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Chinese ambassador preaches peace, but mobilisation doesn't lie

In an 18-minute message on YouTube today, China's Ambassador to India Sun Weidong spoke near non-stop about peaceful relations, historic ties and the need to focus on the positives of the India-China partnership. This, he said, was to 'implement consensus and handle differences properly to bring China-India relations back on the right track'.

The Ambassador's message, perhaps the most conciliatory in over two months of a historic low in relations, comes in the wake of the first baby steps of a delicate disengagement between troops at four friction points in eastern Ladakh.

But it's also an opportunity to document the extent of the unprovoked Chinese mobilisation in that area, that has prompted the ongoing standoff and brought the two countries into their most hostile posture in nearly half a century.


In his message, Ambassador Weidong says, "China and India should be partners, rather than rivals. We provide each other with development opportunities instead of posing threats. Only by viewing each other with positive, open and inclusive attitude, we can ensure stable and long-term ties and avoid strategic miscalculation."

What he doesn't explain is the entirely unprovoked -- and belligerent -- deployment of the PLA's 6th Mechanised Infantry Division under the Xinjiang Military District (XMD). Frontline strike elements of the division seen prominently in different friction points include artillery diverted to the Hot Springs area after arriving in theatre from Xiadulla for an exercise in May.

Armoured vehicles from the 17th or 18th Mechanised infantry elements have also been seen in various places near the Line of Actual Control including the Galwan Valley and areas near the Chip Chap valley and Jiwan Nalla. Armoured assets in the Hot Springs and Gogra Post area are likely to be from the armoured regiment part of the PLA's 6 Division. Anti-aircraft elements from the division have been spotted by Indian forces in terms of radar equipment in some sectors. Over a regiment from this division has also been spotted in the depth areas of the Pangong Tso flashpoint.

The Chinese Ambassador then goes on to say, "China and India need peace rather than confrontation. Cooperation benefits both while confrontation serves neither. Escalation from differences to disputes should be avoided. We have wisdom and capability to properly handle differences and not fall into the trap of conflict."

While some would see the timing of the message in the context of economy-sensitive actions taken by the Indian government, including the cancellation of tenders and blocking of 59 mobile apps, it glosses over to explain specific hostile actions on the Ladakh frontier since early May.

For instance, the deployment of the PLA's 4th Motorised Infantry Division both in depth at Pangong Tso and especially at Spangur Tso south of Pangong.

In an earlier avatar as the 4th Army Division, the formation had participated in the 1962 war with India. Elements from this division have been liberally seen in the current build up in support of the Pangong Tso build-up by Chinese forces up till Finger 4.

Confirming that this extended message is indeed tied to India's recent actions against Chinese companies and investments, the Chinese Ambassador goes on to say, "China and India need to pursue win-win cooperation instead of zero-sum game. So-called 'decoupling' of economic and trade ties will only harm others without benefit and eventually hurt oneself. Openness and cooperation can help us defeat Covid-19 and revive economy at an early date."

And yet, this doesn't explain persistent attempts by China to 'create new facts on the ground' in north Sikkim, supported by the deployment of elements of least two combat armoured brigades -- the PLA's 54 and 56 Armoured Brigades, says one assessment -- in Tibet's Chumbi Valley that borders Sikkim.

The Chinese elements are understood to have moved into that area around May 13. A sector that has remained largely peaceful for decades, there has been a sudden spurt in hostilities here, with Chinese patrol groups arriving in strength and leading to violent fisticuffs, including one last month that was caught on camera.

This is a list of only the large formations deployed by China in the current standoff. Much more has been done in terms of medium-sized mobilisations of ground forces, air assets -- both fixed wing and rotorcraft -- at air bases that can directly support any Chinese hostile action at the friction points.

While experts debate China's 'intentions', there is also a strong view that the current standoff isn't as simple as China using a time of global turmoil to assert itself until the proverbial dust settles on the post-Covid-19 world order.

Many within the military system also see it as part of a grander war game under the PLA's mobilisation doctrine, that mandates training in real-life combat situations situated in a 'multi-front engagement'.

Alongside frictions with Japan, the US, Vietnam, Taiwan and others, a war game to test not just the tactical feasibility of mobility, but the responses of allies, adversaries and the available mechanisms to deal accordingly.

But that's the bigger picture.

Even with everything that has happened in the last two months, the Chinese Ambassador's words will be seen as welcome from a diplomatic prism. However, at both the government and military level, the ground situation -- entirely forced by Chinese action since late April -- tells a different story.

Military talks, a diplomatic engagement and an active back-channel will be working to progress the disengagement process and ensure no more flare-ups. But with both sides still heavily mobilised in the area, it will take much more than words for things to return to that Latin phrase that is now tattered from use: status quo ante.

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