Galwan Valley clash: Five short-term and three long-term ways in which India can contain the Chinese threat

Beyond the short-term objectives, as Sino-Indian relationship turns unambiguously adversarial and hostile, India must appropriately reset its national security and foreign policy strategies.

Sreemoy Talukdar June 23, 2020 13:47:42 IST
Galwan Valley clash: Five short-term and three long-term ways in which India can contain the Chinese threat

Xi Jinping has become the formidable political adversary that Narendra Modi lacks at home. The Chinese president has posed the kind of questions of Modi’s leadership that Mao Zedong once asked of Jawaharlal Nehru — leading to India’s first prime minister presiding over a humiliating defeat from which he emerged a broken man and a diminished leader.

Complete dimensions of the latest Sino-Indian confrontation in the high Himalayas are yet to unfold. Nevertheless, the nearly month-and-a-half tense face-off in the western sector of the disputed LAC that has already resulted in the gruesome death of 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese casualties — first combat fatalities between the two sides in 45 years — has made a return to the old normal impossible.

If the Doka La stand-off had indicated the need for a new modus vivendi in bilateral ties, the Galwan clash has moved the needle of Sino-Indian relationship towards greater competitiveness and confrontation. New Delhi must be ready to fundamentally reimagine and reset its China policy. But it must do so from a position of strength, biding its time and rooting it in a cost-benefit analysis. China must pay for crossing the line but while imposing costs on Beijing for its actions India can ill afford to be forced into a war to assuage public anger.

The reset, therefore, must be preceded by de-escalation and defusing of tension along the border. Both nations are rational actors — despite the power asymmetry — and none of them wants war notwithstanding drumbeating by warmongering nationalists on both sides.

To a degree India is guilty of underestimating the threat that the rise of a great power poses to its own ambitions. The developments also point to a failure of India’s China policy that has been rooted in idealism, anti-colonialism and persistent misreading of the Chinese mindset — right from Nehru to Modi. The crisis, therefore, demands from India a short-term objective and a long-term goal.

As the skirmish risks descending into a sustained conflict — including the possibility of an armed one — Modi’s immediate concern would be achieving the short-term objective of de-escalation, engagement, calling of China’s bluff, military preparedness and restoration of status quo ante.

1. Pursuing de-escalation

Despite the blame game that followed the Galwan tragedy, both sides equally stressed on the need for de-escalation of tension and finding a way forward though it was clear that existing mechanisms and protocols were no longer working. The need for maintaining “peace and tranquillity” in border areas was evident in both Indian and Chinese statements.

The roadmap for de-escalation isn’t clear, however. Instead of demilitarising the zones or even showing such an inclination, China has steadily ramped up men and equipment along the western sector of LAC, forcing India to harden its military posture. It is evident from the scale and intensity of Chinese actions that they are here to stay until their objectives are met. As for what these objectives are, we have a sketchy confirmation from various sources including state-sponsored media that Beijing wants India to put a stop to its building of border infrastructure.

That squares up against India’s objectives of catching up with China on the infrastructure game to reduce Beijing’s operational advantage, and in a measure of how strong India’s resolve is not to get cowed down by Chinese pressure, we have reports confirming that army engineers toiled throughout the night for 72 hours to complete a Galwan river bridge right after the bloodshed.

China is likely to interpret India’s show of defiance as a provocation. Given the fact that Beijing has now extended its claim over the entire Galwan river valley to match its jurisdiction to the territory it occupied during the 1962 war, de-escalation would need a sustained engagement.

2. Remaining engaged

Easily overshadowed by talks of war and kinetic action, the effort to remain engaged and hammer out a resolution (while maintaining the force posture) has continued. India and China have met multiple times since 5 May when the face-off first broke into a clash through various levels of engagement. There have been military level, diplomatic level and senior corps commander-level meetings with the 6 June talks between Lt Gen Harinder Singh and Maj Gen Lin Liu offering the roadmap for a limited de-escalation that was subsequently ripped into shreds nine days later on the Galwan valley.

Worth noting, however, that External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had a phone conversation with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi soon after the tragedy and both nations have shown an inclination not to repeat the violence while re-engaging in top military-level dialogue. Lt Gen Singh and his Chinese counterpart kicked off another round of talks on Monday.

These marathon talks, according to media reports, continued for nearly 11 hours on the Chinese side of LAC with India demanding military de-escalation and retreat of Chinese forces from the Galwan valley, ‘finger’ areas of Pangong Tso and Gogra-Hot Springs. The PLA has reportedly set up bunkers, pillboxes and observation posts on the north bank of Pangong Tso that restricts India’s regular patrolling movements. While China’s objective would be to wear out Indians and formalise its control over the crucial 8 km-stretch from Finger 4 to 8, India would want to frustrate that objective. Whether or not these negotiations manage to break the stalemate remains to be seen.

3. Calling China’s bluff

Despite consistent warmongering rhetoric from China’s state-controlled media — part of its psychological warfare — China is a rational actor, aware of the real costs of war. China doesn’t want armed conflict when propaganda may do the trick, and it is not looking for war when it launches incursions onto the Indian side of the LAC and seeks to change the status quo. Unlike India, which sees resolving the border dispute as its priority so that it may shift its attention elsewhere, China’s real aim is to keep the LAC destabilised and fluid so that the un-demarcated, un-delineated border areas continue to serve as Beijing’s biggest leverage over India. This is also the reason why China is unlikely to wage a war because an armed conflict may throw up solutions it does not seek.

