Despite talk of disengagement, Chinese troops have expanded their numbers and opened up new fronts against India in Eastern Ladakh, weeks after at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the first fatal clash between the two country’s armies in four decades. The violence and Beijing’s attempt to alter the status quo in Ladakh have led many to see this as a decisive moment in India’s China policy, one that could force a fundamental shift. spoke to Jabin T Jacob, associate professor at Shiv Nadar University and adjunct research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation about what China’s motivations might have been, what Prime Minister Narendra Modi was trying to do by insisting there had been no intrusion and how structural issues of caste and class influence India’s foreign policy capacity.

  • On talks with China:Either two sides are serious, and they really want to iron out all the differences and prevent a recurrence of June 15, or the Chinese are simply stringing the Indians along. From what we saw at Galwan and advance movement at Depsang, it looks like the latter is the truth.”
  • On Modi’s statement: “China is not Pakistan, and the situation is not identical. You’re not in a position to send in a surgical strike team or the Air Force, conveniently make amends and getting people to forget about intelligence failure at Pulwama or whatnot.”
  • On China’s motivations: “I think they thought Covid would be a similar sort of diversion given that the troops did not turn up in the normal course of things, and they decided to make the most of it. Except they found that the Indians were not really sleeping.”
  • On Article 370 playing a role: “I’ve never gotten this Article 370 business. I don’t really buy it. My overall assessment is that this was a bunch of local incidents that escalated.”
  • On foreign policy capacity: “We have to re-order our priorities on India’s foreign policy. All this Yoga Day soft power, it’s pointless without the hard power to back it up.”

The Chinese tent is back at the point of the June 15 clash, Chinese troops are back in Depsang. You’ve called the June 15 incident a “watershed” – but 10 days later, does it still feel like one?
Absolutely. I think now it should be clear that despite all the talking and so on, the Chinese intend to do exactly what they please. Not that we are going to make it easier for them. It means that the protocol and the confidence building measures that we had in place all these years, they’ve clearly broken down. And they’re not working not because of any fault of India’s but because I believe the Chinese feel threatened in many ways by India’s infrastructure build up.

Even if we are behind in quality or reach in many areas, what we have is sufficient for us to gain access to the LAC, all our patrolling points, much more easily than we used to before.

Therefore, I suppose the calculation of the Chinese side is ‘what’s the point of having superiority in terms of logistics and infrastructure in terms of military budget etc if we cannot enforce our will on the ground.’

The thinking on the Chinese side is, look, now is the time to do something. Let’s go as forward as possible. Let’s throw the Indians off balance. They do not yet have the capacity to man borders or access areas the way we can, so let’s make the most of it. It looks like India’s doing a poor job of managing Covid, therefore now is the time.

All these talks, these 11-hour confabulations, to my mind it means only one of two things: Either two sides are serious, and they really want to iron out all the differences and prevent a recurrence of June 15, or the Chinese are simply stringing the Indians along. From what we saw at Galwan and advance movement at Depsang, it looks like the latter is the truth.

The Chinese are simply talking to keep the Indians distracted and confused, and doing exactly what they feel.

India's Border Security Force personnel stand guard along a highway leading to Ladakh on June 17. Credit: Danish Ismail/ Reuters

Has it been a watershed from the Indian side? Is India doing anything differently?
It’s not as if the Indian side was not aware of all of this being likely to happen. We’ve built and planned accordingly, we always knew this was about to happen and it’s a wonder that these sort of clashes did not turn so serious before.

From what I hear, being said in the public domain, the Indian Army has war-gamed enough to say that, in case we are at a disadvantage in one area, then we can open up a front in another area where the Chinese are at a disadvantage.

That change itself would be important, a significant change from behaviour so far. You could say that some of this has already been underway in limited ways and different areas, but now this will become more and more the norm.

Post-Doklam and when we first saw that physical clash at Pangong Tso, I said that we are looking at something of a new trend in India-China face-offs, that this is only likely to get more serious and create more problems. This will be something of a new normal, and that’s exactly how it’s panned out.

The mess and deliberate obfuscation about what was going on at the boundary and hoping for the best, all of that will go out the window. We simply don’t have the luxury of talking of these things in abstract terms in diplomatic terms. It will have to be dealt with in a head to head, in a forthright manner.

You need your own population, your own analysts, best minds, prepared for the crisis. If we know the nature of the problem, we will plan and work accordingly. At the moment, very few in government think that way and even fewer still allow that thinking to be publicised or become mainstream.

