Neeraj Singh Manhas
3rd August 2021
The violent face-off between Indian and Chinese forces at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) last year marked a “tipping moment“ in India-China ties, and a new low since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Shivshankar Menon, India’s former National Security Adviser, described what was happening in Ladakh as a “fundamental and important shift in the behaviour of [china],” while Hu Shisheng at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations said that it was Indian government that “hardened efforts towards China.” From an Indian perspective, China’s recent LAC actions in eastern Ladakh have broken the border management framework put up by both sides as of 1993 and have severely affected India-China ties. Misperceptions seem to have deepened, and the discord is central to the absence of trust.
On June 12, 2021, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh approved a new strategy on how India gathers, archives, and disseminates its war papers and associated history, which is a positive step. According to the new policy, after an operation/war is over, the first cut of history must be created and distributed for internal distribution within five years. The unveiling of this new policy on the eve of the first anniversary of the Galwan “scuffle” on June 15, 2021, has deep implications regarding India’s strategic culture and, in particular, the opacity cum ostrich-act that envelops its China policy. According to all accounts, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm, India’s bilateral relationship with China appeared to be more than robust, and the image-rich Modi-Xi summitry that went from Ahmedabad to Wuhan to Mamallapuram conveyed a feeling of shared goodwill. This optimism, however, was plainly misguided, and the tea leaves were not read astutely.
In June 2020, PLA forces “surprised” India in the Ladakh region of the disputed LAC, killing 20 Indian Army personnel, including Colonel Santosh Babu in the Galwan valley. The PLA also suffered losses, albeit the official figure is only four people. Galwan is a significant stumbling block in the problematic bilateral relationship, and Delhi has to carefully navigate the emerging circumstances, as Beijing opted to breach the Jiang Zemin-Narasimha Rao agreement signed in 1993. Carefully crafted narratives about the military protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity are critical for any political leadership, authoritarian or democratic, and Galwan is particularly relevant for both China and India.
While India has regarded Galwan as an instance of Chinese malfeasance and has placed the onus on Beijing to restore the status quo, China’s perspective is very different. In the run-up to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) centennial on July 1, 2021, the PLA action against India was being framed as a matter of border guarding and homeland defence. A Chinese flag “once raised on Pangong Lake” is being carried by elite PLA troops from units stationed along the LAC to educational institutions in order to instil pride in military and muscular nationalism, with the military reaffirming its allegiance to the party as represented by President Xi Jinping. In exchange, the CCP has assigned itself the holy responsibility of preserving the motherland’s territoriality, and Galwan has been sanctified as a result.
India’s story regarding Galwan remains hazy, and the Ministry of Defence has yet to issue a clear formal statement on the present tactical situation in Ladakh. PM Modi’s remark shortly after the Galwan incident (June 20, 2020) that “no one entered Indian territory nor were Indian posts seized“ established an obfuscation pattern about PLA breaches. In an interview in May, 2021, this year, Army Chief General M M Naravane stated, “There has been no violation of any sort, and the process of negotiations is continuing.” What is the point of insisting on a restoration to the pre-Galwan status quo if there has been no “transgression”?
China’s movements are difficult to predict, and as many experts have pointed out, India’s alternatives are restricted. Modi stated in his June 17, 2021, address that India’s “sovereignty is supreme,” implying that allowing a territorial shift in favour of China is unlikely to be his next move. However, seeking for confrontation in the midst of an economic slump and an increase in coronavirus infections is not a smart idea. Other nonmilitary policy alternatives will most likely be considered by New Delhi. The broad demands to boycott Chinese products have found some traction in India, but the government may go farther, such as tightening scrutiny on Chinese incoming investment, akin to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) assessment procedure. India has established processes for reviewing foreign investment from “neighbouring” nations, and this net may be expanded further. China has made investments in some of India’s most promising start-ups. Furthermore, news sources have already highlighted upcoming limitations on Chinese equipment in India’s huge and developing telecom sector, including a possible prohibition on Chinese businesses participating in the construction of 5G infrastructure.
Despite long-standing border concerns, the Asian giants have considerable multilateral collaboration, particularly through alternative global organisations established in the last decade. Despite the countries’ ongoing security competition, the BRICS bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), in which India is the second-largest capital contributor; the New Development Bank; and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which India recently joined, have all been arenas for cooperation. However, as security concerns rise, New Delhi may reconsider its level of engagement in other areas.
Finally, the border clash will most likely demonstrate to India’s foreign policy planners that its preferred formulation—”the world is one family,” derived from a Sanskrit saying—does not apply to all of its bilateral relationships, unless the interpretation of “one family” includes family members who work against India’s national interests. As a result of this realisation, India may begin to make more choices regarding its alliances, acknowledging that it is not feasible to maintain equal connections with everybody for an endless period of time.
Since Galwan, no major border incidents have occurred, although a tense calm has remained. China has shown no flexibility in moving the Ladakh disengagement forward. From Arunachal to Ladakh, the LAC’s issues of dispute continue. However, by its handling of the Galway incident and subsequent actions, New Delhi has made it plain that Beijing cannot treat India like other “vassal” nations.
*The author is Research Intern at Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies
Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author
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