Disengagement, SCO Meet and Beyond By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

Also Published at The Financial Express

Disengagement, SCO Meet and Beyond

The disengagement is a direct trade off so that India does not spoil Xi Jinping’s first coming out party since the onset of Covid in 2019. The fact that Xi Jinping is making his first international foray outside China since the Covid began is now directly conflated with the 20th Party Congress being held next month to anoint him for an unprecedented third term as China’s uncrowned king. In this context, the SCO meet has to be a success. 

Disengagement, SCO Meet and Beyond
PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (File Photo | AP)

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

The disengagement at PP15 in the Gogra Hot springs area was to happen last year as a tangible outcome of a Corps Commanders Conference held then. It did not. When Wang Yi came on an uninvited visit in Mar 22 to Delhi, it was expected that this disengagement would coincide with his visit. He probably came with the lollipop that the PLA would condescendingly agree to the disengagement at PP15 Gogra Hot springs if Sino – Indian ties resume with the Business as Usual tag.

It was typical of the Chinese supremacist world view to expect such an outcome. However, India did not fall into the trap. In fact, Wang Yi was snubbed and had to go back empty handed. A message was sent. The old normal in Sino-Indian relations does not exist anymore. A new normal is not yet in sight. The new normal is predicated on the LAC and the border issue.

Later, the disengagement announcement was expected in the 16th Corps Commanders meet. It did not occur then. The standoff continued at Gogra till recently. All of a sudden it was announced that there would be a disengagement. The disengagement process commenced and has been completed as per news reports. Why has this disengagement taken place now? What is its significance? Needs analysis and understanding.

After the major disengagements at Galwan, Chushul and Pangong Tso in 2021, the disengagements at PPs 17A and 15 in the Gogra- Hot springs area were considered low hanging fruits to build mutual confidence and trust between PLA and IA. Once this was done, the other major standoffs at Depsang and Demchok were to be addressed.

A minor disengagement took place on Aug 21 at PP17A. After that, the PLA went into stall mode since it held the trump card of possession of our territory. Very clearly, the PLA was stalling not only for time but for clear political outcomes. The political opportunity cum necessity, absent till now, has sprung up.  This sub tactical concession  has greater political relevance for China than India. This needs further elucidation.

While all news and media channels in India carried this disengagement in detail as part of their headlines, it barely made a ripple in the Chinese media. The SCMP, for instance , portrayed it blandly as a product of ‘reinforced common interests at a time of growing international instability, rising bilateral trade and shared threats to both countries’.

Very clearly, the Chinese media did not explain why the PLA was stepping back. The low key approach was adopted so that PLA/CCP is not seen in adverse light as having given in to seek concessions from India. At the same time the Indian media while conveying and analysing this development has been realistic in its overall assessment. The bottom line is that disengagement is only a minor one which should have been done long back. It is no great shakes. However there is a bigger shake ahead if we can smell the tea leaves. The Chinese appear to have done so.

The disengagement is a direct trade off so that India does not spoil Xi Jinping’s first coming out party since the onset of Covid in 2019. The fact that Xi Jinping is making his first international foray outside China since the Covid began is now directly conflated with the 20th Party Congress being held next month to anoint him for an unprecedented third term as China’s uncrowned king.

In this context, the SCO meet has to be a success. If it has to be a success , Mr Modi must attend the meet irrespective of the outcomes. This minor disengagement is the price China is paying for Mr Modi to show up at the SCO meet. If this fundamental is understood , the rest falls in place. Of course , there will be the inevitable Modi-Xi one-on-one on the side-lines of  the SCO meet, which the Chinese hope will pave the way for further negotiations. Such an event whether publicised, acknowledged  or not will give added lustre to Xi Jinping’s image and smoothen his path next month at the 20th Party Congress. 

Will the Chinese keep quiet at that? Not at all. They will make a song and dance of this disengagement at the right time and use it as a pressure point for future talks. They will also seek to reopen dialogue post the SCO meet so as to move to a new normal wherein India will be expected to do ‘more’ if China is to step back from Depsang and Demchok.

What is that ‘more’ as per Chinese expectations? These expectations are based on the current Chinese world view that the 21st Century is still China’s Century. China is the numero-uno in Asia. Its ascendance as the premier global power is preordained and only a matter of time. The blip of economic slowdown and zero covid is a transient phenomenon. Once Xi Jinping is anointed for life as China’s head honcho, its true colours of  establishing a Sino Centric World in which India will have to accept Chinese supremacy will be revealed.

