Galwan Valley Clash: China talks peace after deadly fight; India is left with three difficult options to reverse Beijing's fait accompli

Having claimed sovereignty over Galwan Valley and triggering a gory clash, Xi Jinping will find it difficult to climb down and retreat.

Sreemoy Talukdar June 18, 2020 11:39:29 IST
Galwan Valley Clash: China talks peace after deadly fight; India is left with three difficult options to reverse Beijing's fait accompli

The first combat fatalities on Monday night between India and China since 1975 and the bloodiest clash between the two sides since at least 1967 is a watershed moment in Sino-Indian relationship. The death of 20 Indian soldiers (the number could go up) including the commanding officer of the 16 Bihar Regiment and an unknown number of Chinese casualties add a dimension that may completely change the dynamic between the two sides in managing their differences across the 3.488 km-long mountainous borders.

Up until now, the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) and the various confidence-building measures (CBMs) and mechanisms that it introduced at different levels of engagement were largely successful in restricting the border dispute in a silo. The peace, though fragile, held despite frequent low-level clashes between two sides over an un-demarcated, un-delineated LAC. The fact that not a single loss of life was recorded in the last 45 years in one of the world’s hotly contested borders is testament to the understanding between the two sides that ‘differences shouldn’t become disputes’.

Even when large-scale Chinese military incursions did occur on territory over which India claimed sovereign rights — due to China’s relentless territorial revanchism — and conflict broke out, as it did in Depsang and Chumar in 2013, Demchok in 2014 or the Doklam/Dolam plateau in 2017, India’s preferred method of conflict resolution has been de-escalation of tension by tremendous message control despite China’s provocative propaganda, quiet diplomacy and an unyielding attitude on the ground till status quo ante is restored.

India adjudged restoration of status quo on the LAC as a successful outcome, and it achieved the objective by keeping its rhetoric “calm and steady” during conflicts, “displaying strength, and giving the adversary a way out… not tweeting or whining in public, brandishing our nuclear weapons, or threatening war”, as former NSA Shivshankar Menon writes in his book Choices.

The deadly night at Galwan has thrown that playbook out of the window. The time for ‘quiet diplomacy’ is over. As gruesome details pour out in the public domain of Indian troops getting ambushed by PLA ‘kill squad’ during a de-escalation process at the Galwan Valley area, a massive outrage has generated in India focusing public scrutiny firmly on the conflict. Both sides have claimed that no shots were fired but improvised weapons used by the Chinese troops, and the fact that the violent confrontation took place till midnight in sub-zero conditions on difficult terrain, ensured a high body count. That poses a problem.

As of now, both sides have disengaged from the site of confrontation, but satellite imagery shows a heavy deployment of troops that would indicate a heavily militarised zone.

India and China have blamed each other for disregarding the consensus reached during the military-level talks on 6 June, and the mutual blame game extends to the trigger for the clash, with both sides claiming that the other violated the LAC. It would seem that the best-case scenario of a de-escalation followed by resolution is unlikely at this stage. Which brings us to the million-dollar question.


What happens from here?

To the question whether India and China can still hammer out a diplomatic solution or are they hurtling headlong towards an armed collision, three caveats are in order. One, both India and China are rational actors. China is frequently opportunistic at the LAC and prone to testing the limits of Indian response, but it also reacts to pushback and largely tries to avoid military confrontation if posturing will do the trick. As India ups its border infrastructure, however, China is showing greater sensitivity and more conflicts are hence taking place of late. Two, neither side wants war unless forced into a position of no exit strategy.

Interestingly, China’s foreign ministry statement — after a phone conversation Wednesday between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi — claims “two sides agreed to… cool down the situation on the ground as soon as possible, and maintain peace and tranquility in the border area…”.

The MEA readout of the same conversation mentions that “Neither side would take any action to escalate matters and instead, ensure peace and tranquility…” Three, the different political systems of both sides make for differing approaches and introduces a crucial variable in negotiation and conflict resolution.

