‘India shed blood at Galwan. She is crafting a new strategic future’

Mid-June, a freezing night in Galwan valley, eastern Ladakh. A series of skirmishes. Twenty Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers dead. The first time blood was shed since the 1980s.

The India-China dynamic changed forever.

One year later, Indian and Chinese troops are still facing off at numerous friction points along the LAC in Eastern Ladakh. The entire un-demarcated border is militarised, or “live”, with fresh face-offs reported from Naku La in Sikkim in January.

In February 2021, both sides disengaged partially from the north and south banks of the Pang-on Tso lake, in a “synchronised and organised” manner. But there has been no movement since then. Eleven rounds of discussions between military commanders and senior officials have been held but its very clear China does not intend to take any further steps back. That has its own implications.
The sudden incursions by Chinese troops in April and skirmishes from early May threw the Indian system off guard. It took them some time to recoup forces and mount a defence.

However, in a surprise move on August 29-30, India turned the tables on China with a swiftly executed occupation of the heights on the southern banks of the Pangong Tso, effectively neutralising the Chinese tactical advantage. One could say that the only reason China agreed to disengage at Pangong Tso was the changed ground situation worked out by the Indian army. It stands to reason therefore that any further dis-engagement by the Chinese will only depend on whether the Indians can wrest any further tactical gains on the ground or elsewhere.

China’s continued military presence in Ladakh speaks to a larger problem in India-China relations, which have bilateral as well as global implications. In fact, India and China have both changed their strategic posture with regard to each other, creating nothing short of a global fault line.

Read also: What’s behind Chinese intrusions?

China has indicated that it will use its superior economic and military power to attempt to overwhelm India. India is the example China wants to show the world. It just may not happen the way China has planned.

Border or nothing

India has predicated normal relations with China on “peace and tranquility” on the border. China wants to “box” the boundary problem while moving on in other areas. At present both countries are functioning at cross-purposes.
Foreign minister S. Jaishankar encapsulated the problem recently. The relationship, he said, “is going through a very difficult phase because in violation of agreements and understandings of many years, the Chinese have deployed a very large part of the military on/close to Line of Actual Control (LAC) without explanation.”

“We have been very clear with the Chinese that peace and tranquillity on the border and border areas is absolutely essential to the development of our relationship. One cannot have friction, bloodshed, intimidation on the borders and then say let’s have a good relationship in other domains.”

The reason for China’s incursions in May 2020 does not yet have a credible answer. Jaishankar said the Indian government were given at least five different reasons.

However, China was not only nasty to India — from Taiwan to Australia, Japan, Vietnam and Philippines, US and Europe, China is flexing brute muscle, exercising economic coercion with show of force, creating unprecedented situation in the midst of a devastating pandemic. The most consequential is the growing US-China rivalry.
This has implications for India as it takes the US’ side, more unequivocally than ever. India is therefore the most important relationship the US has at this point in history. Both countries should make the most of it.

Internally Xi Jinping consolidated power in a breathtaking sweep, with HongKong and Xinjiang and Mongolians and Tibetans feeling the brunt of his policies. An escalating US-China confrontation which reached a peak in the last year of the Donald Trump administration, has remained tense even in the Biden administration.

De-couple… with care

Since April, 2020, India started taking some key steps to diversify away from China, or “de-couple”. Post Galwan, many of the moves have been retaliatory. But with the disengagement, some of those may be reversed, while many others will continue. For several years, India has moved to keep China out of its critical infrastructure sectors, although China had been dominating the telecom sector. As it became clear that China was trying to acquire key Indian firms, the government introduced a security barrier for investments from “bordering countries”.

Read also: National security in focus as India amends FDI rules

It also tied in with the Modi government’s decision on “self-reliance” with incentives for local players in a variety of sectors — though this was not specifically aimed at China, the northern neighbour became the obvious target.

After the June 15 Galwan clashes, new actions targeted China — 59 Chinese apps were banned in June, stopping the march of Chinese giants like Alibaba and Tencent in the Indian market. Chinese firms and/or joint ventures with Chinese firms were kept out of the government projects market, very lucrative for Chinese infrastructure companies. Over 200 Chinese FDI proposals were frozen. Huawei was barred from India’s 5G future.

Read also: Ban aims to foil China bid to mine data for political and military use

Most important, the government has set up a task force under the deputy national security adviser to draw up a list of “trusted vendors and sources” to set up China-free resilient supply chains.
The reason for this actually goes beyond the border clashes — Covid taught India, and much of the world, the perils of low-cost, high dependency imports from China. India found this to her cost, frantically scouring the world for pharma ingredients, ventilators, PPEs etc after China closed its doors. This year, India experienced the imbalance yet again with the second surge driving demand for oxygen concentrators and ingredients for specialised medicines to treat the explosion of virulent Covid in the country.

Read also: Covid-19: Stop price gouging by private suppliers, India tells China

For everybody celebrating the India-China trade figures, it only shows that de-coupling is not easy or instant. But the trajectory is inexorable. If India plays it right, the Indian market can be weaponised against China, certainly in the high-end value-rich parts of the economy.

The future

What happens to India-China relations?
India is now politically committed to de-risk its economy from China, carry forward with its de-coupling process, however slow or incomplete it might be.
On the border, India is building infrastructure at breakneck speed, and equipping its forces with drones, lightweight tanks and Rafale aircraft. The danger of course is that India won’t have the bandwidth to invest in the only theatre where it has an advantage over China — in the Indian Ocean. India’s investments in maritime security and naval expansion need to increase simultaneously but an overt focus on the Himalayan border and a slowed down economy may become obstacles.

India is doubling down on its relationship with the US, UK and Europe, but particularly the US. The Indo-Pacific is a premier geo-strategic focus as is the Quad. China does not like the Quad or the Indo-Pacific for that matter, and was surprised by the timing and level of the Quad summit in March. But India is unlikely to give China any veto over its choices.

India is working on new equations leveraging all its international relationships to advance its interests. It helps that the rest of the world is a lot more wary of China today than it has ever been.
China, India believes, views India through the US prism, this, India believes will be counter-productive for China.
But China is a formidable foe. Former NSA Shivshankar Menon told me in an interview recently, “I think your fundamental problem with China is that she has made it clear that she doesn’t see the rise of India as being in her interest.”
India’s future will not be made any easier by China.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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