Post-Galwan, we are witnessing a gradual escalation in the face-off between the two Asian giants. Despite the public appearance of a Chinese withdrawal, Beijing has achieved a form of territorial expansion by bringing the Aksai Chin from a disputed status to a de facto militarily occupied status. In fact, the entire framework of India-China relations needs an overhaul with existing border agreements being no longer adequate
BY ALKA ACHARYA
Two years on, the impasse at Galwan continues to hold India-China relations yet again in a state of suspended animation— though it must be admitted that there is less of the latter and more of the former. If one follows the ongoing rounds of discussions over the past year and a half, it would appear that both countries are pretty much on the road to nowhere. For starters, the negotiations between the two sides are characterised by diametrically different approaches. While India insists on ‘deescalation’ (defined in terms of the restoration of the status quo
ante, i.e., pre-April 2022) before they can “resume business as usual”, China has indicated that it treats both issues separately and bilateral ties should not be linked to the ongoing negotiations. Both are also at complete odds on the causes that led to the clash in May and June 2020—China cites India’s move to change the status of Jammu & Kashmir through the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which resulted in redrawing of maps and borders, including the disputed area, whereas India sees it as China’s land grab for strategic purposes.
It was nearly a year later that the armies on both sides embarked on “synchronised and verifiable” disengagement on the shores of the Pangong lake in eastern Ladakh, a process that has not yet been completed. Fifteen rounds of border commander-level negotiations have taken place since the stand-off with the objective of bringing about a disengagement of troops at several points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In addition, 10 rounds of the multi-ministerial Working Mechanism on Coordination and Consultation on the India-China boundary have also been conducted. Although a “partial withdrawal” has been claimed, in that troops have been demobilised from the north and south shores of Pangong at Galwan and Gogra (Patrolling Point15), some 60,000 troops continue to be stationed on either side at Depsang and Chumar (PP 17) which appears to only reinforce the fact that there is no expectation of an understanding emerging anytime soon. What has been a source of great concern amongst the strategic community in India is that, far from getting the Chinese to back down, New Delhi also
relinquished the control it had achieved, of two strategically advantageous positions in the Kailash mountain range in January 2021. Critics have remarked that the Indian restraint in voicing its opposition to this latest breach is puzzling, to say the least. And finally, we have the statement by the Indian Prime Minister to an all-party meeting (also nationally televised) convened by the government on June 20, 2020 following the June 15 fighting (also nationally televised): “No one has intruded and nor is anyone intruding, nor has any post been captured by someone.” Arguably, it gave some credibility to the Chinese officially staking claim and control of the Galwan valley.
VERSIONS OF THE LAC
With this episode, we have now had five major border stand-offs between the Indian and Chinese armies since 2013, which is approximately one “major” incident every two years, in addition to the numerous “incursions” across the lengthy disputed boundary over the past decades. Those incursions are an inescapable outcome of the absence of a mutually agreed upon LAC—so that both sides have their own versions of where the LAC is. For the longest time, we have heard Indian ministers in parliament and government officials explaining these “intrusions”
as intrinsic to the problem—the divergence of their perceptions about the LAC. Between 2016 and 2018, according to Indian government data, a total of 1,025 “transgressions” took place with the lion’s share occurring in the western sector of the India-China border, i.e. Ladakh. And in the first four months of 2020 alone, incursions went up from 110 in 2019 for the same period to 130. By and large, they generally pass below the radar since the commander-level talks (for which procedures and protocols are in place) sort out the matter locally or in some cases, diplomatic intervention at higher levels defuses the situation. When it comes to the major breaches which culminated in military stand-offs—
Depsang (2013), Chumar and Demchok in Eastern Ladakh (2014), Burtse in Northern Ladakh (2015) and then of course the infamous 73-day stand-off on the Doklam plateau at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction (2017)—we have an entirely different ball game.
The worrying aspect is that we are witnessing a gradual escalation in the severity of the crises and the time it takes to resolve them. This has to be seen in the backdrop of the gradual transformation in the technological, military and infrastructure balance in the border areas in China’s favour on the one hand, and the growing comprehensive power asymmetry between the two Asian giants on the other. The consequences of this structural imbalance began to be witnessed more overtly by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when the most dynamic aspect of the India-China relations—their economic engagement—came to be increasingly questioned in India as unsustainable since the balance of trade was largely weighted in China’s favour. This discourse regarding trade imbalance, coupled with apprehensions about China’s rapid rise and “assertiveness” on the boundary, contributed to an erosion of the “idea” of an India-China partnership in Asia, although leaders on both sides continued to emphasise mutually beneficial convergences at the global level. The initiatives and the responses of each are increasingly seen as directed against the core interests of both, namely, China’s increasing footprint in South Asia, the Sino-Pak nexus, China’s “assertiveness” in the South China Sea, Indo-US ties, the Quad and now AUKUS. Before the 2017 Doklam confrontation, these concerns notwithstanding, both India and China appeared to have factored these ramifications into their respective calculations and continued to build a partnership.
Galwan cannot be seen as just another breach in the usual scheme of things. Unquestionably, it is a major turning point and a lot more is now at stake. So, what makes Galwan different? Doklam was bad enough, but Galwan is easily India’s “worst” border crisis since the Kargil war of 1999 and its biggest security challenge in the past couple of decades. Military experts have pointed to the scale of the breach, the number of PLA personnel involved and the face-offs in all three sectors—western, middle, and eastern—simultaneously, which makes this episode unprecedented in the long history of breaches. Notably, India and China have lost one of the most significant political achievements of the past three decades of painstaking and determined negotiations and agreements, namely, a peaceful border and no loss of life due to combat! While the Indian side lost 20 bravehearts, the Chinese admitted to losing four soldiers with some foreign media reports putting the figure as high as 38.