For instance, ever since the current standoff erupted in April-May when Chinese troops allegedly occupied some strategic locations along the LAC — an assumption contested by some commentators who point out that no “occupation” has taken place save a temporary ingress along the Galwan river  — up until Tuesday, India sought to downplay the gravity of the developments and maintained a chokehold on official information to prevent the crisis from becoming a public event.

This is admittedly difficult to do in a democracy but India’s aim was to control the ‘audience cost’ and create space for itself to negotiate with the Chinese. Beijing, on the contrary, could launch a propaganda war in the absence of domestic accountability.

With these variables in mind, let us take a look at the messaging that has occurred since the Monday night violence.

China’s reaction

Since Monday’s violent clash that has upended nearly half a century of relative calm and signalled a dramatic escalation of tension, China has pulled out all stops to blame India. Through multiple official and unofficial statements since Tuesday, Beijing has made a few significant assertions.

It has claimed sovereign rights over the entire Galwan Valley, it has blamed India for crossing the LAC and “illegally and deliberately” initiating “provocative attacks leading to a fierce physical confrontation”, it claims India went back on its words and violated the understanding reached by military chiefs, thereby damaging military and bilateral relations and it demands that Indian side “strictly restrains its frontline troops”.

China’s state-controlled ‘wolf warrior’ media reminded India of the 1962 defeat, claimed that New Delhi was trying to please the United States and Chinese “restraint should not be taken as a sign of weakness”. On Wednesday, the tone of China’s rhetoric was relatively mellow. Following a phone conversation between Wang Yi and Jaishankar, China continued to assert sovereignty over the Galwan Valley, maintained the claim that Indian troops crossed the LAC and “seriously violated the agreement reached between the two countries on the border issue and seriously violated the basic norms of international relations.”

Beijing also called for India to “conduct a thorough investigation”, “severely punish those responsible for the incident, strictly control the frontline troops, and immediately stop all provocative actions,” suggesting a mischievous theory of insubordination. Notably, however, China also claimed that border situation is “overall stable and controllable”, hinted towards resolving the dispute through dialogue via existing channels and “cool down the situation on the ground as soon as possible, and maintain peace and tranquillity in the border area”.

On cue, Wednesday’s edition of Global Times called the latest clash “regrettable” and suggested that “Indian society needs to realize that China is committed to friendship with India and respects India as a strong neighbor and a regional power.” An element of damage control to assuage India’s anger is clearly visible.

India’s reaction

India’s version of the Wang Yi-Jaishankar phone call obviously contradicts Chinese claims, but India’s tone was noticeably sharper and notwithstanding the call for de-escalation and maintaining peace and tranquility, New Delhi was unusually forthcoming about Chinese treachery. Reminding Beijing that it violated the agreement on de-escalation and disengagement along the LAC, India made a significant clarification that reduces some of the confusion.

According to the MEA release: “Chinese side sought to erect a structure in Galwan valley on our side of the LAC. While this became a source of dispute, the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties. It reflected an intent to change the facts on ground in violation of all our agreements to not change the status quo.”

We now know that not only did China forward deploy troops and built structures on their side of the LAC, some PLA troops also crossed over and tried to change status quo on the Indian side of the LAC (or at least on the buffer zone). This contests Chinese claims that Indian troops “crossed over” and establishes India’s sovereign rights over the Galwan Valley.

In fact, in a statement released late on Wednesday, the MEA rejected China’s claims, reiterating that “making exaggerated and untenable claims is contrary to this understanding.”

Two more points are worth noting. One, unlike the Chinese statement, India made no reference to the Modi-Xi informal summits. Two, India made it clear that “this unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship.”

What do these reactions tell us?

There are two ways of looking at Chinese statements. One, in renewed calls for settling differences through dialogue and diplomacy, seeking to bringing down the temperature and signaling de-escalation — while carefully maintaining its claims over the entire Galwan Valley, reiterating that it was India crossed the LAC and warning New Delhi not to cross the line again — China wants India to accept its new claims on the disputed border.

