The Chinese are now calling the Indians aggressor, accusing it of occupying what they claim is their territory. At least that is what emerges from a reading of the statement issued by the Chinese defence ministry after the meeting of the two defence ministers in Moscow on Friday.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation for two-and-a-half hours . The Chinese statement the next day said that Wei told Singh that the responsibility of the tensions “lies entirely with India”. Yes, India. It was an astounding claim which flies in the face of facts on the ground.
This was the first meeting of the two defence ministers, since the border standoff began in early May. It lasted two-and-a-half hours without narrowing differences a wee bit. Because China is not ready to accept that it was the aggressor, that it has unilaterally sought to change the Line of Actual Control, catching the Indian side off-guard, and occupied a chunk of Indian territory. Instead of vacating the aggression, it brazenly implies that India is the aggressor. In all probability, even now, it is up to no good.
India’s occupation of strategic heights on the south bank of Pangong Tso and Rechin La on the night of August 29-30 has clearly taken China by surprise. But that is on the Indian side of the LAC. India has every right to be prepared for any eventuality, especially when the rival troops stand eyeball-to-eyeball on the LAC. The two statements giving accounts of the meeting are significant. A close reading implies a lack of common understanding, a complete lack of trust --- and no signs of an early end to the crisis.
The Chinese said that Wei told Singh “both sides should scrupulously implement the consensus reached between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping and continue to solve the issues through dialogue and consultation, strictly follow the various bilateral agreements, strengthen the regulation of frontline troops and not undertake any provocative actions that might escalate the situation”. Notably, the Chinese defence minister also suggested that both sides should "maintain communication at all levels, including between the two ministers".
The Indian defence minister invoked the consensus reached between Modi and Xi and said all steps should be taken to maintain peace and tranquillity at the border. For this, Singh said, it was important for the Chinese to work with the Indian side for "complete disengagement at the earliest from all friction areas, including Pangong Lake, as well as de-escalation, in accordance with the bilateral agreements and protocols and strictly respect and observe the Line of Actual Control. There should be no attempt to alter the status quo unilaterally". Singh said that neither side should take any further action that could either complicate the situation or escalate matters in the border areas.
Notably, Wei was quoted in the statement issued by the Chinese defence ministry as having told Singh that “the relationship between the two countries and the armed forces has been severely affected by the border issue recently" and "the cause and truth of the current tension on the border between China and India are very clear, and the responsibility lies entirely with India".
Striking a menacing note, the statement quoted Wei as telling his Indian counterpart that “China’s territory cannot be lost. The Chinese military is fully determined, capable and confident to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. He too invoked the “series of agreements reached between the two countries", asking Singh to "effectively strengthen the control of the frontline forces, refrain from provoking the current line of actual control, refraining from any actions that may cause the situation to heat up, and refraining from deliberately hyping and disseminating negative information”.
For the record, Wei also stressed that the two sides "adopt a responsible attitude to achieve full disengagement of front-line forces as soon as possible, avoid taking measures that escalate or complicate the situation, prevent differences from becoming disputes, and push relations between the two countries and the armed forces back on track as soon as possible”.
There is not much left to be said here. Given the high-profile visits by the chiefs of the armed forces at the weekend, the failure of the Moscow meeting to make any headway, we can only hope the border situation does not escalate into armed hostilities. The onus to prevent that lies with China which unilaterally occupied Indian territory. Otherwise, both sides will be losers.