One Year after Galwan Valley Clash
While it is not possible to be certain about what caused the Galwan incident, the escalation of tension was by no means sudden. Over the last few years, there have been a number of such incidents in the congested boundary region, including at Daulat Beg Oldi (2013), Chumar (2013), Demchok (2014), and the Doklam trijunction (2017). However, the current standoff is unique in its spread, with the buildup of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces reported from the Depsang Plains in the northern end of the western sector to Naku La in the eastern sector.
0On June 15th last year, Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed in the Galwan Valley in Eastern Ladakh. The close-combat skirmish at high altitude, which resulted in twenty deaths on the Indian side and an unknown number of Chinese casualties, was the bloodiest fight along the disputed Sino-Indian boundary in over four decades. The clash was a part of a broader border standoff along the Galwan River between the two forces on the Line of Actual Control that is yet to be resolved. The Indian strategic community is broadly in agreement that this border dispute marks an implacable decline in India-China ties. They argue that the very basis of relations that emerged after former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988 has been shaken, if not destroyed.
Sino-Indian relations had been steadily declining due to rampant misperceptions of the other side, contributing to a lack of trust. The most fundamental misperception between the two countries is the inability to comprehend each other’s international ambitions, yielding the fear that their foreign policies are targeted against the other.
While it is not possible to be certain about what caused the Galwan incident, the escalation of tension is by no means sudden. Over the last few years, there have been a number of such incidents in the congested boundary region, including at Daulat Beg Oldi (2013), Chumar (2013), Demchok (2014), and the Doklam trijunction (2017). However, the current standoff is unique in its spread, with the buildup of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces reported from the Depsang Plains in the northern end of the western sector to Naku La in the eastern sector.
The last deaths of Indian soldiers at the LAC were in 1975, while a violent clash at the Nathu La border area occurred in 1967. The more recent border skirmish, which has lasted for 40 days, is one of the longest recorded. In 2017, the Doklam standoff, which lasted for two months, began when China began to construct a road through Doklam Plateau, and Bhutan protested. India stepped in because that road could have provided China the ability to gather intelligence about Indian troops positioned around the area.
Reacting to the event, the Indian Government stated that China had ‘departed’ from the consensus to respect the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley. China, on the other hand, stated that India had violated the consensus by illegally crossing the border twice and carrying out provocative attacks on Chinese soldiers, resulting in ‘serious physical clashes’.
What has surprised observers of India-China relations are not just the clashes between their troops after they had supposedly disengaged, but the fact that it has happened barely a year after the leaders of both countries held a high-profile meeting at Mahabalipuram in October 2019. Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have met on 18 occasions since Modi came to power in 2014. At Mahabalipuram and at a Summit held at Wuhan, China, in 2018, both sides agreed to maintain peace at the borders; it was believed that a Doklam-like situation would not arise again. Since 1993, six agreements have been signed with similar objectives.
Reasons behind clashes
The last year standoff points to multiple causes, some proximate and some distant. Changes in border infrastructure on the Indian side in recent years are one major immediate cause. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has enjoyed better infrastructure near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for a number of years. However, India in 2005 announced a project of 61 roads covering 3,400 kilometers near the LAC, which, once completed, will erode China’s traditional advantage. The agency in charge, the Border Roads Organisation, expects to complete all roads in 2023. One of the most important of these, the Darbuk–Shyok–Daulat Beg Oldie road, which runs parallel to the LAC and was completed in 2019, is close to the Galwan Valley, the location of the incident on June 15–16. A PLA troop buildup in the area directly threatens the road.
