India Releases Lost Chinese Soldier, Explores Trade Talks With Taiwan

Indian troops released a captured Chinese soldier who had reportedly crossed the unmarked Indian border on accident while helping herders search for yaks. The return of the wandering soldier is a possible indication of easing tensions along the Himalayan border after months of clashes, some deadly, that had China and preparing for a winter of high-altitude conflict. In late June, relations between the nations seemingly reached a nadir when India blocked dozens of Chinese apps due to border tensions and concerns about espionage

The New York Times’ Steven Lee Meyers detailed the circumstances behind the soldier’s capture:

The soldier, a corporal who has not been publicly identified, inadvertently crossed the border while helping local herdsmen search for missing yaks, according to the news agency of the People’s Liberation Army, which reported his return on Wednesday morning.

The statement offered no new details about the circumstances of his disappearance, including why he would have wandered off unaccompanied by other troops. He was the first Chinese soldier detained by the Indian military since tensions escalated this year.

The soldier stumbled into an Indian border post at the base of a hill around 2 a.m. on Monday, an Indian official said. He was wearing civilian clothes and unarmed, and Indian officials believe that he was either genuinely lost or sent on a mission to scout out Indian defenses. [Source]

The conflict in the has its provenance in a dispute over the Line of Actual Control, a sketchily drawn border that is a legacy of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. China points to Zhou Enlai’s 1959 letter to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as the basis of its territorial claims. India rejects the Chinese position as “untenable.” 

Despite a joint commitment to stop mobilizing troops to the front, announced after the sixth round of bilateral talks aimed at deescalating the conflict held in late September, negotiations to end the face-off have stalled. China suggests that withdrawal of military artillery precede the abandonment of positions, while India asserts that troops should return to their pre-April positions as a condition of removing weaponry. At the Business Standard, one of India’s most popular English language Newspaper, Ajai Shukla reported on the likely reasons for the stalemate, and its consequences:

China analysts do not see any “give” in Beijing’s position. Yun Sun of the Washington DC-based Stimson Centre believes New Delhi is missing some fundamental aspects of the strategic personality of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I don’t think Xi ever got over the 2017 Doklam standoff and China’s loss of face, notwithstanding the abrupt, unnatural and artificially engineered ‘rapprochement’ between Xi and Modi at Wuhan (2018) and Chennai (2019). Xi’s style is to gain face back where he lost it, so the event this year, and China’s surprising aggressiveness has been brewing for the past three years,” says Sun.

Sun believes Beijing is reconciled to having India as a strategic adversary. “Many Chinese feel that they never ‘had’ India to begin with. The mutual distrust and embedded hostility in the society and in the policymaking circles has led to an understanding that India was never China’s friend or partner. This forms an interesting contrast to the Indian perception that China betrayed India,” she says.

As winter takes hold in Eastern Ladakh, the failure of disengagement talks means the new frontlines are being frozen, figuratively as well as literally. The Indian Army has matched the PLA’s induction of 35,000-50,000 additional troops to hold the front lines through winter. A logistics race is underway to provide ammunition, living shelters, food and, above all, heating fuel to enable soldiers to survive at temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, which is effectively lowered by another 30 degrees Celsius by the wind chill factor. [Source]

Despite the stalemate, an eighth round of talks is expected in the coming weeks. Global Times has noted that China views the release of the captured soldier as an act of good faith by Indian negotiators:

“India’s move is a goodwill gesture ahead of the eighth round talks,” Sun Shihai, an expert at the South Asia Research Center of Sichuan University, told the Global Times on Tuesday, adding that China and India had returned soldiers who strayed across the LAC before.

Sun noted the most significant issues in the upcoming talks are rebuilding the mutual-trust mechanism and disengagement, adding that India should make a commitment as soon as possible. [Source]

In recent months India has sought closer ties to its neighbors as it tries to balance its traditional policy of “strategic autonomy” with concerns about Chinese power. Recent “Quad” meetings (the Japanese, Australian, Indian, and American strategic coalition) indicate that India is increasingly willing to form a united front with other Indo-Pacific democracies against perceived Chinese aggression. India has also made diplomatic overtures to Taiwan. At The Diplomat, Jassie Hsi Cheng reported on the diplomatic kerfuffle sparked by Indian celebrations of Taiwan’s October 10 National Day:

“TAIWAN Happy National Day October 10,” read the posters congratulating Taiwan on its 109th National Day. They were put up near the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on the 10th by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga. Even though they were soon taken down again, images of the signs had already gone viral on Twitter and in the press. They were joined by a meme tweeted by Indian netizens in support of Taiwan. Titled “Milk Tea Alliance,” a reference to an earlier solidarity movement uniting pro-democracy netizens in Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong, the meme showed Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi toasting each other with bubble tea and Indian spiced tea.

This represented a huge humiliation for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as the Chinese Embassy in Delhi had specifically issued a diktat to the Indian media a few days before Taiwan’s Double Tenth Day, instructing them how to report on Taiwan and, most importantly, asking them not to violate its “one China” policy. As expected, this diktat sparked a backlash on social media and had a so-called Streisand effect, elevating the very discourse China was trying to suppress. India’s celebratory posters attracted attention from several circles, including the Taiwanese government. Tsai thanked the Indian people for their blessings and support, and on the day the posters went up, Taiwan’s envoy to the U.S., Hsiao Bi-khim, tweeted, “Wow! What a #MilkTeaAlliance.” [Source]

China is highly sensitive about international recognition of Taiwan, and has worked tirelessly and to great effect in recent years to diplomatically isolate the island nation. Last week, Chinese diplomats in Fiji stormed the Taiwanese delegation’s National Day celebrations and brawled over a cake depicting the ROC flag. Peter Martin cut through the many layers of the cake incident in a Twitter thread:

At Bloomberg, Archana Chaudhary and Christ Horton reported that Indian China hawks are pushing to open trade deal negations with the Taiwanese government:

Taiwan has sought trade talks with India for several years, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been reluctant to move ahead because it would involve a messy fight with China once any pact is registered at the World Trade Organization, according to a senior Indian government official who asked not be named, citing rules for speaking with the media.

Yet over the past few months the hawks in India who want to start trade talks are getting the upper hand, the official said. A trade deal with Taiwan would help India’s goal of seeking greater investments in technology and electronics, the official said, adding that it’s unclear when a final decision would be made on whether to start talks.

[…] Earlier this month, Modi’s government gave approval to firms including Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group, Wistron Corp. and Pegatron Corp. as he looks to attract investment worth more than 10.5 trillion rupees ($143 billion) for smartphone production over five years. [Source]

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Zhao Lijian asserted that China would “firmly oppose” formal exchanges between India and China, but did not specify which measures might be taken. 

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