When Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar spoke to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on telephone on June 17, he began by pointing out that the border clash on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh had been the most violent they had seen between the two countries since they began their careers as diplomats. Both Jaishankar and Wang are in their mid-60s and had served in their respective foreign services before becoming ministers. The last time a soldier died in a fracas at the LAC was in 1975, two years before Jaishankar joined the Indian Foreign Service.
Now, 45 years later, India has reported 20 deaths on a single day, including that of a colonel who was commanding the battalion stationed there. China has so far been mum about casualties on its side, but Wang's aggressive posture of blaming India for the clash suggested that even Chinese forces had taken a hard hit. Jaishankar charged China with "a premeditated and pre-planned" action that resulted in the casualties and wanted corrective steps to be taken. They ended the conversation by agreeing that both sides will implement the disengagement understanding reached on June 6 when the corps commanders of the two armies had met and agreed to ensure "peace and tranquility".
Both sides are aware of just how difficult it will be to restore calm on both sides. It will take months, possibly even years. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the two countries have had two major LAC stand-offs: at Demchok in 2014 (even as Chinese president Xi Jinping was paying his first state visit to India) and at Doklam in 2017. Both were peacefully resolved. But with the casualties India has suffered in the current fracas, as a senior Indian official dealing with the situation put it, "China had not just crossed the Galwan line but the Rubicon too".
China's latest and most blatant aggression on the border is likely to have serious long-term consequences for its relations with India. Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Asian strategic issues, predicts: "This will confirm the view of many Indians that China is not just a competitor but now also an adversary. The Chinese have made a major miscalculation. They have lost India as a potential partner and, to my mind, this is far more consequential than any other gains that they have made."
Why Xi did it
For Prime Minister Modi, who has invested much political capital in building a relationship with Xi Jinping, the president of China and supremo of the Chinese Communist Party, the bloody stand-off at Galwan was a personal setback. The two leaders have had as many as 18 summit meetings in the past six years, including two highly-publicised informal ones in Wuhan in April 2018 and Mamallapuram in October 2019 (see Modi-Xi Meetings).
While they struck a personal rapport, the two leaders failed to work out a new template for a relationship that could go beyond the boundary-driven agreements operative for the past two decades and lead to far greater cooperation and less conflict. Modi's critics in the opposition say the PM has allowed himself to be strung along by Xi, leading to a Kargil-like situation where the Chinese have gained both psychological and physical dominance on the LAC. One expert says the Chinese deliberately fed on Modi's ego with these exchanges to achieve what he terms "winning without fighting".
HIMALAYAN STAND-OFF THE GALWAN VALLEY DISPUTE THE PANGONG LAKE DISPUTE
The two main areas of dispute are The Galwan Valley—where the deadly June 15 clash that left 20 Indian soldiers dead took place—and Pangong TSO ,a serpentine lake, one-third of which is on the Indian side of the Line of Ac tual Control (LA C), and the rest on the Chinese side
To be fair to Modi, his whole effort has been to walk the tightrope in not making China an adversary till we had built our own strengths and were capable of taking it head on, if necessary. And what better than to borrow from Deng Xiaoping's 24-Character Strategy of the 1980s exhorting China to "observe calmly, secure our position, hide our strength, bide our time". Modi's problem, then, is not gullibility, but the country's capability, especially with the Indian economy underperforming in recent years and burdened with the task of managing a major pandemic. He is playing his cards as best as he can with a relatively weak hand. His message to Xi after the Galwan deaths was unambiguous: "India wants peace, but, if provoked, we will give a befitting reply."
What prompted Xi to be so aggressive and all but burn his boats with Modi? There seems to be a whole constellation of factors behind the move. Despite the bonhomie between the two leaders, Xi was irked that Modi did not back the centrepiece of his foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI seeks to establish China's dominance in global trade through multi-billion-dollar investments in infrastructure and connectivity projects in nearly 70 countries. It includes the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor cutting through the heart of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), much to India's chagrin.
THE PANGONG LAKE DISPUTE
Xi was also disappointed that Modi refused to sign the Regional Comprehensive Econo-mic Partnership (RCEP), the free trade agreement for the Indo-Pacific region, until if offered a level playing field and was not a walkover for China. Another factor was India's abrogation of Article 370 last August, changing the status quo in Kashmir and making Ladakh a separate Union territory. Whether China saw the Modi government's revanchist statements on PoK and Aksai Chin as a threat or a convenient pretext, it has made its displeasure known.
