Amid the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in India, June 2020 brought a rude shock to India, when the Chinese and Indian soldiers confronted each other in the disputed area on the Galwan River Valley. There were casualties on both sides and an aberration from decades of mutual understanding between the two countries that they would not use firearms or kill the personnel of the other side.
While the June event has been acknowledged as unfortunate, the official position of the Chinese leadership is that it was the Indian side that triggered the confrontation and raised tensions. Unlike India, they have not announced the casualties on the Chinese side in the Galwan clash because it would blow the situation beyond proportions through the media- which was evident in India.
The fundamental reason that the border continues to be a disputed matter between India and China is an asymmetry in the thinking that prevails on both sides. While India seeks to verify the Line of Actual Control (LAC) first and then engage in discussing veritable solutions, China’s thinking is top-down. It wishes to reach to arrive at a mutual understanding first and then build a mutual political consensus to demarcate the LAC. The latter fears that if China agrees on the Indian line of thinking, China will lose a large part of the territory.
In China’s strategic calculations, India’s position is that of a rising power guided by its rising national military strength. Despite this, for the Chinese, India is not a competitor for them, especially after the United States has become a strategic competitor for China. Further, it aims to maintain peaceful ties with India, because its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network has to pass through India on land and in the Indian Ocean.
In fact, in a recent webinar conducted by the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Center for Asia Pacific Policy, RAND Corporation, it was clear that the Chinese have refuted the prevailing narrative in the western international media that China was making use of the pandemic to become more assertive and aggressive because, during the pandemic itself, China has provided assistance to more than 150 countries- the largest assistance since the founding of PRC.
A renewed vigour in the QUAD ties arising out of concerns of aggression by China has also been dismissed by them, as each of the four countries- India, Australia, Japan and the United States would not compromise their bilateral relations with China.
The closeness in Indo-US ties have also been downplayed by China as being ‘superficial’, and their joint military exchanges do not hold much value. According to Chinese analysts, China does not want an American involvement in the dispute, which if happens would be a humiliation for India and its abilities.
Nevertheless, while there is no need for China to make use of its military strength to prevail over India at any time through border skirmishes, yet with all clarity, it subscribes to the notion that the size of the territory is immaterial, but what holds immense value in its strategic calculations is honour, interest and fear.
For India, some major triggers to the dispute are: India maintains that the territorial dispute has been elevated by China by claiming that it was related to the latter’s sovereignty. Further, its comments on abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and creation of Ladakh as a Union Territory as ‘illegal’ has not gone well in India’s musings- as it is an internal matter for India.
It calls for fairness in the understanding from the Chinese counterparts of the situation as India did not react when China reorganized the Tibetan provinces in 1965. India is also concerned about the repeated mention of Arunachal Pradesh as southern Tibet since 2005.
China has also expressed its criticism over India building feeder line from Daulat Beg Oldie to Darbuk-Shyok in 2019. On the other hand, China has continued to build such feeder lines for the past twenty years, and hence India doesn’t follow the logic behind Chinese objections to India’s construction activities. It could be that it would not want India’s personnel to reach the LAC freely and smoothly as it would want the movement of the Chinese patrol personnel. If China continues with such a stance, then India believes that the border negotiations would not be very fruitful.
Another area of contention is the Chinese investments as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the Gilgit-Baltistan area which is a sovereign territory of India, and subject of a long-running conflict between Pakistan and India. China has retorted that these are commercial investments but has not convinced the Indian counterparts, because China has deployed around 36000 security guards in this area.
There is a feeling in India that China wants to teach a lesson to India because it has decided against joining the BRI and instead focused on improving US-India ties, especially amid the 2+2 dialogue process, foundational defence agreements, QUAD and other such arrangements. Also, because of the asymmetry in power relations, China is showing its military might on India.
In no circumstance, should either side fire in the sky or at each other. They must reduce frontline deployment of troops, unlike the current situation. There has to be increased coordination of the soldiers at the frontier to avoid confrontation, by giving them authority to resolve the tensions. And finally, setting up a hotline between the two countries is pertinent, as China has such a communication channel with the US, Russia and other countries.
It must be ensured that border flareups do not hold the wider bilateral ties hostage, as was highlighted by Rajiv Gandhi in China in the 1980s. With genuine goodwill among the Chinese towards India and cordial Modi-Jinping relations, China seeks peace with India. It does not consider it as a strategic competitor and therefore does not want to become confrontational with India.
As a way forward, it is important to respect the previous agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013 and to ensure disengagement and tranquillity along the border by ensuring the retreat of 60000 troops in violation of the previous agreements. There is a need to define and clarify the LAC to avoid such incidences again. It is necessary to have new Confidence Building Measures as was decided in the Xiamen BRICS meeting of 2017.
To conclude, India and China must take a step forward and shed their nationalistic stand else the border dispute would remain unresolved. A lot of confusion was caused by the politics of the situation after the Galwan incident. Therefore, it is important to understand the situation with a bipartisan view rather than get caught in a tattletale.
Perhaps, they can take lessons from their own recent history, wherein they had demonstrated their maturity to resolve border disputes in exchange for peace and tranquillity. For instance, India peacefully resolved its border disputes with Bangladesh. China settled border disputes peacefully with Russia and Tajikistan, among many other countries.
While both India and China recognize the clarification of LAC as a crucial step in the dispute resolution, yet, since 2002, China has been unwilling to continue the exchange of maps with India. China believes that the Indian side wants to make use of such maps to occupy more land along the LAC, while India claims that China has deliberately discontinued this to occupy more land under the garb of ambiguity.
A concern in India is to understand why China has been so strident in occupying the disputed territory. India’s position that the Galwan incident was a premeditated action by the Chinese troops is the reason behind the bilateral relations’ comprehensive economic consequences. For example, ban on some mobile applications, restrictions on the infrastructure investments or on Confucius Institutes in India or on other measures. This demonstrates opposing official position, and this has been at the core non-resolution of disputes.
As a reaction, India has increased its military capabilities to thwart Chinese incursions into its territory. India must continue with its preparedness, especially with a change in the guard of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) and the appointment of General Zhang.
For India, it is important that the leadership does not give in to the pressures of vertical or horizontal escalation, and continue with negotiations at the highest levels and institutionalize the conflict resolution mechanism in order to settle the dispute once and for all so that Galwan like incident does not recur. If China continues with its expansionist autocratic tendencies into India, India must go to the International Court of Justice for arbitration of land under dispute.
By Dr Simi Mehta, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)