Decoding the Latest China-India Military Talks on the Border

India and China recently held the 12th round of the corps commander-level talks to discuss the way forward for the nearly 15-month-long military standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), their de facto border. Unlike last time, the two sides managed to issue a joint press release, which termed the meeting “constructive” and expressed common resolve to “ensuring stability… and jointly maintain(ing) peace and tranquility,” at the LAC. That’s apparently a positive development, but a closer look reveals various incongruencies and anomalies marking this round of talks between China and India.

Analyzing publicly available information and internal debates and discussions in China and India shows how the 12th round of military level talks have posed more questions than answers, and created more confusion than clarity in both countries – a signal that tensions at the LAC might be far from over.

Where Did the Meeting Take Place?

On July 30, Indian media reported, quoting undisclosed defense sources, that the 12th round of corps commander-level talks between India and China would take place on July 31 in Moldo on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control. The narrative remained unchanged as the meeting reportedly ended at 7:30 p.m. on July 31. However, the joint press release issued two days later, on August 2, mentioned that the venue of the meeting was the Chushul-Moldo border meeting point on the Indian side.

Although the issue received little public attention in India, in China this created quite a controversy. Was the information released initially by the Indian media incorrect? If yes, why didn’t the Indian authorities correct it later? If the Indian media was mistakenly referring to the Indian side as the Chinese side, what was the need for China to correct it in the joint press release? Was it just a minor correction that was later added to the press release or does this hint at deeper, darker secrets? These were some of the questions raised in Chinese social media platforms.

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Some argued that the location was just in line with the principle of reciprocity – since the 9th and 10th rounds of talks were held on the Chinese side, the 11th and 12th rounds needed to be held on the Indian side. These voices held that there was no need to overinterpret the confusion over the venue of the talk. However, most observers in the Chinese internet found the possibility of such casual slips or errors rather odd, particularly in the context of the controversial China-India border, where every inch of territory is vigorously contested and every move by the either side needs to be negotiated and agreed upon well in advance.

When Did the Meeting Take Place?

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As per Indian media reports, which were based on undisclosed official sources, the 12th round of talks between China and India took place on July 31, lasting only nine hours, which made it the shortest meeting held so far in the present round of the China-India border crisis. Later, the August 6 press release issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs officially confirmed the date of the 12th round of corps commander level meeting on July 31.

However, it has not gone unnoticed in China that the Joint Press Release, the only official document released by the Chinese government so far, did not mention the date of the meeting, which is quite an aberration from the past practices. The Chinese internet is rife with speculations about why the date might be missing from the joint press release.

Some reports provide an alternate backdrop to the China-India diplomatic dialogue than the one provided in the Joint Statement – marked by the foreign ministers’ meeting on July 14 in Dushanbe and the 22nd meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC) on June 25. These reports suggest that China – after the opening of the Lhasa-Nyingchi Raiway, just 40 km away from the Indian border and President Xi Jinping’s high profile tour of Nyingchi, Tibet, from July 21-23, sending a stern message to New Delhi – had hoped to hold the 12th round of military commander-level talks on July 26, but the Indian side declined.

Chinese analysts note that it is only after receiving U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 26, playing up the Dalai Lama card, and employing eight new Rafael fighter jets at the China-India border on July 28, that India finally agreed to hold the 12th round of talks with China on July 31, and that too with many riders like simultaneous disengagement, equidistant withdrawal of forces, and the disengagement process addressing the security needs of both sides. No wonder, they say, the 12th round meeting ended hastily.

Therefore, to many Chinese commentators, the “shortest meeting” is not so much a sign of growing convergence between China and India, but rather representative of irreconcilable differences between the two on the issue of disengagement at the LAC. Why else did it take only nine hours to conclude the meeting but about two days to issue the joint statement?

What Was the Outcome of the Meeting: Positive Progress or No Substantive Results?

