On Tuesday evening, New Delhi and Beijing signed off on a joint press release to describe the previous day’s talks between senior military commanders of the two sides, in which there was no agreement to disengage or de-escalate.
All that the joint release on the seventh round of talks at Chushul could claim was a “sincere, in-depth and constructive exchange of views on disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)… [which] enhanced understanding of each other’s positions.”
In fact, after six previous rounds of talks that began in early June, both sides already had a complete understanding of each other’s positions, which remained unchanged from the preceding sixth rounds held on September 21.
India’s core demand remains a troop pull-back by China to positions both sides held in April, before the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) trespassed across the LAC into the Galwan, Hot Springs, Pangong Tso and Depsang sectors.
China’s position, on the other hand, remains that it will only discuss a pull back after the Indian Army vacates the tactically dominating positions it occupied south of Pangong Tso at the end of August.
Suggesting a hardening of stance, Tuesday’s media release is silent on concrete steps to mitigate the confrontation. The September 21 statement had resolved to “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”.
In the absence of any tactical agreements, Tuesday’s media release, like the September 21 statement, adopted a standard Chinese formulation: “Both sides agreed to earnestly implement the important understandings reached by the leaders of the two countries, not to turn differences into disputes, and jointly safeguard peace and tranquility in the border areas.”
As of now, it is unclear whether any utility is seen in an eighth round of military-to-military talks. While the September 21 statement had “agreed to hold the 7th round of military commander-level meeting as soon as possible”, Tuesday’s joint release only “agreed to maintain dialogue and communication through military and diplomatic channels”.
China analysts do not see any “give” in Beijing’s position. Yun Sun of the Washington DC-based Stimson Centre believes New Delhi is missing some fundamental aspects of the strategic personality of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“I don’t think Xi ever got over the 2017 Doklam standoff and China’s loss of face, [notwithstanding] the abrupt, unnatural and artificially engineered ‘rapprochement’ between Xi and Modi at Wuhan (2018) and Chennai (2019). Xi’s style is to gain face back where he lost it, so the event this year, and China’s surprising aggressiveness has been brewing for the past three years,” says Sun.
Sun believes Beijing is reconciled to having India as a strategic adversary. “Many Chinese feel that they never ‘had’ India to begin with. The mutual distrust and embedded hostility in the society and in the policymaking circles has led to an understanding that India was never China’s friend or partner. This forms an interesting contrast to the Indian perception that China betrayed India,” she says.
As winter takes hold in Eastern Ladakh, the failure of disengagement talks means the new frontlines are being frozen, figuratively as well as literally. The Indian Army has matched the PLA’s induction of 35,000-50,000 additional troops to hold the front lines through winter. A logistics race is underway to provide ammunition, living shelters, food and, above all, heating fuel to enable soldiers to survive at temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, which is effectively lowered by another 30 degrees Celsius by the wind chill factor.