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Opinion

How the Galwan tragedy has clarified India’s vision: analysis

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As India comes to terms with China’s cruel action on the border, it should be time for a new resolution in India to craft an open political response. This will not be as easy as some warriors of social networks suppose. But when it comes to the most serious strategic challenge India has ever faced, easy should be the last thing on our mind. Tragedies like the one India has endured this week often lead to clarity of vision, a vision that was clouded by the wrong sense of our ability to manage China. Now, after the loss of precious lives along the border was touted as stable, New Delhi should also lose its innocence when it comes to China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed that India wants peace but will “give an adequate response” if provoked. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has relayed to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that the development of the Galwan Valley will have a “serious” impact on the bilateral relationship.

In its attempt to unilaterally define the Current Line of Control (FTA), Beijing has ignored the core principles of all the pacts it has signed with India since 1993 to maintain the peaceful border. And this will significantly alter the trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship, which has been based on the understanding that even if the boundary issues remain unresolved, the two nations can advance in other areas of engagement: global, regional and bilateral. That fundamental assumption has now been seriously undermined.

In some ways, China’s assertiveness today is understandable. As long as China was the dominant party along the border, it could continue with the facade of defending peace and tranquility. After all, that was on his terms. It is India’s assertion of its interests in recent years that has emerged as the tipping point. LAC’s militarization is taking place at an unprecedented rate today in part because Indian infrastructure is in much better shape and Indian patrol is much more effective. A more heated FTA is the result of the presence of the Indian army in areas where the Chinese army is not used to seeing it. The fact that India is ready to face Chinese aggression is also reflected in the scale of casualties both sides suffered this week in the Galwan Valley. The Indian Army is operationally more agile and prepared than ever. Therefore, if a lasting solution to the border problem is not found, we must be prepared for more actions of this type in LAC.

China remains a significantly more powerful entity and its infrastructure is still in much better shape. But the development of Indian infrastructure has reached a critical point. And it is not without reason that Chinese opposition to the 255 km Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie strategic highway has been so vehement. Connecting Leh with the Karakoram Pass, this all-weather road is India’s frontal challenge to China’s expansionist designs in the region. Despite Chinese objections, India has continued with this project given its strategic importance. China raising the temperature at the border is a preemptive move to discourage India from moving forward.

China’s recent behavior cannot be disassociated from the global situation in which Beijing has been under pressure and faces a global reaction for its mishandling of Covid-19. That China has emerged as a more credible global player in a time of severe distress is something China mistrusts. The top leadership of the Communist Party of China is facing internal turmoil as its policies on Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are not only facing global disgrace, but are also dissecting critically at home. For Chinese President Xi Jinping, an easy response to deal with this turmoil is to create problems abroad to generate a sense of nationalism among a disillusioned population.

Indian foreign policy has been at the forefront and at the center of challenging China’s dire global designs. New Delhi was the first country to warn the world of the dangers of BRI at a time when almost all other countries were ready to accept the Beijing narrative. Today, most major world powers broadly accept India’s approach to BRI issues. Since BRI is Xi’s key vanity project, India’s role in shaping the global opposition must be particularly jarring. India has also managed to shape the global Indo-Pacific discourse and is now working closely with like-minded regional actors to give it operational strength. Despite China’s continued objections to the term, the Indo-Pacific maritime geography is now widely accepted. And at a time when the Donald Trump administration is seriously beginning the process of commercial and technological “decoupling” with China, Washington and New Delhi are closer today than ever. Chinese attempts to marginalize India on the global stage have failed, and New Delhi’s cache has only grown.

And so, in its wisdom, China decided to wield the blunt instrument of force, hoping that this “would teach India a lesson.” The reality is that Chinese actions will produce the exact opposite effect of what they probably tried to do. Indian public opinion, which was already negative about China, will now become even more strongly anti-Chinese. Those who have been talking about maintaining an equidistance from China and the United States will find it difficult to maintain that position. And New Delhi will now be even freer to make political decisions, both strategic and economic, that will have a strong orientation against China. There will be costs for India. But China’s actions have ensured that India is ready today to bear those costs. For this, India should thank Xi’s China.

Harsh V Pant is a professor, King’s College, London, and director of studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

The opinions expressed are personal.

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