The year 2020, which had the potential to be a landmark in India-China relations against the 70 years of diplomatic ties, but murphy’s law turned it into one of the biggest debacles of all time since 1962. Undeniably, the border dispute is the characteristic feature of India-China relations; however, the recent violent scuffle at Galwan Valley has added a new dimension- making the dispute ‘protracted and volatile’.
As the border is neither delineated on the map nor demarcated on the ground, risks are imminent; but there can only be temporary fixes without any long term solution. At this juncture, a step ahead from Galwan requires India to get back to the drawing board and re-read Chinese intentions- as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping rightly said ‘seek truth from facts’. To argue so, as the Galwan incident has provided three crucial reality checks- first, the longstanding jargon of ‘not a single fire’ is no more relevant against the heavy casualties. Second, ‘Wuhan Spirit to Chennai Connect’, are more of a rhetoric than a real stabiliser. Third, the existing agreements stand ‘null and void’ as the very first step to de-escalation under dis-engagement was ‘hit’ with a ‘violent scuffle’.
While de-escalation is in process and diplomacy playing its trick, India’s China policy needs a serious re-thinking- calling for a ‘change in mindset’. At the foremost, India needs to dismantle the old ways of assessing China and accept few truths as benchmarks, such as: First, as there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies but only permanent interests- India in dealing with China should always act from a position of strength. Second, there should be no doubt in reading the Chinese intention, which aims at changing the status quo along the border in favour of Beijing. Third, the recurrent ingress is signs of Beijing’s reluctance in resolving the boundary with New Delhi- be it now or in the future. Fourth, China’s acts of transgressions are no longer ‘local’ or ‘normal’ but have increasingly become premeditated and top-down in approach, to test India’s resolve. Fifth, China’s actions are guided by the logic of ‘salami-slicing’- incremental approach towards securing its claims; as earlier witnessed in the case of the South China Sea, and now applied against India in the disputed border. Finally, sixth, ‘deception’ is the most important tool of Chinese warfare- thus, a duality in what is said and what is done should not be taken as a surprise. Not to forget, this is the bottom-line principle of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’– a constant in Chinese strategic thinking. Thereby, Galwan was another litmus test that significantly clarified Beijing’s tendency to keep the Line of Actual Control active despite talks on seeking a resolution. New Delhi can no longer afford to overlook these red flags while reading in between the lines.
While the border would remain to be a constant engagement, India needs to become more active in its own ‘sphere of influence’- the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). For unlike China that seeks to strengthen its foothold in IOR, India is already strongly anchored as well as has a strategic presence. Besides, as ‘non-alignment’ is no more a policy option, and when interests converge, India should leverage it with its partners – QUAD and QUAD-Plus. In this direction, New Delhi has already taken its steps as exemplified by the 2019 U.S.-India bilateral tri-service amphibious military exercise “Tiger Triumph”; the Blue Dot Network- an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); and most recently, India-Australia relations have been upgraded to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed under nine arrangements that include “Mutual Logistics Support” for their militaries. Undeniably, the fact remains that hard power still calls the shots. To strongly argue, it is no more balance of power, but balance of threat compounded with balance of interest that tops the agenda.
While external engagements are essential, India needs to enhance its own capabilities- economic and military at the foremost. COVID-19 has provided the right opportunity to act upon ‘self-reliance’- thus, Atmanirbhar Bharat should be the pursuit. Moreover, as global supply and value chains remain disrupted and countries planning to reduce dependency on China and seeking to diversify, India is perceived as one of the preferred destinations of foreign investments; apart from Vietnam, Thailand and others. While militarily, India needs to further boost its preparedness by upgrading its capabilities, as already noted in the rapid infrastructure build-up in the high-altitudes of Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Not to forget, China’s justifications to its own actions were based on accusing India of the infrastructure build-up. This, therefore, clarifies that the Indian Army’s growing capabilities do unnerve China. Hence, the spillover effect was witnessed at Galwan, where Beijing’s attempt to test India’s resolve failed- similar to Doklam.
While diplomacy calls for high-table talks, the military should never keep the guards down- as when talks fail, responsive actions are the only options. For when it entails securing one’s sovereignty, the choice is no more to seek an ‘alternative’ but to remain firm in ‘safeguarding one’s own claims’. Where, the only option is to ‘Check-Mate’, if and when needed.