The new normal to which China will work towards will revolve around India accepting the LAC as it is and also accepting to negotiate the future of Arunachal Pradesh as disputed territory. India will also be forced to maintain restricted force levels along the LAC as per Chinese expectations. As per the envisaged normal, India will also be expected to open its gates for unhindered investments, trade and exports from China while making no significant concessions to India. India will also be expected to tone down relations with the USA and West. China will hope to accomplish this through Russia, which it now sees as dependent on itself.  

Having said this, China  will also be realistic to know that it is facing severe headwinds. It cannot handle two military fronts – Taiwan and India simultaneously with the USA backing both. Hence a wedge between India and USA has to be driven in. China also realises that India is the fastest growing big economy in a world where all other economies including its own are stagnating.

It would have also realised that many in the world see India as the alternate to China in scale.China will also be cognisant of the fact that India has acquired the strategic confidence to drop the ‘One China’ stance and talk of militarisation of Taiwan straits. It must also be aware of India’s rising stature in global affairs. If it has to achieve the ‘Chinese Dream’ and ‘Rejuvenation of the Great Chinese Nation’, it needs India on its side and not against it.

Simultaneously,  China needs to contain India. Hence, China must dangle carrots before India and wield the stick at the same time. The carrot is future disengagement and concessions on the LAC. The infrastructural development along the LAC and its forward leaning posture is part of the stick. However there are more sticks which have been shown.

The visit of Yuan Wang to Hambantota, the firing of long range missiles in high altitude during the Corps Commanders Conference, enhanced air activity along the LAC, exposing the Chinese encroachment into Bhutan (Pangda village), pressing Nepal to agree upon the trans Himalayan rail track are all part of Chinese sticks against India. Overall its excessive militarization poses a grave threat to India not only along the LAC but elsewhere in the IOR also. At this point of time, China has more sticks than carrots to deal with India effectively.

More than carrots and sticks, China has some real internal problems which weakens its hand. Its economy is haemorrhaging due to multiple factors – zero covid, drought, decoupling, isolation, real estate bubble collapsing, big tech dismantling, bad international loans et al. China’s iron brother Pakistan is turning out to be a millstone around its neck. China also faces severe political isolation and headwinds from the affluent western societies who now view it as a systemic rival.

Once Xi Jinping starts his third term, it is almost certain that he will impose his brand of Xiconomics on China which will revolve around  ‘state controlled economy’, ‘common prosperity’ and ‘dual circulation’. This will only weaken China further. If and when China surfaces from these issues, two long term issues will start taking effect to plague it – climate change and ageing. Everything else apart, China cannot escape these factors. From many perspectives it is clear that China has peaked.  It is in this contextual background that India must approach any future equation with China.

Overall, India must deal with China with a strong hand and strategic confidence. It has acquired the latter but needs to develop the earlier meaningfully without letting it drift. From a diplomatic point of view India must continue to engage China politely and in a non-committal manner. In case any major step is to be taken or a policy reversal is to take place, it will do well for us to remember that China never keeps its word.

It has proven so once too often. In this context, I am quite confident that the Indian leadership will handle Xi Jinping and China appropriately. However there is always a lingering fear. Where a ‘jhootha parade’ is required, we should not gift China and Xi Jinping with a ‘jhoola parade’ once again.

The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @


18 responses to “Disengagement, SCO Meet and Beyond By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)”

  1. “China also realises that India is the fastest growing big economy in a world where all other economies including its own are stagnating.”This is how India sees India. It is not how China sees India. China sees India currently as a poor country, set to grow moderately fast over the next 10 years, standing 50 years behind where China is in GDP in 2022 (adjusting for inflation), and not at all poised to emerge as powerful enough to be a standalone threat to China. On the other hand, India sees itself as becoming a superpower in 2047. It is unreasonable to think Chinese would share even 1/2 of the optimism India has in its future based on Indian performance of the past generation. For instance, Piyush Goyal in recent days quoted a ridiculous estimate by the Confederation of Indian Industry of India attaining a GDP up to $45 trillion in 2047. It is only reasonable to believe China will adjust its opinion after India delivers consistent results. Notably, I have seen more realistic estimates of Indian growth and restrained optimism from the younger generation. I agree with Parth Jindal's estimate of $12 trillion in 2047 [1]. Dhruva Jaishankar estimated India would have a $4.5 trillion economy between 2030-2035 [2]. Old Indian men on the other hand are more mentally blocked from even-handed estimates because the thought of dying in a poor country, never getting to see India succeed is unbearably awful. However, old Indian men in the strategic community will deprive the younger generation of the ability to see India succeed if they commit India to a strategy against China dependent on excessively optimistic assumptions about the financial and technological resources India will have 1-2 generations from now. [1]

