China is constructing a bridge over the Pangong Tso on its own territory so it can be prepared to counter any possible Indian moves to retake the heights on the LAC. The Chinese media is indulging in psychological scare tactics by announcing the PLA has unfurled the Chinese flag in the Galwan Valley – the same that flew on Tiananmen Square, no less. And a middle-ranking Chinese diplomat from its India mission has written a letter to Indian MPs expressing concern at their attending a dinner organised by the Tibetan parliament-in-exile.
If the glass seems more than half-empty on the India-China front this new year, take a look at the other side: Indian and Chinese troops have exchanged sweets at 10 points along the LAC, including in eastern Ladakh where both sides have been facing off for the last 18 months; a Kremlin official has indicated that a possible Russia-India-China summit may take place in the “near future”, while an unusual virtual meeting between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and India’s previous ambassador in China, Vikram Misri (now a deputy national security adviser), may pave the way for a new round of border talks.
Does this, then, mean that the glass is actually more than half-full on the India-China front this new year? Perhaps a better way of looking at this evolving, complex story is to place it in the international context. What are the big powers doing as the new year dawns amid a Covid surge – apart from following US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Spotify playlist, which includes Arijit Singh of India, Arooj Aftab of Pakistan, Aryana Saeed of Afghanistan and Adele?
The Ukraine tussle between US and Russia
First of all, the US-Russia thermometer seems to be getting hotter over Ukraine. US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke to each other on 30 December, for the second time in the month. Biden is said to have warned Putin and threatened sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, while Putin is said to have demanded that NATO remove “offensive weaponry” from several former Warsaw Pact countries, which were once part of the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.
Russian and US officials are now meeting in Geneva on 10 January to discuss the Ukraine question, while a Russia-NATO meeting is on the cards two days later. This is a fascinating meeting to follow, not only because it involves some serious shadow-boxing over the perception of power between these two nations. On the sidelines, watching carefully, is China, because any confrontation between the US and Russia is bound to affect its standing as a key international player.
In a nutshell, here is the story: The US and Russia are facing off over Ukraine, a middle-sized country in middle Europe, cheek-by-jowl on Russia’s eastern border and intimately connected to Russia over the centuries through religion (the Russian Orthodox Church is said to have its roots in Ukraine), language and ethnicity – no wonder it was a prize for the victorious Americans when the Soviet Union broke up in end-1991. Ukraine separated and became an independent nation and the US moved in quickly to claim it as part of its ever-widening circle of influence.
Much has been written in recent weeks about the 30th anniversary of the break-up of the Soviet Union, but perhaps some light should also be shed on Russia’s return to the international stage on this 30th anniversary, a far cry from the poverty-stricken nation that it was reduced to with the introduction of free market reforms under the Boris Yeltsin era in the early 1990s.
Certainly, Putin’s 22 years in power have contributed to this upward climb, a key reason why Russians are willing to forfeit some of the advantages of democracy for a better life at home and the knowledge that they can finally face up to a nation, the US, that brought them to their knees in 1991. (Although it can also be successfully argued that the former Soviet Union brought itself to its knees through a series of missteps over the previous decades.)
No matter. A US-Russia face-off is on the cards again. The bigger question is, do each of these countries want such a face-off, or do they believe that a third power, prowling in the wings, can take advantage of their relative weaknesses?
Russia turns to India
China is watching carefully to see which way this potential US-Russia confrontation will go. And so the big question this week: Is China the greater threat for the US or is Russia? Most analysts, of course, will argue that the US doesn’t need to choose, that it will engage and confront both at different times, as the need arises. But the question remains valid, especially as the US is no longer as powerful as it once was and cannot, therefore, take on two big powers at the same time.
This is where India’s foreign policy future becomes interesting. Putin’s ostensible interest in having a Russia-India-China (RIC) summit in the near future is certainly a hedging tactic, because he clearly wants to wean away India – a rising power in Asia – away from the US.
But New Delhi has had several diplomatic successes with the US in recent years and is not about to throw away that valued relationship, even if the Russians supplied much-needed defence equipment to fight Chinese troops on the LAC in Ladakh last summer or because some parts of Washington DC make critical noises over the behaviour of Right-wing Hindu groups in India.
Prime Minister Modi would have told Putin that an RIC summit is only possible if Chinese troops go back from the LAC and status quo ante is returned. Putin knows well that he must persuade his Communist brother, Xi Jinping of China, to do so – question is, what does Xi get in return?
Perhaps the “buffer zone” principle is one way to climb down from the heights? That is, follow the Pangong Tso model, when Chinese troops withdrew from Finger 4 and returned to Finger 8 and neither country was allowed to patrol between Finger 4 and 8; earlier, Indian troops could patrol up to Finger 8.
Can the same principle be applied to the rest of the LAC where Indian and Chinese troops are facing off?
That’s why another round of border talks may soon be in the offing. If Putin is to prove not just his big power credentials but also his value to Modi, he knows that a LAC resolution will be a precondition for improvement in India-Russia ties.
It’s interesting that the India-China glass is both half-full and half-empty in the new year. As all the powers jostle for influence, all eyes must focus on the fluidity in the international situation. The keys to some vexed questions may lie there.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)