To the extent that Galwan has brought us to a turning point, I believe it has shattered our complacency about our ability to maintain disputed boundaries—the status quo—peaceful in perpetuity. It is a telling fact that through the years, both sides appeared to be largely driven by an obsessive focus on “managing” this dispute through mechanisms of various kinds. Solutions require compromises which were tricky in the domestic context for both, and there was obviously a blithe disregard of the fact that management of so complex a dispute can only take you up to a point. Unforeseen and/or inadvertent errors of commission or omission can upset the entire apple cart.
Secondly, on comparing with the visuals from two years ago, we are now witnessing extraordinary levels of infrastructure development and deployment of weaponry by both sides, with China clearly outclassing India in some of the most inaccessible and inhospitable terrain. Both are building bridges and roads right up to their respective perceptions of the LAC—and especially in the Pangong vicinity. In view of the prime minister’s statement, the response to a question regarding China’s construction activity from the spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs makes some sense: “We have seen media reports and other reports on the so-called bridge… somebody said second bridge or if it is an expansion of the current bridge,” and it went on to add that India “monitors such developments” and the area that is referred to in the reports has been under the occupation of the Chinese side for decades. Nonetheless, in effect, a high degree of militarisation is being entrenched in areas which hitherto had barracks for limited personnel. And all this ostensibly for defensive purposes!
Thirdly, we have an impasse-compounded sort of situation. Post-Doklam, the talk was increasingly about the need for a “reset” in India-China ties; in the wake of Galwan, we now hear about the search for a “new equilibrium” in the relationship. On the Indian side, the strategic and security discourse communities categorically state that the entire framework of India-China relations needs an overhaul and that “existing border agreements are no longer adequate”! All this is clearly indicative of the seriousness of the setback this time around. Political initiatives— which in the past had led to the breaking of the logjams, namely, in 1976 (Indira Gandhi), 1998 (Deng Xiaoping and Rajiv Gandhi), 2003 (Atal Bihari Vajpayee) or the informal summits between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping at Wuhan (2018) and Mamallapuram (2019)—do not seem forthcoming, as yet.
US IN ASIA-PACIFIC
Finally, what makes Galwan different is that some regional players, but more importantly the major global actor, aka the US, in Asia, are reckoning that this tension could be to their geopolitical advantage. Apprehensions of long-drawn India-China tensions are gradually choking off avenues of cooperation between India and China bilaterally and also their partnership in third countries—it is spilling over into the surrounding regions—and competitive dynamics are gaining greater traction. The smaller countries are being driven to adopt hedging and band-wagoning strategies—even as they steer clear of taking sides—but the ramifications of deteriorating India-China relations would likely also squeeze the possibilities of an active dialogue on regional platforms to collectively devise responses to regional crises, with Afghanistan being a case in point.
But it is the political, military, and economic initiatives by the US over the past couple of years to regain the initiative in the Asia-Pacific and India’s participation in them that have given rise to new concerns. Coming in the wake of Galwan, a strong case is being made that the China factor is responsible for driving India into the American “strategic embrace”. This is not a new argument and it is certainly not Galwan that is triggering what has been a fairly pronounced US tilt on the part of India. The discourse about India being a counterweight to China has been around for a while now. The efforts to give the Quad more teeth, the announcement of the AUKUS, a military clique no less, and now the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum are certainly making the Asian strategic equations much more complicated. And yet, ironically, it was the
Russian invasion of Ukraine that brought the multi-hued mosaic of India-China convergences and divergences to the fore. Not only have both refused to “condemn” Russian actions but have also come out strongly against the use of sanctions and both are today the largest buyers of Russian oil. This has clearly not gone down well with the US and the EU. In this context, it may be pertinent to recall that India has not joined the US call for holding China accountable for the coronavirus.
What about the rest of the picture? Thus the 21st meeting of the Experts Group and the eighth meeting of the ‘Heads of Border Authorities of the Competent Bodies’ of the SCO member countries was held in New Delhi in mid-June, organised by India’s Border Security Force (BSF). The National Security Advisers of the BRICS countries, chaired by Yang Jiechi, also held a virtual meeting to discuss counterterrorism cooperation in mid-June. And finally on June 23-24, 2022, the Indian Prime Minister led India’s participation at the 14th BRICS virtual summit.
India-China economic ties continue to remain robust. Although there was a slight pandemic-induced dip to $87.6 bn in 2020 from $92.8 bn in 2019, trade rose to more than $125 bn in 2021. And given the grim economic scenario for most developing countries, trade and commerce will be steady and possibly grow. It is perhaps due to this very complex weft and weave of India-China ties that both have expressed their commitment to dialogue as the only way out of the impasse. Modi and Xi have clearly decided to stick to negotiations to sort this out. However, the argument here is that the economic and military asymmetry is at the core of contemporary India-China dynamics.
Surely, it is not in China’s interest to alienate India beyond a point and India would also need to look for some substantial political initiatives so as to not let itself be circumscribed by China’s calculations. But a settled border—recognised as a “strategic objective” by both—needs to be pursued consistently and persistently. Given the low trust levels and that the meeting ground on the disputed border is so constricted, will our venerable policymakers turn their minds yet again to devise “new” ways of “managing” the disputed border or will it force a rethink towards
a resolution? The transformation of the border areas mentioned earlier is only raising the stakes for the next breach. The general assessment is that India appears to have acquiesced in the prevailing situation—as a tactical response to provide space for formulating a strategy based on strengthened capabilities. But will China extend us this courtesy? It is tempting to ruminate on the Indian Prime Minister’s enigmatic statement regarding this breach two years ago: surely there are possibilities here.
The author is a professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University