To take on China, rely on diplomacy and strong counter-measures
The agreement for mutual disengagement of troops by China and India at the friction point of Gogra in eastern Ladakh is a step forward for restoring the status quo ante of April 2020, when Chinese forces made a series of preplanned intrusions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Including Gogra, Galwan and Pangong Tso, the two sides have now stepped back at three contested points, while the standoff continues at other strategic locations and is unlikely to be speedily resolved.
Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learnt from the three areas where China and India have disengaged. The first is that sustained diplomacy yields dividends. Thanks to several rounds of talks, the two Asian giants have avoided an intensified conflict that seemed a possibility after the Galwan clash. The joint poring over of maps of each military’s perceptional lines and claims at LAC, and interactions, have conveyed in direct terms what each side wants and prefers, and shown where the potential for mutual pullbacks lies. The subtle involvement of Russia as a creative go-between to lower the heat has also helped.
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While China and India nurse long-term suspicions of each other’s intentions, goals and international alignments — and these will not dissipate anytime soon — the LAC crisis diplomacy has focused on tactical specifics at the friction points. The message is that the two neighbours will not stop competing for power and influence in Asia and beyond, but they can manage the disputed border situation from sliding into war.
The second lesson is that diplomatic parleys are necessary but not sufficient. Without a demonstration of military deterrence and resolve, an aggressive and expansive China cannot be sweet-talked into dismantling its bunkers and semi-permanent structures or driving back its tanks and armoured vehicles to pre-April 2020 positions.
China has withdrawn from three encroached portions only after witnessing India’s willingness to use countervailing force, do mirror deployment or outnumber the Chinese military at some points, and mount counter-offensives across what China claims to be its side of LAC. The reality is that India redeemed itself after the Chinese offensive in April-May 2020 by displaying no hesitation to spill blood or pay China back in its own coin. The concept of “offensive defence” has guided India’s strategic infrastructure-building and force projection at LAC throughout this crisis, and this has compelled China to recalculate the costs and benefits of its expansionism.
The third lesson is that since diplomatic resolution of the crisis is dependent on military operations and show of strategic determination, India must persist on the path of “peace through strength”.
The Narendra Modi government has to keep bringing bargaining chips to the dialogue like it did in 2020 by occupying the strategic heights of the Kailash range of mountains, and letting the Chinese know that India can neutralise China’s bilateral asymmetry in military and economic power through other cards. This may include activating and operationalising Quad to apply multilateral counterbalancing pressure in the Indo-Pacific; imposing greater barriers to Chinese goods, technology and investments; and reopening the sensitive issues of the status of Tibet and Taiwan.
A difficult path lies ahead in India-China relations, especially as the India-United States (US) strategic partnership is maturing and China-US ties are plumbing the depths. With approximately 50,000 troops on each side remaining at LAC, the potential for fresh violence cannot be ruled out. While Indian military proactiveness has proven to be an imperative to get China to make limited concessions, this kind of equilibrium is unstable and risks unwarranted escalation.
Peace through strength is a delicate tightrope walk. But the gauntlet China has thrown is such that India does not have the option of shying away from matching Chinese moves on the ground and in world capitals. Only a combination of bravery and wisdom can succeed in this long-drawn-out crisis.
Sreeram Chaulia is the author of the forthcoming book, Crunch Time: Narendra Modi’s National Security Crises
The views expressed are personal
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