Yet another area of concern for Xi was Modi's blossoming relationship with Donald Trump at a time when the US president had unleashed a bruising trade war with the eastern superpower. All this led China to not just test India's resolve but also, as Tellis puts it, "publicly humiliate India and cut it down to size because the rest of the world regarded India as an alternative model to it". It was evident in its blocking of India's entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), stalling for a long time the UN move to blacklist Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and trying, unsuccessfully, to raise India's abrogation of Article 370 at the UN Security Council.
Other experts believe India is not an exception and China has in the past couple of years assertively and aggressively moved on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, threatening the Philippines and even sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat. It has unleashed a wave of repression in Hong Kong, ignoring worldwide concern, and warned Taiwan not to attempt a formal declaration of secession. Internally, too, Xi has been under pressure for the global opprobrium China has earned for not revealing the true extent of COVID-19 in Wuhan early enough. An undercurrent of dissent against him seems to be building in China, and Xi may have struck out at India as a diversion.
One leading dissident, who was subsequently arrested for his open letter to the Chinese president, even mocked Xi for his handling of Doklam. 'Back in 2017,' he wrote, 'you started building a military road at Doklam on the border with India but the instant Narendra Modi showed some grit you backed down just like some blowhard Beijing street punk.' That may not be true. Former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon believes that Doklam was an empty propaganda victory for India as China has since consolidated its position.
Gautam Bambawale, a former Indian ambassador to China, believes that the reasons listed above may have had some bearing on Xi's action on the LAC, but are not the main ones. As he puts it, "If you ask me, in an order of priority from 1 to 20, I will put all these below 11. The number 1 to 10 reason is that Xi has tried to move the ground position of his troops to what he believes is the actual line of control, particularly in the Galwan Valley."
The timing of the move could have been speeded up to counter the rapid building of Indian infrastructure, including accessible roads in the region, apart from the build-up of troops to counter any Chinese aggression. Bambawale does not agree that China is repeating the 'two steps forward, one step back' playbook which Menon believes Xi has used to occupy the areas on the LAC that China seeks to control. He is blunt: "Xi thinks he is now strong enough to take on India and he also has the mentality of a bully."
That it was no ordinary border skirmish this time was evident in the massive build-up of Chinese troops at strategic points along the 3,448-km-long LAC since April. This emerged as a flashpoint in the first week of May when an Indian army patrol got into fisticuffs with Chinese troops over intrusions across the LAC along the Pangong Tso, a serpentine lake that straddles the eastern border of Ladakh. A couple of days later, a scuffle broke out between the Indian and Chinese troops on the LAC in the Naku La area of north Sikkim. Meanwhile, Chinese troops intruded five kilometres deep into the Galwan Valley to obstruct a road being built by India, though it was well within the Indian side of the LAC. They even pitched tents and set up camps. China seems intent on dominating the heights of the Galwan Valley, which overlook the strategically important Indian road that passes close to the disputed Aksai Chin and supplies Indian positions at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) near the Karakoram Pass on Ladakh's northern border.
With the clashes turning serious, diplomacy kicked in, and the corps commanders of the two armies met on June 6, with both sides agreeing to "peacefully resolve" the situation in accordance with earlier border agreements. But the Chinese broke the agreement by coming back to Galwan Valley with heavy deployments and, on being confronted by the Indian patrol, engaged in a bloody tussle that resulted in many deaths. India's first task now is to ensure that the situation moves forward step by step and under strict watch towards de-escalation and status quo. In this endeavour, says an official, "India will not be deterred. We will certainly not be intimidated and we will hold our own."
So what options does Modi have to convey to Xi that enough is enough, to have status quo restored on the LAC and warn China not to act against India's int-erests in the future? Broadly, there are three: military, diplomatic and economic.
India's military options
If China persists with its aggression on the LAC, the Modi government has before it a range of overt and covert military options to counter it. These include using covert paramilitaries to act behind enemy lines in the event of a sizeable ground-based intrusion by the People's Liberation Army of China. Other 'tit-for-tat' plans, drawn up in recent years, bolstered by the construction of roads and bridges in the hitherto inaccessible Himalayan heights and the addition of over a dozen divisions of specialised mountain warfare soldiers, involve the army moving in and capturing Chinese territory in areas where it has an advantage along the LAC.
These captured positions could then be used as bargaining chips in a negotiated settlement. While war as an option is ruled out, China is aware that unlike in 1962, India has beefed up its armed forces. A March 2020 study by the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University appreciated 'India's conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks'.
