Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2020-06-18 12:42:35 Published on Jun 18, 2020
It's not just the Indian soldiers that fell off the cliff at the border

The unacceptable casualties of Indian soldiers in Eastern Ladakh’s Galwan sector have caused irreparable damage to India-China relations. On the night of 15 June, it wasn’t only the soldiers who died after falling off the cliff on which the two armies were engaged in a melee; Sino-Indian relations also fell off that very cliff. What happened in Galwan was waiting to happen for a very long time. The only surprise is that it took so long to happen given the increasing number of face-offs between Indian and Chinese soldiers over the last few years. Something had to give, and it did. The question is where do we go from here?

The statements issued by the Indian and Chinese governments after the phone conversation between the two foreign ministers makes it very clear that there is a complete divergence of views on what transpired in Galwan. The bitterness that the incident has injected in bilateral relations is also quite apparent. But for now it seems there is an effort to defuse the immediate crisis and not let it escalate any more. Whether these efforts are fruitful is anyone’s guess. But even if the situation is defused for now, the larger relationship has been badly damaged. Worse, the SOPs and mechanisms worked out for maintaining peace and tranquillity along the LAC are for all practical purposes dead. It is difficult to imagine that after the Chinese treachery at Galwan, the Indian Army or government ordering troops to go on patrols or even border meetings without weapons. This means that going forward, the chances of skirmishes and clashes between rival patrols, which then escalate into something bigger cannot entirely be ruled out, not just in the Western sector (Ladakh) but all along the LAC.

The changed dynamics along the LAC will also have repercussions on other aspects of the bilateral relationship. On the economic side, there is bound to be a push back. Already state owned telecom companies have been barred from buying equipment from Chinese companies. Other curbs, not just on investments but also contracts and a range of other products, especially those used in critical infrastructure, are also being seriously considered.

At the diplomatic and strategic level, there is bound to be a greater push towards counterbalancing China, something India has traditionally been chary of doing openly. But the policy of riding on two horses – getting closer to the US without ruffling too many feathers in China – has run its course. India will have to decide whether to reinforce a failed policy, or forge a new one which involves a much closer alliance with the US and its allies, assuming that such an alliance is on offer. But to do this India will first have to junk hoary shibboleths – can’t change neighbours, Vasudhaiva Kutumbhakam, strategic autonomy, non-alignment, and what have you.

To not put too fine a point on it, India now faces her biggest strategic and security challenge in decades. Unless someone lives in cuckoo land and believes that Galwan was not premeditated, it must be seen as a deliberate provocation from China to test India’s resolve and readiness to protect her territorial integrity. Clearly, the Chinese military build-up along the LAC that preceded the Neanderthal attack by Chinese soldiers was part of the plan. Perhaps China doesn’t want to provoke a war just yet. The fact that the Chinese haven’t agitated their street or media against India suggests they don’t want to push things beyond what they have already done.

The ball is now in India's court. How India responds is something that not only China will watch, but also India's potential allies. If India soft-pedals — like it has done on so many occasions in the past — the Chinese will not only keep pushing harder and changing the LAC in their favour by nibbling away Indian territory, but also start dictating what India can and cannot do even in the territory under her control. Other countries will also be watching India’s response very closely and carefully to see if India has what it takes to stand up to China and stare it down.

To be sure, as things stand, India cannot depend on any other country in taking on China. Already, Russia has taken a neutral stand which like 1962 favours China; the US and other Western countries are quiet as are India’s other friends. If any other country stands with India, it will be a bonus; but it will be a Mug’s game to make decisions of war and peace on basis of expectations of support from any other country. India must therefore move in a cold, calculated manner, and if necessary bide its time but without losing sight of the immutable reality that China is an enemy country.

This commentary originally appeared in Economic Times.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

Read More +