China-India border dispute

China ramps up the pressure on India ahead of possible meeting of foreign ministers

Top diplomats from both sides scheduled to attend Southeast Asian trade bloc forum in Philippines

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 August, 2017, 10:17am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 August, 2017, 4:50am

China seems intent on ratcheting up the tension with India ahead of a possible meeting between its top diplomats in the Philippines this weekend.

In what appears to have been a series of coordinated moves over the past couple of days, China’s foreign and defence ministry, as well as several state media outlets, released statements and reports calling for the withdrawal of Indian troops from a disputed border area in the Himalayas.

The foreign ministers of both countries are in the Philippines for a meeting of members of the Asean bloc and selected neighbours.

China ramps up rhetoric in border row with India ahead of key meetings

On Thursday, China’s state broadcaster CCTV showed footage of a military exercise using live ammunition held “recently” on the Tibetan plateau. The report did not make any specific references to the stand-off with India, but said it involved firing on long-range targets at night, and that the unit involved had been in training for three months.

In a more direct move, China’s defence ministry late on Thursday released a statement saying that the country’s “restraint is not without limit”, and reiterated earlier comments that India should not underestimate the resolve of China’s military to protect its territory.

“The Indian side should give up the illusion of its delaying tactics as no country should underestimate Chinese forces’ confidence and capability to safeguard peace, and their resolve and willpower to defend national sovereignty, security and development interests,” defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang was quoted as saying.

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Also on Thursday, China’s foreign ministry said that New Delhi’s decision to send troops into a disputed area on the remote Doklam Plateau – where China, India and Bhutan meet – was “clearly not for peace”.

“It has already been more than a month since the incident, and India is still not only illegally remaining on Chinese territory, but is also repairing roads, stocking up on supplies, [and] massing a large number of armed personnel,” the ministry said in a statement.

Analysts said that while both sides are unlikely to soften their stances, Chinese President Xi Jinping is particularly keen to maintain his powerful image ahead of a key leadership reshuffle this autumn.

Rajesh Basrur, a professor of international relations at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said it was clear Xi wanted to keep the pressure on India at least until the party reshuffle, an event that happens only once every five years.

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“Xi is trying to ensure solidarity at the congress by keeping the pot boiling. After that, he can afford to defuse tensions,” he said.

However, despite the fact that China is mostly posturing, there remains the chance that actual fighting could break out, Basrur said.

“That does not rule out the risk of conflict completely, either because a leader thinks it can be limited to a marginal exchange; or because a local commander takes an unexpected ‘initiative’ under conditions of uncertainty,” he said.

Lan Jianxue, an expert on South Asian studies with the China Institute of Internet Studies, said that China’s tough rhetoric was signalling its “last-ditch diplomatic effort”.

“India is hoping to drag it out but [the conflict] cannot go on forever. The people in our country are watching,” Lan said.

Explore the China-India border standoff

In a report by the Hindustan Times India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was quoted as saying on Thursday that war was not a solution and that India would resolve the border stand-off with China through dialogue.

“[Restraint] is very important to resolve the issue. If there is no restraint, it provokes the other side,” she said.

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a specialist in South Asian studies at the National University of Singapore, said India’s top diplomat has deployed “quiet diplomacy” in pushing for a de-escalation of the conflict.

“India’s position will remain the same – mutual withdrawal of troops and a peaceful negotiated solution,” he said. “Also, India will keep its patience during the episode and not react to every statement by China.”

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The upcoming BRICS summit – a trade bloc for the emerging and developing nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – could be an opportunity for leaders from both sides to discuss and ease tensions, Chaturvedy added.

“The BRICS summit will prepare the ground for some positive spin and most likely, with the conclusion of the [China’s] National Congress in November the rhetoric should end,” he said.

China’s publicity campaign against India began on Wednesday with the issuing of a position paper stating that there were still 40 Indian troops in Chinese territory, although it added that the number had fallen from a peak of 400.

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As well as making the “not for peace comment” China’s foreign ministry n Thursday said that China had notified India “out of courtesy” on May 18 and June 8 via the border affairs working mechanism of its plans to carry out roadworks in Doklam.

“The Indian side didn’t make any response to the Chinese side through any channel for over one month. Instead, it flagrantly dispatched armed forces carrying equipment to illegally cross the boundary to obstruct China’s road building,” spokesman Geng Shuang was quoted as saying.

China’s chargé d’affaires in India, Liu Jinsong, told Indian journalists in a press briefing on Thursday that India must withdraw its troops or face “serious consequences”, The Hindu newspaper reported.

China released its position paper on Wednesday to inform the international community, including India, of the “rights and wrongs” and realities of the border dispute, he said, adding that he hopes India will take the document seriously.

Additional reporting by Kinling Lo