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The Modi government believes in the use of military force but only to restore the status quo along the LAC. The army's thinking was reflected in the swift revision of its official statement flashed on June 15 which said a 'violent face-off took place yesterday night with casualties'. The statement was amended and reissued to say-"with casualties on both sides". The army believes the PLA also suffered casualties, thereby altering the optics of it being a one-sided conflict that would force the government to retaliate proportionately. Modi alluded to it when he said on June 17, "Woh maarte maarte mar gaye (they died even as they killed the enemy)." The exact count of Chinese casualties is not known and is likely to remain hidden, given the secretive nature of its military.
The Indian political establishment is unwilling to allow the status quo to be changed on the ground, a point that has been conveyed to the army. A senior military official says the effort is to get the Chinese side to respect the agreement reached with the PLA at the June 6 meeting at the Moldo border point opposite Chushul. A senior military planner outlines three aims before the Indian army. "Our first aim is to get them to disengage and move back to their pre-May 2020 positions all along the LAC which they had agreed to on June 6," he says. "Thereafter, we need to continue building up our border infrastructure and, finally, we need to study these incursions and be alert on the LAC to prevent the recurrence of such events."
If this option of military diplomacy fails and the PLA continues to set the narrative, then the army faces the stark choice of forcibly evicting them from their locations along the LAC using special forces and infantry backed by tanks and artillery. Executing such a mission as a limited conflict is hugely problematic, army officials admit, because it risks escalation, and the PLA has positioned its own troops to block such a move. The other, less risky, option is for the army to carry out intrusions in other areas of the LAC. "There are several areas where we enjoy a comparative advantage over the Chinese and we can pull off a surprise," an army officer says. This would then put the onus of responding or escalation on the PLA.
The PLA's incursions are a blatant violation of peace and tranquility agreements of the past 27 years. They were larger in number and, unlike previous years, on multiple points along the LAC. The army is not in a hurry to tear up all its border agreements built over the years that urge both sides not to take action to provoke a conflict. It's evident in its approach not to use firearms even after the June 15 skirmish.
The PLA cannily circumvented these unwritten rules in the May incursions when they assaulted Indian soldiers using spiked clubs at bloody clashes in the Pangong Lake area. These medieval clubs were used to fatal effect in the June 15 clashes, where several Indian soldiers were unarmed. Ten soldiers were held by the Chinese and released after major-generals from both sides met on June 18.
The army's response in the short term has been to order over 5,000 sets of lightweight body armour-specialised padded polyurethane inserts-to protect its troops from stones and sharp objects. It is also developing spiked clubs of its own to ensure its soldiers are not caught off-guard. These melee weapons are an appreciation of the changed rules of engagement on the border.
Appalling as the prospect of soldiers clad like riot police engaging in gladiatorial duels with their Chinese counterparts seems, it is being seen as the safest way to pay the Chinese back in the same coin but without escalating the situation into an all-out shooting war.
In the current situation, use of extensive military force, which could lead to an all-out border conflict, is all but ruled out. Low-level tactical steps remain the best choice. The Indian army should ponder as to how they allowed Chinese troops to do a massive build-up on the LAC and did not detect the incursions before the situation got out of hand.
Also, while building infrastructure like roads, why were no parallel measures taken to beef up its forces to secure them properly? "All this raises the broader issue of Indian military planning and coordination between the ministry of home affairs, defence and the Border Roads Organisation," says Tellis. "India also has to revisit the question of frontier defence, particularly in high-altitude areas, the need for greater electronic surveillance, apart from military modernisation which unfortunately has faltered due to budgetary constraints. It's a wake-up call."
Weapons of Diplomacy
While militarily, it's important for India to restore both balance and dominance on the LAC, it is clear that neither side is keen on escalating the conflict, much less going to war. Vijay Nambiar, a former Indian ambassador to China and a UN special advisor, believes the situation remains fragile on the border and steps should be taken by both sides to ensure de-escalation. But even as that process is on, he believes, it is important that India reset its diplomatic relations with China. India can't go back to the post-1962 position of not having anything to do with China till the border issue was resolved.
Nor can it follow its post-1988 approach of pushing for peace and tranquility on the boundary while cooperating in other areas. Despite the special representatives of the two sides meeting 22 times in close to two decades to sort out the border dispute, not much progress has been made on reaching an agreement. Now, relations will have to be more nuanced. As Bambawale says, "If China is going to make a song and dance about Jammu & Kashmir, which is internal to India, then we have every right to take a position on issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinkiang and even Tibet." With India just being elected a member of the UN Security Council, it could use the forum to embarrass China, if need be.
