scams that were in the news, those Chinese tents would still be there.

After Chinese troops were "persuaded" to withdraw, with a phone call from NSA Shivshankar Menon to his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, both sides went overboard in claiming success - that the incident, which the Chinese described as "isolated" and Manmohan Singh as "localised" - was successfully resolved using the existing boundary working mechanism, and based on a 2005 protocol on CBMs.

Wonderful. The Chinese, by their intrusion, had violated that very protocol. Part of the "resolution" package was that India and China are going to negotiate another boundary defence cooperation agreement, which will be superimposed on this present agreement which is apparently so effective.

The draft of the new agreement has already been presented to the Indians a few months ago. Indian officials said this was a PLA effort and Indians were not particularly comfortable with the draft anyway. Well, now we're forced to negotiate that draft.
Second, those Chinese tents were like sitting ducks on that desolate plateau, with no discernible supply lines. Even an amateur military strategist would have cut them off in a nonthreatening manner, of course - that was fairly easy to do and would have been easier to negotiate a diplomatic settlement with a military edge. Nobody has asked the Indian army, whose chief was seen briefing the PM 17 days after the incident came to light, why they refrained from such a simple manoeuvre. The civilian leadership was terrified of "escalation". But did the army, too, similarly lose its nerve? Or does it need political clearance for safeguarding our borders?

In the end, the Indian government stretched credulity by claiming that India had only destroyed a tin-shed bunker, in return for an apparently unconditional Chinese withdrawal. It may well have happened that way, but this government's credibility is so low, nobody is actually believing it.

The best part is that after three weeks and much hyperbolic airtime, there is still no clarity about why the Depsang intrusion happened at all. Everyone, from the NSA downwards, believes it will happen again. Wouldn't it help, then to know why the Chinese did it?

Foreign minister, Salman Khurshid in Beijing airily dismissed such notions. Not only did he not ask the Chinese, he declared on his return that he would love to live in Beijing! That's all very well, but for those of us who prefer to live here, we'd rather know why China calmly walks into Indian territory and sets up home, dog and all.

So, there are several theories on why Depsang happened. The most popular is the Chinese were trying to get the attention of the Indians to negotiate a boundary resolution agreement. This incident was a non-threatening but in-your-face way of getting India to do what they wanted. This theory also assumes that the Indian side has been holding back on the boundary negotiations.

A second theory is China's PLA was testing not only India's capabilities, but also their own leadership. That they thought they could get away with it, but Beijing pulled back from the brink after witnessing the massive reactions in India - from the media to parliament. Officials dealing with China in the past three weeks observed that there appeared to be discrepancies in the various accounts by high level Chinese officials served to the Indians. Now this sounds more plausible.

So the Indians were scared and diffident;and what about the Chinese? I would say the Chinese did not exhibit great strategy but mammoth miscalculation. They have successfully screwed up their own premier's visit to India. They have made it very difficult for India to be nice to them. And apart from the "China hands" in government, its going to be really difficult for Indians to have a normalised relationship with the Chinese.

Because it took India's readiness to cancel Li Keqiang's visit this week that made Beijing see sense - a move made by some determined diplomats in the Indian system.

We are dealing with an aggressive China, a rising China. We cannot do it by being the neighbourhood doormat.

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