How the Galwan tragedy has clarified India’s vision

ByHarsh Pant
Jun 18, 2020 06:55 PM IST

China poses the most serious strategic threat ever faced by India. Delhi now has the room to make choices

As India comes to terms with China’s dastardly act on the border, it should be a time for a new resolve in India to craft an open-eyed policy response. This is not going to be as easy as some social media warriors assume. But when it comes to the most serious strategic challenge India has ever faced, easy should be the last thing on our minds. Tragedies such as the one India has had to endure this week often lead to a clarity of vision, a vision that was clouded by the misplaced sense of our ability to manage China. Now, after the loss of precious lives along the border touted as being stable, New Delhi should also lose its innocence when it comes to China. Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has underlined that India wants peace but “will give a befitting reply” if provoked. External affairs minister S Jaishankar has conveyed to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that the Galwan Valley development will have a “serious” impact on the bilateral relationship.

Border Security Force personnel stand guard along the Srinagar-Leh National highway, Ganderbal district of central Kashmir, June 17, 2020. Twenty army personnel including a colonel were killed during a clash with Chinese troops in Galwan Valley of the eastern Ladakh region on June 15(PTI)
Border Security Force personnel stand guard along the Srinagar-Leh National highway, Ganderbal district of central Kashmir, June 17, 2020. Twenty army personnel including a colonel were killed during a clash with Chinese troops in Galwan Valley of the eastern Ladakh region on June 15(PTI)

In its attempt to unilaterally define the Line of Actual Control (LAC), Beijing has disregarded the central tenets of all pacts it has signed with India since 1993 to keep the border peaceful. And this will significantly alter the trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship, which has been premised on an understanding that even as the boundary questions remain unresolved, the two nations can move forward on other areas of engagement — global, regional and bilateral. That fundamental assumption has now been seriously undermined.

In some ways, China’s assertiveness today is understandable. As long as China was the dominant party along the border, it could continue with the facade of upholding peace and tranquility. After all, that was on its terms. It is India’s assertion of its interests in the last few years that has emerged as the sticking point. The militarisation of LAC is taking place at an unprecedented pace today partly because Indian infrastructure is in much better shape and Indian patrolling is far more effective. A more heated LAC is a result of the Indian military’s presence in areas where the Chinese military is not used to seeing it. That India is ready to take on Chinese aggression head-on is also reflected in the scale of casualties that both sides suffered this week in the Galwan Valley. The Indian military is operationally more nimble and prepared than ever been. Therefore, if a lasting solution to the border problem is not found, we should be prepared for more such action along LAC.

China remains a significantly more powerful entity and its infrastructure is still in much better shape. But Indian infrastructure development has reached a critical point. And it is not without reason that the Chinese opposition to the 255 km-long strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road has been so vehement. Connecting Leh to the Karakoram Pass, this all-weather road is India’s frontal challenge to China’s expansionist designs in the region. Despite Chinese objections, India has continued to pursue this project given its strategic importance. China raising the temperature on the border is a pre-emptive move to dissuade India from moving ahead.

China’s recent behaviour cannot be delinked from the global situation where Beijing has come under pressure and is facing a global backlash for its mishandling of Covid-19. That India has emerged as a more credible global actor at a time of severe distress is something that China is wary of. The top leadership of the Communist Party of China is facing internal turmoil as its policies on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are not only facing global opprobrium but are also being critically dissected at home. For Chinese President Xi Jinping, an easy answer to managing this turmoil is to create problems abroad to generate a sense of nationalism among a disillusioned populace.

Indian foreign policy has been at the front and centre of challenging China’s nefarious global designs. New Delhi was the first country to warn the world of the dangers of BRI at a time when almost every other country was willing to buy into Beijing’s narrative. Today, India’s framing of the BRI problems is widely accepted by most major global powers. Given that BRI is Xi’s key vanity project, India’s role in shaping the global opposition must be particularly jarring. India has also managed to shape the global discourse on the Indo-Pacific and is now working closely with like-minded regional players into giving it operational heft. Despite China’s continued objections to the term, Indo-Pacific maritime geography is now widely accepted. And at a time when the Donald Trump administration is seriously beginning the process of trade and technology “decoupling” with China, Washington and New Delhi are closer today than ever before. Chinese attempts to marginalise India on the global stage have not worked and New Delhi’s cache has only increased.

And so in its wisdom, China decided to wield the blunt instrumentality of force, hoping that this would “teach India a lesson”. The reality is Chinese actions will produce exactly the opposite effect of what they probably intended to do. Indian public opinion, which was already negative about China, will now become even more strongly anti-Chinese. Those who have been talking about maintaining an equidistance from China and the United States will find it hard to sustain that position. And New Delhi will now be even freer to make policy choices, both strategic and economic, which will have a strong anti-China orientation. There will be costs for India. But China’s actions have ensured that today India is ready to bear those costs. For this, India should thank Xi’s China.

Harsh V Pant is professor, King’s College, London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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