Further, there is a stark difference in how the outcome of the 12th round of talks between China and India is being interpreted in the two countries. Since the announcement of the meeting, the Indian discourse has been comparatively optimistic, projecting hopes of both sides reaching an understanding on the disengagement of troops from Hot Springs and Gogra Post on the LAC. On July 31, Indian media, quoting unnamed official sources, reported that the 12th round of military talks had concluded on a positive note and further progress on the disengagement process can be expected. The opening of a new hotline for on ground communication between the Indian Army and Chinese PLA in Sikkim on August 1 further added to the positivity.

Although the August 2 Joint Press Release remained somewhat vague and lackluster, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs soon issued an official press release on August 6, stating that as an outcome of the 12th round of Corps Commander meeting, Chinese and Indian troops had disengaged in the area of Gogra (PP 17 A). The temporary structures and related infrastructure have been dismantled and mutually verified, the MEA said: “The landform in the area has been restored by both sides to pre-stand off period.”

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Although no agreement could be achieved at the PP 15 or the Hot Springs area, overall the Indian strategic community welcomed the present round of disengagement as one more step toward restoring peace and normalcy at the LAC, and remained cautiously optimistic if the positive trend in China-India interactions could be maintained in the near future. However, sections within the Indian strategic community have expressed disappointment over the possible price that India might have had to pay in terms of buffer zones creation, loss of patrolling rights, and border infrastructure development etc., to diffuse the situation along the LAC.

Meanwhile, in China the mood remained rather somber. There has been no official confirmation as yet from the Chinese government on the realization of the much anticipated China-India disengagement from yet another contentious point at the LAC after the 12th round of military talks. No Chinese mainstream media has so far carried the news of China-India disengagement at the Gogra Heights (PP 17 A). In fact, in the days following the disengagement announcement in India, all that China’s leading India watchers had to debate and discuss were “India’s disinformation campaigns against China (including the developments at the LAC),” “increased pressure on India due to developments in Afghanistan” and “China’s options beyond cooperation to deal with India.”

It needs to be noted that earlier, at the end of the 12th round of talks, some Chinese experts were predicting a possible disengagement between Chinese and Indian troops at the Hot Springs area (not so much at the Gogra Post). However, taking into account the delay in the issuance of the joint press release, they simultaneously cautioned that there still remain many disagreements between the Chinese and Indian side on the remaining points of disengagement and the specific methods of disengagement. These analysts noted that it might still be difficult to reach a sweeping consensus in this round of talks, and the follow-up effect in terms of disengagement might not be as significant as after the ninth round.

The Chinese internet, which otherwise closely follows Indian media, has been unusually quiet on the disengagement news and gave primacy only to the August 2 Joint Statement. Some commentators in the Chinese internet argued that the issuance of the joint press release should be considered a positive development and an achievement in itself, given the fact that both sides failed to do so after the last round of negotiations on April 9. However, the bigger consensus in China remained that the 12th round of talks has failed to make a breakthrough and bore “no substantive results.” Some even interpreted the Chinese government’s low key response to the meeting as China being unhappy and unwilling. Unlike India, they say, China does not see the outcome of the recent talks as a positive development, maybe because it is China that has been forced to make compromises in exchange for peace and stability at the border.

Further, it did not go unnoticed in either country that within days of the 12th round of dialogue where China-India talked disengagement, China announced its newly opened Lhasa-Nyingchi Railway in Tibet hosting its first military troop transport mission and India made its decision to send a task force of four warships into the South China Sea to participate in a series of exercises, including the Malabar 2021 naval exercises with U.S., Japanese, and Australian forces.

To sum up, one can argue that China and India strove hard to create an impression of improved mutual understanding, reduced tension, and lesser chances of further escalation at the LAC by issuing a joint statement at the end of the 12th round of the corps commander-level meeting. However, the glaring discrepancies in details – a sign of the lack of coordination and consensus between the two sides on almost every aspect, from the date, time, and venue to the outcome of the meeting – are warning signs that all might not be going well between China and India at the LAC.