  2. Once the big economies like India strengthen up above the threshold of fighting for survival and sustenance, it hardly matters as to how much the economic gap with the adversary is as far as the threat to it from that adversary is concerned because the nation will have sufficient strategic strength to counter and deeply damage such adversary in multiple ways in dire situations. Specially, when both also have nuclear weapons and while also the world is wary of the stronger nation ready to cut them to size when such opportunity arises. You can see the example of Russia and West at present, though economic gap between Russia and west is wide, still the west can do only so much not crossing certain red lines whereas the economic consequences they are enduring are significant. This is just a loosely related example but still clarifies misconceptions. The stronger nation in such situation will have much more to lose which it may not be ready to risk. Take the example of Taiwan, China knowing the consequences of waging war on it, is just limiting itself to showing agression and issuing threats and will not wage war. China should not therefore overestimate itself or undermine competitors and adversaries.

  3. Dear Anonymous, the author talked of the current rate of growth; not the size of the economy. Investors look for the rate of growth. A large economy which is stagnant is not interesting. The article is advice to the Indian government about the perfidious nature of the CCP. I take it you agree with that.

  4. Re “…Where a ‘jhootha parade’ is required, …”. I read that, and I suspect others too read it, as झूठा meaning false. I think the appropriate spelling is 'joota' (जूता) meaning shoe. Problems of transliteration 😢😊

  5. China like any other country should get the estimate of long term national strength correct (ie correct estimate and date of national GDP). No overestimate when I state China is much stronger than India now and in 20 years. India strengthens above the survival threshold when GDP hits $10 trillion. 1. When do you estimate is the year India hits $10 trillion?2. What do you estimate is the GDP of China in the year Indian GDP hits $10 trillion?If you do not have rough estimates and dates in mind for both countries, there is no way to intelligently think of strategy.

  6. Dear RM,This is a blog about strategy. It can be assumed the timeframe for macroeconomic discussion is long term (10-20 years). Governments pursue self-interest. In this context, it is amateurish to see governments as having perfidious character. National populations do however have traits. I am interested in your opinion on the psychological characteristics of your race.1. Are Indians prone to excessive national optimism?2. To what extent does high caste Hindu domination of the discourse especially in areas like international relations and strategy contribute to excessive national optimism?3. Is the high caste Hindu prone to personal hubris because of the inherent social hierarchy of Indian society and does the innate folly of upper caste Hindus spill over into international relations and strategy?

  7. Your estimate of survival threshold is grossly out. India has already crossed the threshold and that too sometime back. I am sure Chinese strategists already know this and knowing that very sure that they will not try any adventurism in the current timeframe or in near future. What the author is talking about is India to take steps so that that the situation remains that way or improves.

  8. India is not above the survival threshold.Observer Research Foundation writes:”According to the Global Hunger Index, India shows worsening trends, ranking 101 amongst 116 countries, and faces ‘serious’ levels of hunger. The latest National Family Health Survey (2019-21) shows unacceptably high levels of malnutrition amongst children below five years, with over 35.5 percent of children stunted, 19.3 percent wasted and 32.1 percent underweight. Anaemia is found to be alarmingly high amongst children under the age of five (67.1 percent) and women in the reproductive age group (57 percent).”The author owned a car since the early 1990s and pays servants low wages so no Indian accepts the offer. Neither are indications of the material prosperity of the entire country or employment opportunities for the poor in India.To repeat. 1. When do you estimate is the year India hits $10 trillion?2. What do you estimate is the GDP of China in the year Indian GDP hits $10 trillion?How could you possibly intelligently devise strategy if you do not have rough numbers in mind to the two questions? Otherwise you are doing nothing but shooting from the hip.Chinese strategists view India as a poor country still struggling to feed its people that nonetheless spends an absurd 3% of GDP on the military and has had an inexplicable desire to stir up problems since the late 2000s along a peaceful border.

  9. That is not survival threshold. Your understanding is out. India is in consolidation and growth phase. Survival threshold has been crossed quite sometime ago. And When India is consolidating, it has threat from China in mind too,- all kinds of threats. As I said before and gave example of in earlier comment Russia economic gap does not mean hegemony. Read it again. In case of conflict Chinese government will have far more to lose than India – not only economically and geopolitically but also loss of reputation among it populace. Remember Vietnam conflict? A whole lot of nations are sitting to teach China a lesson too. No one will let the opportunity go. China will not do anything provocative till it has a solid cutting edge and now with India too moving fast on the path of growth, that is unlikely to happen. Chinas strategists know it too well as a loss is just not acceptable to communists. Thats the same thing the author has analysed and elaborated as to how China will try to use the carrot and stick and to look out for it and counter these foreseeable attempts.