However, A section of strategic analysts argue that China’s aggressive behaviour towards India is a result not merely of India’s building of a road along the strategically important Galwan Valley (although that could be the immediate cause), but a number of other geopolitical and economic factors, including India’s changing approach vis-à-vis Taiwan, and its increasing proximity towards the United States. Additionally, a more overarching reason could be China’s desire to bring India down a notch or two and metaphorically put the country in its place. It is increasingly clear that Chinese leaders have left Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” mandate behind and believe that the PRC needs to be considered the leading power in the neighborhood, on its way to global leadership. One consequence of this new approach is that any state that attempts parity on any count with China must be shown its place, which is what the PRC is doing in the LAC. It also means that even if both the sides are trying their best to disengage after the Galwan clash, such standoffs are likely to occur with regularity across the LAC. Beyond the issue of border infrastructure, China is likely to want to show India its place in other respects, amplifying the competitive aspect of the relationship.
At the global level, China has drawn criticism from numerous countries other than the US, including those that have close economic ties to Beijing, due to its role in spread of the Covid-19 epidemic. India, on the other hand, is strengthening ties not just with the US, but with countries like Australia (in a virtual meeting between the PMs of both countries, there was emphasis on a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”), and Vietnam. India is likely to play a larger role not just in the Indo-Pacific region, but globally, too. It has also been argued that India’s decision to back an enquiry into the origins of the virus and its vehement backing for a probe into the origins of the virus has not gone down well with China. India, as the World Health Organisation Chair, is also likely to make Taiwan a member of that organisation, a position that it lost when China used its influence to isolate the country internationally. Furthermore, the then US President Donald Trump spoke about the need to reform the G7 grouping and called for Australia, India, South Korea and Russia to be included in it. China did not take kindly to that call even as India welcomed it.
Another crucial factor is the dynamic within South Asia. Beijing is taking advantage of India’s recent tensions not just with Pakistan, but also Nepal, to pressure New Delhi. India’s tensions with Nepal were heightened after Kathmandu included territories that it disputed with New Delhi in its official maps. On 12 June 2020, Nepalese border guards opened fire on a group of Indians, killing one person and injuring two others.
Finally, domestic pressures which Xi Jinping has faced in recent months could have exacerbated the situation. Some of those pressures include the country’s economic slowdown and the international criticism that it faces due to its mishandling of the pandemic, which have resulted in the Chinese president trying to change the narrative.
It seems the two nations stand at a crossroads in the seventieth year of bilateral relations. It is pertinent to ponder over the steps, India could take to counter China’s hostile stance. Some analysts suggest that strengthening strategic ties with the US is essential but needs to be calibrated; New Delhi needs to carefully determine the tangible benefits of those ties. “Strategic autonomy,” which refers to the practice of retaining freedom to take foreign policy decisions based on Indian national interest, is hardwired into the Indian foreign policy decision-making process. In the context of India-U.S. relations, this has prevented India from entering into a formal alliance with the United States. It is important to note that India’s decision to not enter into a formal alliance with the United States is partly guided by domestic considerations. It is also historically based on memories from the Cold War and after, such as during the 1971 war that led to the creation of Bangladesh or in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear test. In these and other instances, India felt penalized by U.S. actions. Moreover, even though India worked closely with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it did not enter into what could be considered an alliance relationship with Moscow—creating a precedent for a partnership that is not an alliance. Even today there are several geopolitical issues in India’s immediate neighborhood, including U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, on which India and the United States do not agree. These will continue to hinder a relation of friendship.
India should look to build greater cooperation through configurations such as the “Quad plus” (expanding the existing grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States to include New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam). The latter grouping has already started work on an arrangement to contain Covid-19, but it is quite possible that other strategic objectives could be placed under consideration. India plans to invite Australia to participate in naval exercises it conducts with Japan and the United States, while also signing a defense agreement that allows the two countries to use each other’s military bases. The possibilities for such cooperation are endless, limited only by the imagination of the respective administrations.
Apart from this, if a mutually acceptable resolution of the situation in eastern Ladakh in the near future is possible, it would be feasible only for the highest leaderships on both sides to reset the relationship. Modi and Xi have a good measure of each other and share mutual respect. They should be able to talk about the rising aspirations of both the countries and possible ways of reconciling their respective visions.
By Nilabh Krishna