This will mean India can stop worrying about whether its decisions would upset China. Or maintain the subterfuge that the Quad grouping of nations, of which India is a member along with the US, Japan and Australia, is not an attempt to curb China's influence in the Indo-Pacific region. India should now shed its ambivalence and become an active participant in the ongoing Asian balance of power against China, for which it needs to work more closely with Asian partners and the US. That will send China a clear signal that India will protect its interests. That it will do whatever it takes and not be a doormat for China to walk over. The Japanese model is a good one to follow: they have always acknowledged China to be a significant threat but never renounced their relationship with the US to keep Beijing happy. Tellis believes that by being aggressive on the border, China has lost significantly at the level of strategy. At a time when the international community was ganging up against China, Xi should have worked at preventing the opposition from getting united. Now, as he says, "it has ended up pushing India more closely towards the international coalition that is alarmed about Chinese behaviour."
The economic arsenal
Ever since the deaths of the Indian soldiers were announced, there has been massive public clamour for economic retaliation. A senior official revealed that the Modi government is planning high-profile economic strikes apart from looking at select nations as strategic anchors to take on China. But can India afford to pursue such a strategy?
China is India's biggest trade partner. Along with Hong Kong, its bilateral trade with India in 2019-20 was $109.8 billion, with a huge $54.6 billion trade surplus in its favour. The country's dominance in the Indian smartphone market is an open secret. Chinese firm Xiaomi has 28.6 per cent market share, followed by Chinese brands Vivo (15.6), Oppo (10.7) and Realme (10.6). Chinese firms are still winning almost every infrastructure project tender in the country, and meeting the bulk of India's electrical machinery supply needs.
The country accounts for most of the raw material supply to the Indian pharmaceutical industry, as well as solar panel supplies for the renewable energy sector. China is one of the biggest investors in Indian start-ups, especially information technology firms. In line with public sentiment, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) has already put out a list of 500 Made in China products their members will not sell. These include FMCG products, toys, fabric, hardware, footwear, kitchen items, etc. CAIT secretary general Praveen Khandelwal says the plan is to bring down the import of Rs 1 lakh crore worth of Chinese finished goods by the end of 2021.
China is dependent on India both for raw material and its vast markets and has ensured that the trade balance weighs heavily in its favour. China has also shown that it does not respect India as a peer or a competitor. So India should not shy away from using trade relations both as a bargaining power and as a threat to make China behave appropriately. Ashwini Mahajan, national co-convenor of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a Sangh Parivar affiliate, argues that if India and the US join hands on the trade front, "China will collapse like a pack of cards". His reasoning: Indian imports from China form 2.7 per cent of China's total exports, but China's trade surplus with India is 11.5 per cent of its global trade surplus of $430 billion. With the US trade deficit with China at $360 billion, together it forms 90 per cent of China's trade surplus. Mahajan also advocates threatening China with banning its companies from bidding for massive infrastructure projects in India should it continue with its hostile policy.
However, no economic boycott is as simple as it seems. Trade and investment ties are interlinked. Santosh Pai, partner, Link Legal, and honorary fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi, points out that India's dependence on China for imports is larger (14 per cent or so) compared to China's dependence on India, either as a source of imports or as a destination for exports. Foreign direct investment from China was encouraged precisely because we had a large dependency on Chinese imports and an unsustainable trade deficit.
Now, if India puts curbs on Chinese investment, the trade deficit could expand because trade cannot be restricted without violating WTO principles. "Weaponising trade and investment is not something a middle economic power like India can pull off," Pai says. For instance, China's biggest car maker, Great Wall Motors, has just signed a memorandum of understanding with Maharashtra to invest $1 billion and create about 3,000 jobs. How do you throw them out? How will it affect India's image as an FDI destination?
Other experts warn that India hitting out at China economically may be counterproductive. Jayant Dasgupta, former Indian ambassador to the World Trade Organization, feels it will be more feasible for India to disallow Chinese companies from participating in government tenders. "The telecom ministry has already taken a step in this direction. I don't think Huawei (a Chinese firm) can pull it off in the 5G rollout because, globally, people are going against Chinese participation."
There are other areas like road construction and railways where India can exclude China. But it would come at a cost and could jeopardise India's growth. Moreover, India may not be united in a complete and sudden boycott of Chinese products and investments, but selective interventions to cut dependence on China as much as possible is something that most experts agree on. So economic strikes against China should be launched with caution.
What all this means is that India should exercise the diplomatic, military and economic options judiciously to check China. The showdown in the Galwan Valley also holds the possibility of rapprochement between the two countries. The 1986-87 face-off with China on the Arunachal border saw then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi make a historic visit to Beijing in 1988, paving the way for the 1993 agreement to maintain peace and tranquility on the border, points out Menon, who negotiated that agreement. "China respects power," he says. India has to ensure that it keeps that respect.