June 2020 brought a rude shock to India, when the Chinese and Indian soldiers confronted each other in the disputed area on the Galwan River Valley. It was an aberration from decades of mutual understanding between the two countries that they would not use firearms or kill the personnel of the other side. Both sides suffered casualties.
The fundamental reason that the border continues to be a disputed matter between India and China is an asymmetry in the thinking that prevails on both sides. While India seeks to verify the Line of Actual Control (LAC) first and then engage in discussing veritable solutions, China’s thinking is top-down. It wishes to reach to arrive at a mutual understanding first and then build a mutual political consensus to demarcate the LAC. Beijing fears that if China agrees on the Indian line of thinking, then China would lose a large part of the territory.
In China’s strategic calculations, despite India being a rising power, it is the United States, and not India, which is a strategic competitor for China. Further, Beijing’s aims are to maintain peaceful ties with India, because its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network has to pass through India on land and in the Indian Ocean.
The official position of the Chinese leadership is that it was the Indian side triggered the confrontation at Galwan valley. When it was provoked, it would react to protect what it believes is its sovereign territory—however small it is. This line of thinking seems to be driven by the Greek historian Thucydides’ idea that honour, interest and fear guides foreign policy.
According to Chinese analysts, China does not want an American involvement in the dispute, which if it happens would be a humiliation for India and its abilities. The closeness in Indo-U.S. ties through 2+2 Dialogues and foundational defense agreements are viewed by China as being “superficial.” A renewed vigor in the QUAD ties arising out of concerns of Chinese aggression has also been dismissed by Beijing, as each of the four countries—India, Australia, Japan and the United States—would not compromise their bilateral relations with China.
India maintains that the territorial dispute has been elevated by China by claiming that it was related to the latter’s sovereignty. Further, Chinese comments on abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and creation of Ladakh as a Union Territory as “illegal” has not gone over well in India’s musings—as New Delhi sees those changes as an internal matter for India. It calls for a fairness in the understanding from its Chinese counterparts of the situation as India did not react when China reorganized the Tibetan provinces in 1965. India is also concerned about the repeated mention of Arunachal Pradesh as southern Tibet since 2005.
China has also expressed its criticism over India building feeder line from Daulat Beg Oldie to Darbuk-Shyok in 2019. On the other hand, China has continued to build such feeder lines for the past twenty years, and so India does not find the logic behind Chinese objections to India’s construction activities persuasive. It could be that Beijing would not want India’s personnel to reach the LAC freely and smoothly as it would want the movement of the Chinese patrol personnel.
There is a feeling in India that China wants to teach a lesson to India because it has decided against joining the BRI. Also, because of the asymmetry in power relations, China is showing its military might against India. The Chinese investments as part of the BRI in Pakistan called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the Gilgit-Baltistan area—a sovereign territory of India, and subject of a long-running conflict between Pakistan and India has also been objected to by India. China has retorted that these are commercial investments, but has not convinced the Indian counterparts, given then deployment of around 36,000 Chinese security guards in this area.
The Way Forward
Under no circumstance, should either side fire in the sky or at each other. They must reduce frontline deployment of troops unlike the current situation. There has to be an increased coordination of the soldiers at the frontier to avoid confrontation, by authorizing them to resolve the tensions. Setting up hotline between the two countries is pertinent. It must be ensured that border flareups do not hold wider bilateral ties hostage, as was highlighted by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi when visiting China in the 1980s. Further, it is important to respect the previous agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2013 and to ensure disengagement and tranquillity along the border by authorizing the retreat of 60,000 troops in violation of the previous agreements. The LAC must be clarified without further delay, and both countries must exhibit the necessary maturity to resolve border disputes in exchange of peace and tranquility. It is necessary to have new Confidence Building Measures as was decided in the Xiamen BRICS meeting of 2017. With cordial relations between each country’s leader, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, border peace is attainable. Both countries should not abet horizontal or vertical escalation of the confrontation and continue with negotiations at the highest levels and institutionalize a conflict resolution mechanism in order to settle the dispute once and for all, so that future Galwan-like incidents do not recur.
Ultimately, India and China must take a forward-looking step towards sustainable peace. It is important to understand the situation from both countries’ point-of-view, rather than being stuck in one-sided analysis.
This article acknowledges the discussions from a recent webinar conducted by the IMPRI Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, India, and the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy, USA.
Dr. Simi Mehta holds a PhD in American Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was a Fulbright Fellow at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Currently, she serves as the CEO and Editorial Director of Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected].