As if the extant state of play in the Ladakh standoff is not convoluted enough, a recent statement by a junior minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet simultaneously comes across as unsubstantiated braggadocio as well as an diplomatic own goal. Speaking to the media in the southern Indian city of Madurai on February 7 about Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control, Minister of State for State Transport and Highways V.K. Singh – a former Indian Army chief and minister of state for external affairs in Modi’s first term – claimed, “Let me assure you, if China has transgressed 10 times, we must have done it at least 50 times.”
“Today, China is under pressure, since we are sitting at places (along the border), where it does not like,” The Hindu quoted Singh as also saying.
It is important to note that the Indian government’s official position on why the People’s Liberation Army had crossed the LAC across a wide frontage in eastern Ladakh around last April is that Beijing has provided multiple explanations for it, none of which are credible.
As if on cue, China has jumped on Singh’s statement – which effectively not only offers it a quick propaganda win, but also a data point to bring up in negotiations to resolve to crisis from now on. During a regular press briefing on February 8, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin noted, according to the translation it provided: “This is an unwitting confession by the Indian side. For a long time, the Indian side has conducted frequent acts of trespass in the border area in an attempt to encroach on China’s territory and constantly created disputes and frictions, which is the root cause of the tensions at the China-India border.” (My colleague Shannon Tiezzi pointed out to me that what has been translated as “unwitting” is closer to “unforced” in the original Mandarin.)
“We urge the Indian side to follow through on the consensus, agreements and treaties it reached with China, and uphold peace and stability in the border region with concrete actions,” Wang added by way of a boilerplate statement.
China and India have failed to resolve the festering military crisis – arguably the worst such between the two countries in more than half a century – despite nine rounds of military talks and several meetings between ministers so far. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that the LAC is neither demarcated nor delineated, which means that where it lies is essentially a matter of common perception for both sides, set by past and established patrolling patterns.
Some analysts and scholars have, variously, argued in the past that the Ladakh standoff has its roots in the Indian decision to reorganize the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two federally-controlled territories, after carving Ladakh out of it, or in India’s rapid development of infrastructure along the LAC. Others have suggested that the crisis is a manifestation of a larger geostrategic contest between China and other key Indo-Pacific powers.
That said, Chinese troops have, on other occasions in the past, also crossed over the LAC, most notably in 2014 in the Chumar area, also in Ladakh, while Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting India. However, such standoffs have been typically short-lived.
Singh’s freelancing on the issue, which has nothing to do with his extant ministerial remit, is likely to embarrass Indian negotiators and confound chances of a diplomatic resolution of the crisis – slim as that possibility remains – even further.
With this statement, the junior minister – whose tenure as army chief was punctuated by several controversies – is an addition to the (sadly growing) list of Indian ministers whose statements have undermined carefully established government positions, either by accident or design. Two of Modi’s defense ministers, for example, have cast serious doubts about India’s nuclear “no first use” commitment.
But it is important to keep in mind that the propensity to speak out of turn cuts across party lines in India. In early May 1998, then Defense Minister George Fernandes called China “enemy number 1,” a statement that was quickly disowned by the prime minister’s office. In any event, that Fernandes did so just days ahead of India’s nuclear weapons test caused considerable consternation in New Delhi and abroad.