Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde? Both. Indeed, India-China relations are like a kaleidoscope of good and evil. The duplicity of human nature or in geo-strategic terms of nations who poker-face show no emotions even as one plans strategy, defiantly standing one’s ground and gambling on a winning hand. Both New Delhi and Beijing are doing just that, betting, with the underwritten message: Don’t mess with me.
The brutal assault in Galwan Valley 15-16 June leaving 20 dead, the biggest confrontation between the two militaries after their 1967 clashes in Nathu La has brought India and China to the brink of a shooting war. Worse, it happened post rapprochement of Chinese incursions in Eastern Ladakh since 5 May and was “pre-meditated and planned” with the connivance of China’s senior leadership, thereby marking a decisive change in India’s long standing border management policy to maintain “peace and tranquility” along the 3,488-km long Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Predictably, even as India and China accuse each other of violations, the LAC remains disputed and un-demarcated, till yesterday it was not considered a ‘hot border’ like between India and Pakistan. Moreover, both countries have so far avoided situations that could lead to an armed confrontation. Yet, the Galwan skirmish has increased unease as India has recorded ‘transgressions’ also in Pangong Tso Lake, Trig Heights, Burtse and Doletango area.
Questionably, was it an intelligence failure? Can it defuse the build up on Pangong Lake with China making inroads up to figure 4 to 8. Can it defuse this? What options does New Delhi have on the table? And do the present assertive trends of China portend the likelihood of an aggressive outcome?
Interestingly, barring 1962, when the neighbours went to war over their disputed boundary, not a single bullet has been fired across the Sino-Indian border since 1975. In the intervening period, there have been skirmishes and face-offs but they were all peacefully resolved including the 2017, 73-days Doklam stand-off which had sparked disquieting speculation about the propinquity of a conflict between the two Asian giants and the possibility of destabilizing the sub-continent and region.
Strategists say the stand-off is connected to India’s construction activities, including building a road from Dharchuk via Shyok to Daulat Beg Oldie, which allows C-130J aircraft to land, boosting strategic airlift capabilities. Other projects ensure India has tactical movement between battlefields like DBO and Pangong Tso. Rohtang Tunnel gives strategic mobility to move troops between Punjab to Ladakh. India is enhancing access for its forces to Karakoram highway, strategically important for Pakistan and China which is being opposed by Beijing.
India needs to navigate these turbulent waters with measured and calibrated response. Galwan underscores Beijing’s seriousness about demarcating the Indo-Chinese border to its advantage but wants to keep the situation ambiguous to enable its salami slicing tactics to incrementally grab territory. As a first step, New Delhi has ‘attacked’ economically. It has changed the approval route for Chinese investments to prevent its predatory policies. With social media screaming ‘Say-no-to-Chinese-goods’.
Sceptics wonder whether future India-China ties will be smooth as border tensions have risen over the past decades, yet economic relations are unbalanced with a massive trade deficit against India. On one hand, New Delhi wants to position itself as an alternative destination for global value chains. On the other, there is awareness of the need for continued Chinese investment flows and the importance of not getting into a hostile fracas with a stronger neighbour. Hence, tensions between these competing and contradictory imperatives would need to be managed as the stakes for the neighbours are higher and more complex now.
Undeniably, one has no illusions about Sino-Indian complex ties. Certainly, China’s hegemonic ambitions will remain a serious problem, requiring engagement and hedging. There will be pressure to not go back to business as usual after this. New Delhi may also not be able to afford to continue its ambivalent and uncommitted foreign policy. There is an even a bigger question about the rationale behind China’s provocative actions.
Therefore, one needs to keep its relation on track while furthering its national interest. For this one needs a new template as the underlying realities have changed. Beijing is using the same language it used against India while justifying its 1962 incursions into India. The 1962 attack was to insult Nehru while the 2020 attack is to discredit Modi.
Given the Chinese habit of exacerbating border tensions, a shadow of uncertainty hangs as neither knows where the LAC is, as both countries have differing perception about the border. But, as Galwan shows New Delhi can no longer be arm-twisted, as in 1962.
Undoubtedly, China is using Article 370 abrogation as a Trojan horse to forward its own stakes in Ladakh as it would impact its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. Two, it sees ‘red’ on India’s new map depicting Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai China within the Ladakh boundary. Now Ladakh like Arunachal could fully integrate into India and stymie its negotiations on the boundary issue. Four, Beijing is activating its proxy regime in Nepal to further needle India.
True, even as South Block tries to downplay Galwan, China’s move appears clandestine smacking of it unfolding a devious game-plan against India. Consequently, it remains to be seen if this attack will be unlike Depsang in 2013, Chumur in 2014 and Doklam in 2017that momentarily impacted India-China ties.
What next? A shadow of uncertainty hangs. New Delhi needs diplomatic, economic and military deterrents in place to counter Beijing’s moves. It immediately needs to deal with a boundary that remains un-demarcated, undelineated and disputed over seven decades with a neighbour who periodically flexes muscle. Hence, New Delhi needs to reset its China policy by attuning to the changed ground reality and arriving at an agreed definition of the LAC.
At this critical juncture India does not have many options. One way is to settle the boundary, which presently seems unlikely. The Chinese Army wants to put India on backfoot, to maintain psychological dominance in the region and break away on a comparatively higher note. India needs to balance the scales and defeat the Chinese bully at its own game by creating appropriate defence. It needs to stay aggressive. It’s only when there is fear of retaliation that China will stop taking us for granted. ‘Enough’.
On its part, New Delhi has clarified the LAC as a possible way to stabilise its frontiers with China on a number of occasions. Initially, the two sides agreed to it, but after exchanging maps for the middle sector, the least contentious of the three sectors in the LAC, the Chinese showed no interest.
Thus, unless there is a comprehensive breakthrough, Indian and Chinese soldiers are destined, for now, to try to stare each other out at the LAC. Having been used to browbeat the Indian army in the past, the PLA is perhaps surprised that India 2020 is a far cry from India 1962 by India’s its swift counter build-up and firmness. We need to expand these capabilities further.
Today, a chill has set in Indo-China ties. Deep mistrust and lack of confidence is apparent. Yet the two have not rejected dialogue, even when it is no more than a repetition of known positions. New Delhi cannot afford to take any chances with what constitutes India’s national security and strategic interests and pursue them doggedly.
Modi realizes only too well that in today’s geo-strategic political reality pragmatism dictate real politic. There are no short cuts. New Delhi needs an all-encompassing and multi-pronged strategy to deal with Beijing even as it wants durable peace though this alone cannot guarantee non-escalation.
New Delhi’s new assertiveness would need all the wisdom, maturity and restraint to ensure that it remains in control of the Indo-China script. Certainly, in this zero sum game the muscle-flexing and one-upmanship will continue till trust is built. In the long-term India-China relations will be determined by India’s strategic goals and objectives vis-à-vis the evolving regional and global security environment.
Clearly, even as China wants to create a ‘new normal’, tough responses to provocations and clear red zones are the best guarantee of peace in the sub-Continent. An intoxicating mix of muscular diplomacy and ruthlessness masked in velvet gloves. By changing the rules of the game, India has spelt out: It takes two to tango!