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China’s mixed signals after deal to disengage

India and China on Wednesday said the speedy implementation of disengagement and de-escalation measures agreed on by their senior military commanders will help calm tensions triggered by an ongoing border standoff.

However, the strains and pressure simmering beneath the surface were evident in Beijing’s reiteration of accusations that New Delhi had violated bilateral agreements and provoked the June 15 clash in Galwan Valley that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and unspecified Chinese casualties.

During a more than three-hour meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on border affairs, the Indian side conveyed its concerns on developments in eastern Ladakh, including the violent face-off on June 15, and emphasised both sides should “strictly respect and observe” the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

The stance adopted by both sides indicated the ongoing military and diplomatic engagements to end the standoff, especially in Galwan Valley, which has been the focus of tensions, will be a long-drawn affair with no early resolution in sight.

The meeting of WMCC, held via video conference, focused on developments along the disputed border, especially the situation in eastern Ladakh, the external affairs ministry said in a statement. The Chinese readout of the meeting described the talks as “candid” and “in-depth”.

The two sides referred to the June 17 phone conversation between external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi and the meeting of the corps commanders on June 22 and “reaffirmed that both sides should sincerely implement the understanding on disengagement and de-escalation that was reached by the Senior [military] Commanders on 6th June”, the Indian statement said.

“The two delegations agreed that implementation of this understanding expeditiously, in accordance with the bilateral agreements and protocols, would help ensure peace and tranquillity in border areas and the development of broader relationship between the two countries,” the statement added.

The Chinese readout said the two sides will “actively accommodate with the two military forces to implement the outcome reached during the two rounds of commander-level meetings on June 6 and 22… strengthen communication and coordination through military and diplomatic channels, and peacefully resolve relevant issues in the border areas through bilateral dialogue and consultation”. It also spoke of strengthening military confidence-building measures.

This was the second meeting of the WMCC since June 5, and the Indian side was led by joint secretary (East Asia) Naveen Srivastava of the external affairs ministry, while the Chinese side was headed by director general Hong Liang of the department of boundary affairs of the foreign ministry.

People familiar with developments on condition of anonymity said the meeting also discussed possible contours of future diplomatic engagements and parameters for taking forward the measures agreed on by military commanders to ease tensions. “This is going to be a protracted process and we have to be ready for the long haul,” said one of the people cited above.

The two sides will maintain communications at the diplomatic and military levels, including through WMCC, to resolve the situation peacefully.

But even as the meeting was underway, China’s defence and foreign ministry kept up a shrill barrage of accusations against India, blaming the Indian side for the Galwan Valley clash and alleging the external affairs ministry was behind “false reports”.

The allegations came two days after the corps commanders of the two sides reached “mutual consensus to disengage” in all “friction areas” along the LAC. People familiar with the military talks too said the process is expected to be arduous and completed in phases.

China’s defence and foreign ministry separately castigated India for allegedly violating bilateral agreements and provoking the clash. There was also a reiteration of a claim of sovereignty over Galwan Valley. India has already dismissed these allegations and said the contested valley has always been under its control.

Asked why China’s foreign ministry was repeating these contentious points amid renewed talks of peace and tranquillity on the border, spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a news briefing: “What I have just said…is meant to clarify the whole situation, tell the truth to everyone. We made the statement because the [external affairs ministry] and Indian media have made some false reports.”

In a statement read out after the briefing was over, Zhao repeated accusations that Indian troops had trespassed into Chinese territory and provoked an incident on May 6. He claimed the Indian side had agreed to withdraw from Galwan Valley and had “dismantled its facilities as requested by the Chinese side”.

Referring to the corps commanders meeting of June 6, Zhao contended the Indian side had committed it would not “trespass” into Galwan Valley for “patrol and for building”. The two sides agreed to set up observation posts on both sides of the Galwan river estuary, but “the Indian side went against these agreements and asked China to dismantle China’s posts and also it crossed the [LAC] to provoke which led to the clash”, he added.

Zhao also reiterated China’s accusation that the June 15 clash occurred because Indian troops went against the agreement reached on June 6 and “crossed the LAC and sabotaged the tents Chinese side set up”. He also alleged the Indian side attacked Chinese personnel – such accusations have been dismissed by India, which has maintained the “premeditated and planned” actions of the Chinese side led to the violence and casualties.

Separately, China’s defence ministry spokesperson Wu Qian made similar accusations during an online interaction with selected media.

Analysts questioned the divergent positions taken by the Chinese side during bilateral discussions and while making public remarks on the border stand-off.

Leading strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney tweeted: “In keeping with China’s standard playbook for camouflaging offence as defence, its foreign ministry almost daily has been branding India as the aggressor. But today, its foreign and defence ministries launched twin attacks on India. Is the ‘disengagement’ deal already unravelling?”

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25th June 2020