So what happens is you have a few people in government dealing with this problem, but without the benefit of best advice or inputs or creative solutions from outside. I mean, even take this idea of a boycott. A boycott doesn’t necessarily make sense, it has some value in terms of leverage for the government. But this is possible only because people came to know what happened on the ground. If it had been hush hush we would continue to buy Chinese goods, continue to increase dependency on China, our tech entrepreneurs continue to take Chinese money, Chinese tech, taking on board certain Chinese practices, code, equipment.

In that sense we have the Americans also to thank for given the sort of focused attention they have put on Huawei and 5G and so on.

You argued that Modi’s controversial speech – saying there had been no intrusion – and communication around it was poor drafting. What makes you think it wasn’t deliberate in terms of addressing a domestic audience and believing they can get away with it?
If it was addressing a domestic constituency it did not succeed. Parties immediately came back with numerous objects. And the second thing, if that was deliberate, they would not have come out with a clarification the next day. So clearly it was unintended. I don’t think they deliberately tried to mislead the public.

I think they overdrafted.

The point I made in the article is that the politicians are comfortable on Pakistan, because there they know they’ve got the people with them. With China, there is very little incentive to stay informed, updated or even to communicate. And so it’s like, let me just get this over with, and it was poorly done. It’s as simple as that.

Mourners in Bhojraj village in Gurdaspur on June 18 carry the coffin of Satnam Singh, an Indian soldier who was killed in a border clash with Chinese troops in Ladakh region. Credit: Munish Sharma/Reuters

There is a gap between what Modi says in Hindi on a video that is broadcast, and clarifications in English in legalese the next day. There’s still space for an assumption that they might have been able to get away without admitting to what happened?
The clarification of June 20 said that the focus is only on Galwan. That is unacceptable.

I don’t think the parties in the room are sitting there only to hear an explanation about Galwan. Once they have an audience from the Prime Minister, they will want and deserve an explanation on the whole gamut of issues.

I think it is not the right approach for any government to say that you can deny information to elected representatives of the people. In this matter, I would say that even issues of a strategic sensitive nature, requires sharing with the political parties, because that’s what you do in a democracy.

I suppose that more than a deliberate strategy, it’s just the hubris of getting away with doing this for a long time. But here the government was caught short because China is not Pakistan, and the situation is not identical.

You’re not in a position to send in a surgical strike team or the Air Force, conveniently make amends and getting people to forget about intelligence failure at Pulwama or whatnot. Here questions will continue to be raised.

As you said, with Pakistan, the government and the people are on the same page. Is that the same with China? Are the people more anti-Chinese than the government can be, or vice versa?
There is no underlying sentiment among the population that is necessarily anti Chinese. In large measure, Indians are very neutral on China, because it’s more complex than Pakistan.

Pakistan is a simple Hindu-Muslim binary. We gain nothing out of Pakistan, we like their TV serials, the occasional Pakistani here, but it doesn’t grow beyond that. In the case of China, it’s very different. Look everybody is aware that TikTok is Chinese, their phones are Chinese, and I suppose anyone with a little amount of sense would know that if the Chinese weren’t producing these, we wouldn’t be getting these at such a cheap rate.

It’s not too easy. Much of the capital Indian entrepreneurs seek needs to come from or will only come from China. So how can you have a blanket anti-China approach? It’s those issues that keep the government confused in terms of its messaging.

I would say there is no confusion on what needs to be done on the ground at the LAC, and what needs to be done on economic ties. We’re opposed to the Belt and Road Initiative, but we can accept projects from China on a case-by-case basis, which are not under the label of BRI and the Chinese are game for that. Except where somebody like Xi Jinping is concerned or the Communist Party apparatchiks who are involved in this entire messaging are concerned, for them not accepting BRI is trying to make life difficult or insulting for the Chinese leadership.

There will always be some sort of pushback to that, some sort of Chinese reaction to that.
Any number of times I’ve heard the Chinese called Indians stubborn or arrogant. There’s also reluctance among the Chinese to give agency to Indians. As if the Indians can’t think for themselves and have interests of their own that they do not accept Chinese measures or methods or what the Chinese do for their own reasons.

It’s easier for the Chinese to put it as India supporting the US because that’s their focus.

A protest against China in New Delhi on June 19. Credit: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

One argument about why the Chinese are doing this right now is that India is – economically, internally weak. Another is that this is a reaction to Indian strength, catching up on infrastructure on the LAC, which troubles the Chinese. Could both of these be true?
I think both of it is true. There is strength on the LAC, just enough to ensure that the Indians counter the Chinese. There are areas where the Indians are able to access, where, if accessed, the Chinese would no longer have the advantage that they did before.