Beijing could be acting on a belief that it has managed to occupy a strategic location on Galwan area that India perceives to be on its side of the LAC. Now that a territorial advantage has been secured, Beijing is daring New Delhi to either confront or accept the fait accompli, putting the ball firmly in India’s court.

A line of argument supports such an interpretation. Policy and security analyst Mohan Guruswamy argues in The Deccan Chronicle that at “Galwan, the PLA found an unguarded but very strategic spot on the LAC and occupied it” that places China “less than 2 km from the newly rebuilt strategic all-weather Durbuk-Daulat Beg Oldi road”. Guruswamy’s contention is that China capitalized on some laxity on the part of the Indian Army that failed to move its reserves forward to check a possible PLA move on LAC — as it does every year — due to Covid-19 outbreak in its ranks. Sensing an opportunity, “the PLA just stepped in.”

This may explain the core disagreement between the two sides. India perceives China as the intruder, while Beijing, having expanded its territorial claim, now accuses India of intruding on its newly acquired territory. It may also explain why China is talking peace now. It makes sense if they believe they have created a new fact on the ground that will be irreversible and restoration of status quo, it warns, will result in armed conflict.

The second interpretation of Chinese messaging is incumbent on the idea that China has not managed to violate the sanctity of the LAC. PLA did make an effort on Monday night to change facts on the ground, but were pushed back by the Indian troops after a violent clash. Analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra and Open intel analyst Detresfa cite satellite imagery to suggest such a possibility.

It seems that following Monday’s brutal confrontation, Indian troops managed to push back PLA beyond the area it perceives as its own.

Going by this interpretation, China’s reconciliatory statements may get a new meaning. It may signify that having tied themselves up in a knot, Beijing is now seeking an exit strategy. As scholar Tanvi Madan has pointed out, “this ain’t the win without fighting that they prefer.”

Two more points about China’s reaction are worth noting. Beijing has admitted that it also suffered casualties but has declined to reveal the number, rising speculation that it could be in excess of 45 (as India has claimed) or 30 (according to US intelligence sources).

Second, Chinese state-controlled media has buried the deadliest clash between the two sides in the last 45 years.

The reluctance to release death figures and playing down of the conflict suggest China is not keen to be bound by domestic calculus in border negotiations. The non-release of data, however, is China’s standard operating procedure.


India’s three difficulties

It is quite clear now that India has a more arduous task among the two. Assuming that China has staked a claim on the Galwan river valley and militarised the disputed strategic locations over which India, too claims sovereign rights, New Delhi is now faced with three choices. One, it must accept the new realities on the ground and count its losses. Two, it tries to dislodge China from the disputed areas along LAC through use of force — an option that may easily lead to armed conflict.

As professor Christopher Clary points out in Washington Post, a similar scenario played out in 1962 when then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru “pursued a risky ‘forward policy’ of trying to maneuver and push Chinese troops out of the disputed areas, eventually triggering the 1962 Sino-Indian war.” The third option, of course, is that both countries engage in prolonged diplomatic parleys eventually leading to a conflict resolution, but this option would be acceptable to India only if status quo ante is restored — meaning China must be persuaded to vacate its positions.

Having claimed sovereignty over Galwan Valley and triggering a gory clash, Xi Jinping will find it difficult to climb down and retreat. However, China is in a better position to strike such a compromise than India, whose democratic political system and the greater ‘audience cost’ makes backing down a political impossibility.

If Monday night’s clash hadn’t taken place, India would have enjoyed room for negotiation and maybe even place for a quiet little give-and-take. The loss of lives creates new variables such as media scrutiny, public pressure and Opposition’s political posturing that make any other option bar restoration of status quo an impossibility.

The MEA statement along with Prime Minister’s speech where Narendra Modi clarified that India “will act to defend its (territorial) integrity and sovereignty” suggest posturing that is more aggressive than any in recent times. It remains to be seen how Modi avoids the commitment trap in defusing the crisis while achieving India’s objective. Lines are drawn in the sand.

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