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Opinion

After Galwan, what’s next for India-China ties? – analysis

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In a brief statement condemning the deaths of 20 Indian army personnel, including a colonel in clashes with Chinese People’s Liberation Army (EPL) troops along the Current Line of Control (LAC), the First Minister (PM) Narendra Modi emphasized that this loss of precious lives will not be in vain and that India’s traditional restrictive stance should not be confused with a lack of national resolve regarding territorial integrity and sovereignty. He added that “differences should not be allowed to turn into disputes,” but that is where the India-China relationship is now balanced and could go further south given the prevailing mood of anger and anguish in the country.

While there are unconfirmed reports of the number of PLA soldiers killed, it is worth remembering that China does not release any official numbers on casualties sustained in battles and wars, let alone skirmishes of this nature. For example, Chinese casualties in the October 1962 border war with India were discreetly shared in documents of the PLA’s internal military history only in the mid-1990s. It is important to note that there will be a marked difference between the transparent approach of a robust democracy like India and the cloistered approach of an authoritarian regime like China.

There are several reasons being put forward why the PLA acted in the barbaric way it did (attacking Indian troops with lethal batons embedded with nails and spikes, if some reports are true). The reasons for the PLA incursion and consolidation of eastern Ladakh will have to be addressed at a later date, perhaps in the manner in which the Kargil Review Committee was convened, and the necessary political shortcomings should be corrected.

But the focus right now shouldn’t be on “why”, but on “what’s next” as the Wuhan-Mamallapuram bonhomie will now be toned down with a dose of reality.

India will have to think carefully about its options and remain determined. The loss of a colonel is a major setback for any army, and the Indian army will respond in any way it deems appropriate. The 1967 battles of Nathu La and Cho La, when India lost 100 lives but erased the humiliation of October 1962, will become part of the PLA’s collective memory.

But the options will go beyond military dominance, and will actually be determined by Delhi’s goals, both in the short and long term. At first glance, getting China to withdraw its troops to the status quo position prevailing in eastern Ladakh will be the immediate priority and objective, but, desirable as it is, realizing that the normative objective will present its challenges.

China is currently in a more tactically advantageous position both in the Galwan Valley and in other areas that it has occupied and fortified. This places India in a less favorable position when it comes to the current negotiations. China has perfected the art of assertively advancing territorial disputes and then, apparently, stepping back in “good faith”, but ultimately ensuring that its own territorial advancement becomes a de facto reality. This was observed in the Doklam experience. And there should be no illusions about China’s inherent orientation towards territory and strategic geography. India, unfortunately, has shown no such determination or insight into strategic geography or learning of military history.

While democracies thrive on objective dissent and debate, they must also exude national unity and consensus in times of crisis. The current challenge with China requires closing ranks between political parties. It is encouraging to note that an all-party meeting will be convened on Friday where Prime Minister Modi is expected to brief party leaders on Galwan’s setback and the options awaiting India in relation to China.

The history of the past 60 years indicates that China has been able to exploit the political and ideological divisions within India for its benefit in shaping the narrative of the problematic bilateral relationship. This is part of the “Three Wars” framework that Beijing has invested in as part of its comprehensive military modernization.

China will remain part of the 21st century economic and technological ecosystem, and India’s elections cannot be binary. Whether the post-pandemic word turns into sullen bipolarity or a more flexible group of democracies remains debatable. This will determine the position of India.

For PM Modi, Galwan’s challenge has the potential to transmute into either the Jawaharlal Nehru trauma of 1962 or the Margaret Thatcher and Malvinas triumph of 1982. The next few months will be critical for India and Asia.

C Uday Bhaskar is a director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

The opinions expressed are personal.

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