One could ask the question of why are these few 100 metres left or right, this frontage, really important in a time of satellite imagery. Now military planners will have their own logic to this. Even leaving that aside, the thing is, at this point what happened this year is, because of Covid-19 we were not having our usual exercises, as I understand it. The troops did not come in the usual numbers. Any military planner on the other side who see this happen, will probably say ‘hey, this is a good moment, maybe there is a serious problem on the Indian side, so let’s do it.’

And there is a history to this. The Chinese built that road in Pangong Tso in 1999, when the Indians were diverted to Kargil. I think they thought Covid would be a similar sort of diversion given that the troops did not turn up in the normal course of things, and they decided to make the most of it. Except they found that the Indians were not really sleeping, that they were ready to react and they reacted quickly. Once that happens the Chinese are in a situation where they have been shown up.

In situations like this, the Chinese reaction is always to go on the offensive. They will always feel that they must reply to this loss of face or egg on their face – which resulted in casualties on the Chinese side – by working harder to make up for it.

Look, the Chinese Army is very politicised and these things have consequences. I mean, how dare you lose soldiers. Maybe the Indians lost 20 soldiers, but even if you lose two soldiers, it’s still a big loss of face because the Indians are not seen as at the same level as the Chinese.

That’s precisely what happened in Doklam. Where we forced them to retreat from the particular spot, but the Chinese then reacted by building up all around that spot. Doklam is effectively lost, it is effectively Chinese territory. What was border of India and Bhutan, has become border between India and China.

You’ve argued that some of this fits in with the Chinese approach of seeing even its offensive actions as defensive, with China always as the victim. How should India deal with this narrative?
This American scholar Andrew Scobell calls this “the cult of defence”: No matter what you do, we are always defending ourselves, even if we are acting offensively.

Indians know this has been happening. But in our approach, we cannot deal as the Chinese. We cannot take offensive action until there is provocation from the other side. I suppose this is provocation enough.

The fact that a Corps Commander is talking to these guys and simultaneously they are changing the situation on the ground, I think it is insulting, it is in bad faith, and it is militarily offensive, it is a security concern. I suppose we will have to take decisions accordingly.

Even as we speak, troops are being sent to the border. They are being acclimatised, so I guess what now happens is we will have a situation where we can’t let the troops come home because it is winter. Last year, the Chinese kept their troops at Doklam right through winter. That’s not a small feat, it’s terribly cold.

Indian troops on the move. Credit: Danish Ismail/ Reuters

You mentioned that this was potentially a tactical approach that the Chinese spotted an opportunity because India was distracted because of Covid. Some of the other discussion around this has suggested that it is Beijing reacting to Article 370 and statements about Aksai Chin. What do you make of that?
None of us has the full information, so one can’t really say. A tactical opportunity could turn into a strategic opportunity.

But I’ve never gotten this Article 370 business. I don’t really buy it. My overall assessment is that this was a bunch of local incidents that escalated. At least on June 15, it got out of hand.

We also have to understand that both sides are planning and doing exercises for such contingencies. Therefore when something happens, if you sort of don’t trust the other side, then you will escalate it. I think it can be a combination of factors which led to this escalation. And, whether we like it or not, this had to happen at some time. Sooner or later it would have happened.

On Article 370 I think we were very clear that this was an internal arrangement. For the Chinese to go hammer and tongs on this, even though the Home Minister made the statement that one day we’ll get Aksai Chin back, but what do you expect him to say?

My feeling is that the Chinese were poorly advised on this. Or they wanted to make Pakistan feel better, so they decided to make a pitch while the opportunity presented itself. It’s not their job to fight a war on behalf of the Pakistanis, that doesn’t happen. That they don’t do.

In so far as Ladakh involved territory that the Chinese claim, they also had a reason to say okay, the Indians have done something that offends us and so on.

You know, we took umbrage many years ago, when the Chinese ambassador went on TV and said Arunachal Pradesh belongs to China. You saw a whole series of actions that resulted from that. You could very well say that the Chinese took it exactly the same way.

They’re bound to react the same way. I still think that was mostly rhetorical. This what has happened has to do with local military understanding.

Some have argued that Modi’s line – “there was no intrusion” – was meant to be the sign of India taking a realist tone and creating the space for a deal with China, acknowledging the gap between India and China is only likely to increase. What do you make of this argument?
I don’t buy that either. I think that’s a very clever post-facto explanation. If that was a consistent policy then nobody saw that when the BJP was in opposition. There’s no doubt that we need to compromise, we need to understand that what we see as Indian territory on the Indian map will no longer be returned to India. That applies also to the Chinese. What they see as Southern Tibet is not going to be returned to the Chinese.

