8 July 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) Days of disengagement: On India-China LAC standoff-
GS 2- India and its neighborhood- relations
- After two months of stand-off along the LAC, news that India and China are discussing a full disengagement must be welcome relief.
- But it must be tempered by caution until all details of the plan to de-escalate troops and tensions are clear.
- The conversation between the Special Representatives, India’s NSA and Chinese Foreign Minister, on Sunday, which led to the announcement, has given hostilities(aggression) a necessary pause.
DISENGAGEMENT AND DE-ESCALATION:
- While the statements made in New Delhi and Beijing were not identical in language, they largely conveyed a consensus to restore peace and tranquillity(calmness) at the LAC.
- The next step will be to see their agreements carried out and to ensure that Chinese troops withdraw as promised on each of the three points discussed: Galwan, Hot Springs and Gogra.
- This is easier said than done, as it was during a disengagement verification operation by the Indian troops that the Galwan clash is believed to have occurred.
- After this, similar exercises will have to be undertaken for other points along the LAC.
- Disengagement and de-escalation must be accompanied by defined “end-points” for troops to withdraw to, to ensure they do not reoccupy positions vacated.
- Monday’s statements have also set out a course of engagements.
- These include diplomatic and military parleys(negotiation), meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, and further talks between the Special Representatives.
- The government should inform the country about the progress as well as considered measures such as “buffer zones”, the patrolling-free period, and the reasons for the decision to pull back Indian troops in the areas of disengagement.
- The government must also continue to work towards its stated goal of restoring the “status quo ante(existing condition)” or the position of troops to the situation in April, before the mobilisation began.
- Else, Prime Minister Modi’s strong words at Leh last week will have little meaning.
OTHER IMPORTANT STEPS:
- With disengagement under way, there are other important steps to consider.
- This was the first time the LAC has seen such casualties in over four decades, and the governments cannot put aside the violent Galwan clash.
- For this a full inquiry is needed of the build-up to the clash and the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers.
- The government must consider whether it will continue its course of economic counter-measures against China, including the banning of apps, investment restrictions, and an import slowdown.
- There is also the question of whether high-level contacts, such as the informal summit between Mr. Modi and Chinese President Xi will be resumed; the leaders have not communicated directly during this crisis.
- As a process to restore peace begins, restoring “status quo ante” in bilateral trust may be more difficult for the foreseeable future.
- But, in small steps over time, India and China must return to a more balanced relationship.
- As India and China disengage militarily, they must slowly seek to rebuild trust in ties.
2) In stand-off, keeping an eye on the nuclear ball-
- Despite domestic and external challenges, there is now growing evidence that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to expand its nuclear arsenal.
- China is pursuing a planned modernisation of its nuclear arsenal because it fears the multi-layered missile defence capabilities of the United States.
- It is arming its missiles with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) capabilities to neutralise America’s missile shield.
- China’s DF-31As, which are road mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), are equipped with MIRVs and potent penetration aids.
ESTIMATES AND WHAT IT MEANS:
- The Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) also fields a range of Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) and Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs).
- The PRC’s ballistic missile tests in 2019 were the highest among the designated Nuclear Weapon States (NWS).
- China’s expansion is cause for concern because even as the U.S. and Russia are attempting to reduce the size of their respective arsenals, the PRC is on an expansionist mode.
- The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) observes that China’s nuclear arsenal has risen from 290 warheads in 2019 to 320 warheads in 2020.
- This increase might not seem large relative to the size of the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. and Russia but it indicates a gradual shift toward a larger arsenal.
- This presents India with challenges because New Delhi has to contend with a nuclear-armed Pakistan as well.
- The Indian nuclear arsenal, according to the SIPRI, stands at roughly 150 nuclear warheads with the Pakistani slightly ahead with 160 warheads.
- The Chinese state mouthpiece, Global Times, has recently called for a 1,000-warhead nuclear arsenal, underlining the motivation of the PLA to match U.S. and Russian nuclear force levels.
CHALLENGES FOR INDIA:
- Consequential for New Delhi is what China’s nuclear modernisation and diversified nuclear capabilities are likely to do for conventional military escalation along the China-India boundary.
- The conventional military balance between Indian and Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) presents significant challenges for Indian decision-makers.
- Given the variegated and highly sophisticated nature of Chinese nuclear capabilities relative to India, they give Beijing considerable coercive leverage.
- Beijing could commit further aggression under the cover of its nuclear arsenal.
- Indeed, the PRC has already engaged in nuclear signalling with set piece videos, which have been doing the rounds on social media platforms.
- The message is clear to New Delhi from China’s leadership: we have presented you with a fait accompli(done deal); accept it and move on.
- Beijing is communicating that an escalatory response from New Delhi will incur(bring) punitive(disciplinary) responses with China mounting aggressive military action at several points along the LAC.
- Notwithstanding efforts to de-escalate particularly at Galwan River Valley, Hot Springs and Gogra, Chinese ground units have consolidated their position in the Pangong Tso area and the entire stretch of the LAC.
- To be sure, India is doing the same.
- But the Fingers 4 to 8 in Pangong Tso, where the PLA is entrenched, is a serious potential flashpoint as the Indian Army is locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation against its Chinese adversary.
- It could become a staging ground for further PLA ingress, notwithstanding Indian defensive preparations, triggering hostilities that widen to the Karakoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
- The Chinese nuclear arsenal could serve as an instrument of coercion under which the PRC could press ahead with a limited aims war.
MORE CHALLENGES FOR INDIA:
- Consequently, Indian decision-makers need to be aware of the PLARF’s land-based missile forces.
