‘A dark hour’: Experts predict shake-up in India-China ties
The Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh, and the killing of 20 Indian Army personnel in Galwan valley, will complicate the planned disengagement process at the border, but more fundamentally, lead to a reset in New Delhi-Beijing ties and bring the competitive element of the relationship under sharper focus, experts say.
It could force India to closely re-examine the cooperative elements of its relationship with the Asian neighbour, and have an impact on geopolitics.
Commenting on Chinese motivations, Ashley Tellis, a strategic analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, who has closely studied South Asian security dynamics, said, “ I believe that entire crisis was driven by multiple intersecting Chinese calculations: to push back against India for what China feared was the beginning of Indian revanchism after the Article 370 decision—on this count, the Chinese misinterpreted India’s decisions entirely; to physically secure additional territory in Aksai Chin through salami slicing—an area that China already claims entirely and where it has been incrementally increasing its control now for some thirty odd years; and to embarrass India by inflicting political reverses for a variety of accumulating Chinese grievances.”
In a separate video analysis posted on the Carnegie site, Tellis said that the planned disengagement between the two sides was now “somewhat in jeopardy”.
“Remember, there are three locations where these confrontations are occurring. The Indians had hoped they would be able to secure a mutual disengagement from the first location, which is where the brawl occurred, and then move on to negotiating further disengagements in other locations. All this is now up in the air.”
While emphasising that the most important thing now for India was to secure de-escalation along the entire front and a restoration of the status quo ante, Tellis underlined that China-India relations could not go back to the old normal. “Beijing has crossed a threshold that was important to India. Over the longer term, India needs to make some hard decisions about accelerating economic growth, getting military modernisation back on track, and more transparently balancing China in partnership with other Asian friends and the United States,” he added.
Former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, who also served as ambassador to China and has closely studied the border dynamics, after a careful reading of the People’s Liberation Army statement on the incident, said on Twitter, “Chinese statement minces no words. The gloves are off.”
She noted that the statement was in line with communications received from the Chinese after the border dispute erupted in 1959 and skirmishes in the western and eastern sectors. “A dark hour like this with all the blood that has been shed is such a dreadful tragedy. Efforts made for normalization since 1976 have come to nought. There is a bad moon rising on India-China relations.”
Illustrating the possible Chinese motivations, S D Muni, professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former ambassador of India to Laos, said the Galwan violence was a “tough Chinese message” of not vacating strategic heights occupied through encroachments. “Strengthening Indian defence infrastructure in the region, along with the Indian political resolve on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin, is seen as a threat to Chinese illegal occupation of Aksai Chin and its strategic access through the Karakoram highway to Pakistan. It has sunk billions of dollars in Pakistan to nurse this strategic access,” Muni said.
Muni said that India will now have to explore a wide variety of options. “India must negotiate for peace on the Line of Actual Control, but capture strategic heights wherever possible for military and diplomatic bargaining to push back the Chinese. The peace and tranquility confidence-building measures (at the border) will have to be renegotiated at the highest political level.”
But alongside, he also called for a tougher stand from India. “Delhi should revisit its Tibet and Taiwan policies, must reinforce its Indo-Pacific strategic partnerships, and widen Quad by including Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore in it. The building of Andaman and Nicobar as a formidable tri-service base must be expedited too.”
Quad is an informal security dialogue between four countries -- India, the US, Japan and Australia. It was conceptualised, in part, to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
While suggesting that China’s motivations and the reason for the timing of its action in Ladakh are hard to gauge, Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations said it was important to note China’s territorial assertiveness in several other places as the world dealt with the pandemic.
On the future of the bilateral ties, she added: “India-China ties will undoubtedly suffer; they have for decades been marked by security tensions but with some degree of multilateral cooperation. It is harder to see New Delhi want to compartmentalise in the same way going forward.”
Ayres added that India’s options seem limited but it will have to make choices. “China is pushing India to make choices about who its friends are, a decision that India has historically refrained from making.”