We have an opportunity for two strong leaders to come to the table and say, okay, enough is enough, let’s settle this boundary dispute. You take that, we take this and we’ll be done with it. The problem is, on the same score, India will also have to settle with the Pakistanis, and whether there is willingness on that front either in India or on Pakistan to settle along the LOC, that remains to be seen. Even on the LOC, Siachen is not decided.

But even if you keep Pakistan aside, I think India and China should have been able to settle this dispute with these two strong leaders in power. Problem is both hold nationalism as their strong point and it’s very difficult for them to get off this tiger.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi exchanges gifts with China's President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu during the second informal summit between the two nations in October 2019. Credit: PIB/AFP

You made a more structural argument in the ORF piece, that for better long-term ways of addressing the India China conflict, New Delhi needs to be transparent and open, to pull in more voices from outside government. What has your experience been with this and what has to change?
I mean what I wrote is partly from my experience. Essentially, there is a feeling and when I say government I don’t necessarily mean the political parties, but the bureaucracy, because ultimately they are the ones who continue in power, they are the ones who control the purse strings.

It’s a very difficult relationship. In the early years, a couple of generations ago, there was a sense of mutual respect between bureaucrats and academics. Partly, I have a social explanation for this that they all came from the same social class – journalists, academics, diplomats, IAS, they’re all from the same school, social class.

Today, India is a much more egalitarian society. You have people from all walks of life, backgrounds, communities coming into these fields. That sort of linkage between these groups has broken down. Then you have these professional interest groups develop and some of this turns rivalrous. Some of this is just lack of time to communicate, so communication breaks down, and different understandings of what government money ought to be achieving.

Government also has its limitations on resources, so it can’t just give blindly to think tanks which are interested in long-term research.

Unfortunately without long-term research on China, Chinese politics, Chinese society, the Communist Party, Chinese enterprises, you are not going to be able to have policy-relevant information. You can’t have a two-page policy brief without very deep understanding and for that deep understanding you need to open up the purse-string and provide money: To the universities, for field trips, for language learning etc.

The government itself doesn’t have any language capacity. Whether in the ITBP or the Army, Chinese language speakers are at a premium. If that is the case, how are you going to communicate on the border, with troops, when things are getting out of hand.

Now if you don’t have your own investments in your own people then at least you should encourage investments from the universities. Now at a time when I did my university education in JNU, I did not have money for a field trip. I didn’t get a government scholarship either.

I went on a scholarship to Taiwan that the Taiwanese provided me, on Taiwanese money. So whatever expertise I managed to develop on China subsequently has been because people saw that on my CV, that I spent two years in Taiwan, learnt the language and therefore they come and give me the opportunities that I have.

I have very little to thank the government for that, except for very affordable fees at JNU. Now even that is being increased, and being pulled out of the reach of ordinary Indians. If that happens, it is as if the government wants to keep all knowledge within the four walls. When you are only listening to each other in an echo chamber, you will have distorted information, you will have poor and wrong analysis.

You need to bring in outside expertise.

This is happening. I’m not saying it’s not happening. Within the Army especially, the armed forces, the situation is vastly different from even 10 years ago. Today somebody at a junior rank, a major-level, these guys are far more knowledgeable about China than their counterparts were 10 years ago. They understand very clearly that China is a real challenge, and therefore the changes are also happening in mindset. These need to be accompanied by resources also for the Armed Forces. That has also not been forthcoming.

The Indian MEA is anyway very small. And yet it doesn’t adequately use the military for military diplomacy. And the military is in a sense, it has much more personnel, it has much more people to spare, but they don’t. They’re just not used properly.

Even if someone in the military were to build expertise on China, the military’s promotion structure and incentives means there is very little need for these people. Everybody has to be a jack of all trades, rather than a specialist.

If they need to be a specialist, then they have to sacrifice other aspects of their career or they need to sacrifice their core competency. That’s an unsustainable position if you really need expertise to build up within your organisation.

MEA has too few people and not enough experts. This also is not encouraged because they are always shuffling across all geographies, instead of remaining in the same geography and building up expertise.

Chennai school students wear masks of China's President Xi Jinping on October 10, ahead of a summit with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. Credit: Arun Shankar/AFP

In a presentation years ago you pointed out that caste, class and capital comes into play in Chinese studies. And there have been pieces that point out that Chinese studies in India is still very narrow.
Something like caste and class, that point was about reforms required within the system. We are not open to creativity because of these barriers.