- The PRC is believed to base a part of its nuclear arsenal in inland territories such as in the Far-Western Xinjiang Region, which is close to Aksai Chin.
- China’s land-based missiles are a primarily road mobile and could play a key role in any larger conventional offensive the PLA might mount against Indian forces along the LAC.
- Korla in Xinjiang is believed to host DF-26 IRBMs with a range of 4,000 kilometres, which can potentially strike targets across most of India.
- Their mobility gives them a high degree of survivability. The DF-26 IRBMs can be armed with either a conventional or nuclear warhead.
- This presents challenges for both the Indian civilian and military leadership.
BE ON GUARD:
- Thus, conventional escalation between Chinese and Indian forces along the LAC must factor the role of nuclear weapons and their impact on military operations executed by the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force.
- India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) needs to be on a heightened state of alert to ward off Chinese nuclear threats and brinksmanship as well as geared to support India’s conventional forces.
- It would be a terrible mistake on the part of the Indian government to ignore the possibility, because it might not come from New Delhi but Beijing.
Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, New Delhi should start seriously assessing its extant(remaining) nuclear doctrine and redouble efforts to get a robust(strong) triadic capability for deterrence.
3) More sabre-rattling, more isolation-
GS 2- Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests
- The Philippines invoked the dispute settlement mechanism of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2013 to test the legality of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ regarding the disputed Spratlys.
- In response, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague decreed in its July 12, 2016 judgment that the line had “no legal basis.”
- China dismissed the judgment as “null and void.”
- The South China Sea (SCS) is important not just to its littoral(bordering) countries.
- It has been a transit point for trade since early medieval times, contains abundantly rich fisheries, and is a repository of mineral deposits and hydrocarbon reserves.
THE PCA VERDICT:
- The PCA award undermined the Chinese claim.
- It held that none of the features of the Spratlys qualified them as islands, and there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights and to the resources within the ‘nine-dash line’.
- The UNCLOS provides that islands must sustain habitation and the capacity for non-extractive economic activity.
- Reefs and shoals that are unable to do so are considered low-tide elevations.
- The award implied that China violated the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
- It noted that China had aggravated the situation by undertaking land reclamation and construction, and had harmed the environment and violated its obligation to preserve the ecosystem.
- China dismissed the award as “a political farce(sham) under the pretext of law.”
- Given the power equations, the Philippines did not press for enforcement of the award and acquiesced in the status quo.
- Not one country challenged China, which agreed to settle disputes bilaterally, and to continue work on a Code of Conduct with countries of the ASEAN.
- Given that their economic ties with China are deepening, it may appear that the ASEAN countries are bandwagoning with China.
- In reality, there is growing discontent.
- While avoiding military confrontation with China, they are seeking political insurance, strengthening their navies, and deepening their military relationships with the United States.
- Growing Chinese muscularity in the SCS is visible in the increased patrolling and live-fire exercising by Chinese naval vessels.
DEVIATING FROM INTERNATIONAL LAW:
- The festering regional resentment against China resulted in the unmuting of the ASEAN response to the growing Chinese footprint in the SCS at its 36th Summit on June 26, 2020.
- China might have overreached by showing its aggressive hand prematurely. There is a growing chorus of protest against China.
- Having Vietnam, Japan and the U.S. riled up about its actions is nothing new for China.
- The Philippines and the ASEAN beginning to protest is new, even if their criticism is restrained.
- This does China little credit, and points to its growing isolation.
- Indonesia protested to China about Chinese vessels trespassing into its waters close to the Nantua islands, towards the south of the SCS.
- The Philippines protested to China earlier this year about violations of Filipino sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
- It also wrote to the UN Secretary General (UNSG) in March disputing China’s claim of “historic rights in the South China Sea.”
- Two months later, Indonesia too wrote to the UNSG on this issue.
- It expressed support for compliance with international law, particularly the UNCLOS, as also for the PCA’s 2016 ruling.
VIETNAM & PHILLIPINES:
- A complicating factor for China is Russia’s growing military and economic equities in the SCS.
- Russia and Vietnam have a defence cooperation relationship, which they are committed to strengthening.
- China has objected to Rosneft Vietnam BV prospecting within the Chinese defined ‘nine-dash line.’
- Rosneft has also been invited by the Philippines to conduct oil prospecting in its EEZ.
INDIA’S RELEVANT OPTIONS:
- From India’s perspective, foreign and security policy in its larger neighbourhood covers the entire expanse of the Asia-Pacific and extends to the Persian Gulf and West Asia.
- India straddles, and is the fulcrum(joint) of, the region between the Suez and Shanghai, between West and East Asia, and between the Mediterranean and the SCS.
- The SCS carries merchandise to and from India.
- It follows that India has a stake in the SCS, just as China has in the Indian Ocean.
- India must continue to actively pursue its defence diplomacy outreach in the Indo-Pacific region.
- It should increase military training and conduct exercises and exchanges at a higher level of complexity, extend Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief activities, share patrolling of the Malacca Strait with the littoral countries, etc.
- The Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships that India has concluded with Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the U.S., and Vietnam could be extended to Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
- India must also buttress(focus) the military capacity of the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command.
- According to one of its early Commanders-in-Chief, Lt. Gen. Aditya Singh, the manner in which the 368 islands, have been neglected “can only be termed as criminal.”
- These have immense geo-strategic value, as they overlook Asia’s maritime strategic lifeline and the world’s most important global sea lane.
- In this time of turbulence, India cannot afford to continue undervaluing one of its biggest assets.