  10. The high percentage of Indian children under 5 who are malnourished conclusively shows India is a country not out of survival mode. “India too moving fast on the path of growth”How fast? Back to the most important two questions for Indian strategists:1. When do you estimate is the year India hits $10 trillion?2. What do you estimate is the GDP of China in the year Indian GDP hits $10 trillion?”Read it again.”No, I won't. Your thinking is incoherent. You are unable to answer the two most important questions because you can't. Your analysis is a sham. It is not backed by careful thinking.

  11. 11 jinping got no balls .. PLA is a thermocol army .. go play with your barbie dolls.. 83 year old nancy pelosi gave it to the PLA .. ha ha .. what did you do about it ??

  12. India has been well above any “survival” threshold even with the most ineffective governments that we have had. Statistics with Chinese characteristics like 10/20/100/etc … trillion reflect the psychological crutch China needs to feel good about itself. When there are no other valves to alleviate the pressures of a repressive system the threshold of the made up GDP numbers to keep the lid on are going to increase to unsustainable levels and the resultant failure is going to rip you apart. If you want a prediction, it will be by the end of this decade.

  13. Your attitude is appalling. When over 1/3 of your children are hungry and malnourished, you claim to be a country past the survival threshold. I guess you don't give a damn about them.”If you want a prediction, it will be by the end of this decade.”India needs to formulate a strategy now. India needs economic estimates of Indian and Chinese GDP in 10 years. Why do you wish to put off this critical task until 2030? “made up GDP numbers”If Chinese GDP is made up, there are massive strategic implications. Surely you have thought through and can back up your claim? Chinese GDP was $17.7 trillion in 2021 according to the World Bank. In your estimation, what is the actual GDP?

  14. “Appalling” is an interesting sentiment coming from a system that has no qualms about harvesting prisoners/dissidents organs. Anyways, statistics with “chinese characteristics” can be whatever the CCP wants it to be. GIGO, you see. As to malnourishment, applying western standards of malnourishment to our genetic makeup is nonsensical. Again GIGO. Yes, there probably is malnourishment as it follows automatically from dire poverty but, the trajectory on tackling poverty is up, up and away, all in a sustainable manner. So, just wait and see. The dictatorial approach to development that China has taken -kill off the poor, eliminate inconvenient people, crush dissidence, wreck the environment, put on a show for prestiges sake, etc … – is like a rocket. When it runs out of fuel, and it will soon, it will crash back to Earth. No escape velocity for muddle kingdomers, I am afraid.

  15. “As to malnourishment, applying western standards of malnourishment to our genetic makeup is nonsensical.”Please elaborate. The 35% of Indian children under 5 identified as malnourished do not face ill effects to physical health according to your expertise? What would you say is the actual malnourishment rate in India?China protects the poor. Rural revitalization and elimination of poverty is a major pillar of the Xi administration. In 2021, 2 million Indians died of Covid. In China, there were 2 official covid deaths in 2021. A huge reason why zero Covid endures is due to consideration of the rural 1/3 of the Chinese population (disproportionately elderly and further away from hospitals).You continue to evade the Two Most Important Questions.

  16. The Indian climate and the typical Indian build does not require the excess of calories needed in northern europe. In fact the problem is increasingly of obesity in the Urban areas. Most rural areas are largely self-sufficient in food and the issue is more of distribution than production. With increasing infrastructure penetrating to the remotest of villages this too is being alleviated. In addition, in the well run states, the school mid-day meal programs provide a good degree of supplementary nutrition. All your propaganda about China does this/that has zero credence when the only source of data in this repressive police state is the oppressor. Open up your society and then perhaps we can talk about your achievements and decide if the CCP has ever shown any TLC to the populace. Till then all data/claims from China will be treated as garbage and the dragon will remain a lizard.

  17. Where in the report does it refer to standards from “northern europe”? In 2000, China suffered high rates of under 5 malnutrition according to the report. The problem has since then been fixed. The standards in the report are global. I notice a pattern in your behavior. When you are cornered with information that shows you're wrong, instead of acknowledging your mistake and learning from it you blatantly make up stuff to evade accountability. You are an absolutely terrible contributor to your strategic community. You generate negative value for it. If your columns didn't exist, India would have better information and analysis and make smarter decisions.

  18. Why are you attributing comments from readers to the good General. I don't think he would bother to waste his time with you. Here's the reality of your China, enjoy:

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