There is a fundamental problem with how we do academics in India, all of which the blame cannot be put on the government. It’s also the problem with how academia is structured, interest groups, this very hierarchical relationship in academia in India.

But ultimately the government has to take charge. And ultimately it’s a question of money. Because there is not enough money going around. Then you will necessarily be forced or tempted to give it to those who will toe your line or those who you think are reliable for whatever reasons. Now if there was enough money to go around, of course some of it will be wasted, but if you throw numbers at a problem – and I say this about money and also about number of diplomats – even if your percentage of success is only 10%, in absolute terms it makes a difference. This we need to understand.

I’ve heard rubbish about why the MEA keeps its numbers low. But if the MEA only has 900 officers, how are we supposed to cover the entire globe. This is unsustainable. Then all this talk about being a global power is just that.

Another thing I also have been pushing in recent years is this need to involve our public sector units more in foreign policy activities. That’s what the Chinese have done successfully. The BRI is possible because they have been able to get their state-owned enterprises to work on behalf of national interests and so on.

In India that doesn’t happen, because once a manager becomes the head of a PSU, that’s the end of it. He’s happy, he’s made his carer, and he’s not thinking of other avenues in life, the way our IAS or IFS guys think of becoming a governor or head of a commission. I think these opportunities ought to be opened up to everyone, so that everyone thinks that during their career they should do well.

The thing is, some of these things happen post retirement. They’re also being too cautious. We need to be able to fix that as well. We need to ensure that while they’re in service, they do well. Increase the retirement age for all you want but ensure that these people do the best, while they’re in service, and after retirement, no other perks. That’s just the way it should be.

You said that post-Doklam, this sort of altercation was bound to happen at some point or other. So what is now ‘inevitable’ going forward? More clashes? Or a boundary deal?
That’s a tough question. Look, once you have broken promises, once you’ve deals breached and agreements broken, and we have seen that happen in the space of the last two weeks, then I think it means either because the overall conditions were not suitable, and the deal did not take into account the changed circumstances, or there is malice.

For both reasons then you have an unstable situation. No matter what deal is made, you will continue to have flare ups, problems, casualties. Having said that, the fact that these two countries are so large and have multiple issues to deal with, and not just the boundary with each other also means that there is a little pressure off. Not everybody is keeping their eye on this, saying we have to reach a solution, we need a way out.

Even now in the media, you don’t see all these rallying nationalist, jingoist cries about blood for blood. The government has done a successful job in tamping down. So I think in this particular case, we will find some sort of deal. It will be signed on, it will be ignored, and we will all wait for winter for things to cool down.

Next year we will start up again, but perhaps at a much more careful and lower level. We will have lost some advantages. Chinese will have made some claims. We should be very careful that we push back equally hard.

Unfortunately so far, India has not rhetorically made a tit for tat response. The thing is because we are the weaker party in this, we just do not have the resources. Even something like when the Chinese say, ‘our claim line is Galwan valley’, they’re not going by the LAC, they’re also extending territorial claims.

I haven’t seen a pushback that says, look, you can claim all you want but this entire Aksai Chin is ours. We have been extremely cautious, and I think that sort of caution plays into the Chinese hands.

Sometimes we have to use rhetoric to good effect. We need to do a much better job of dealing with the Chinese problem in other world capitals. The Chinese react very strongly to bad press. We saw that in Covid. They will be compelled to tone down. They might do the opposite, they might increase the pressure on us, but that is anyway going to happen. Why hold ourselves back from being equally firm and assertive?

We did a pretty good job in reacting to BRI. But on Doklam we have made a mistake. On Doklam the Chinese ran with the game on public rhetoric. We were too quiet. I think that works against us. Frankly, again I come back to the problem to a lack of numbers in the MEA. If you put the MEA to organising International Yoga Day and pursuing terrorists at the UNSC, then, given the limited numbers, you’re taking away numbers from one area and devoting them to another.

We just don’t have the bandwidth to do all of this simultaneously. We have to re-order our priorities on India’s foreign policy. All this Yoga Day soft power, it’s pointless without the hard power to back it up.

I think we need to do a better job in other global capitals, and make sure the Chinese are seen as the offenders in this particular case.

Is that the hangover of 1962, that India is always a bit cautious in terms of a public line?
I think ‘62 is too far gone for us to keep talking of it. I think within the government these are not considerations any more. It’s just a very practical consideration of what the government is capable of. One or two mistakes that the government has always done: Not expanding diplomatic capacity, and in the last few years, some really bad economic decisions. As a result of which we just can’t increase our budget on so many things.

What would you recommend those who are interested in the subject to read or listen to on this subject?