Chinese strategy, therefore, is to keep India inhibited, distracted and busy with border disputes to contain its regional posture and force it to eventually accept Chinese interpretations of the demarcation. This requires a careful calculation of the escalation matrix. China must push India, but not so hard that war becomes the only option.

As Chinese analyst, Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, writes in War on the Rocks, “The trick for Beijing is to maintain the struggle on the ground without triggering a war, of course. It’s a long process of friction and attrition. The tactical objective of returning to the occupation line by the end of the 1962 war could be one move to inflate China’s negotiation position and force India to accept the fait accompli.”

Given this reality, and the fact that mountain warfare brings parity in kinetic action even though China is the bigger, better-equipped power, it is unlikely that Beijing will let ongoing confrontation descend into war. Makes sense for India to call China’s bluff and steadfastly hold its ground during negotiations to stymie Beijing’s objectives.

4. Military preparedness

Holding its ground would require hardening the military posture and indicating to the other side that diplomatic negotiations are the only way out. On this parameter, India’s signalling has been adequate. The government has given the army the political approval to deal with China’s military threat in a way of its choosing, granted funds to armed forces for emergency defence procurement bypassing regulatory structure, Indian Air Force has increased combat patrols to extend tactical support to ground forces, mountain forces that are adept at guerilla warfare on a rugged, harsh Himalayan terrain have been deployed along the LAC and the rules of engagement have reportedly been changed to allow field commanders the use of firearms under “extraordinary circumstances” in deviation from earlier bilateral agreements signed in 1996 and 2005.

Bear in mind that even during the violent confrontation at Galwan, Chinese troops had used improvised, barbaric weapons and not a shot was fired despite the loss of lives. This tectonic shift has prompted an immediate reaction from China.

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is in Russia to secure quicker delivery of the S-400 missile-defence system. The fact that China already possesses the anti-aircraft system may have contributed to India’s urgency in bridging the gap. To a certain extent, the deadly clash forced India’s hands given the political and public uproar at home, but the calibrated military posture is meant to convey to China that India remains unconvinced by its threats and mobilisation of troops.

5. Restoration of status quo ante

India has traditionally relied on the restoration of the status quo as its tactical objective through negotiated disengagement and mutual withdrawal of troops. But the restoration of status quo also implies dismantling of the structures that China seeks to create during its mobilisation along the LAC so that these may be cited as “facts on the ground” while forcing India to accept the fait accompli.

This time, however, the mobilisation from the Chinese side has been overwhelming, Beijing has opened multiple fronts along with the western sector, tried to expand its jurisdiction to new claim lines and engaged in unprecedented violence. Fair to say that India will face difficulties in achieving its objective and may find it tricky to dislodge the Chinese from the structures they have created along the northern bank of Pangong Tso in the area covering Finger 4-8.

All the more reason, therefore, for India not to accept the loss of territorial jurisdiction or make concessions in claim lines. As a democracy, audience cost makes it more difficult for India to agree to a negotiated settlement that can be even remotely interpreted as ‘concessionary’. Already, Prime Minister Modi’s assertion that there are no outsiders on Indian territory nor any border post has been captured by foreign forces has been interpreted as an instance of Modi’s willingness to pay a political price to avoid further escalation.

This interpretation can be contested. A careful examination of the timeline of events and detailed media accounts of the Galwan clash (read Shiv Aroor’s excellent reportage here and Manu Pubby’s report here indicate that India may have crossed over to the Chinese side of the LAC, and Modi’s statement might have been intended towards giving China a face-saver and ensuring de-escalation at LAC.

The larger point remains the fact that the violence and loss of lives make it even more important for India to achieve restoration of status quo, even though the path could be torturously long and may result in more loss of lives.

India’s long-term goals

Beyond the short-term objectives, as Sino-Indian relationship turns unambiguously adversarial and hostile, India must appropriately reset its national security and foreign policy strategies. The twin policy positions of ‘strategic autonomy’ and pursuing of ‘Asian solidarity’ against ‘American imperialism’ has stunted India’s space for developing a clear-eyed China policy that increases New Delhi’s ability to manage crises, helps it balance the Chinese threat and extend regional influence — very goals that China doesn’t want India to achieve.

It is time to accept the reality that China is a great power, and like other great powers, it will seek to contain, restrict and stunt the rise of a neighbouring power that it considers as its strategic rival. Given this reality, Indian policymakers and politicians must ask themselves whether ‘strategic autonomy’ has been adequate in dealing with the scale and depth of challenge that China poses and promoting national interest.

Deepen ties with US

The term strategic autonomy itself, a derivative of the Cold War-era ‘non-alignment’, has clearly run its course. A charitable interpretation would be keeping India’s options open for a hedging strategy. China may be doing India a favour by showing that this ambivalent foreign policy posture of being everything for everyone and belonging to all camps — with slogans such as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — is untenable and unsustainable. As Nitin Pai, director of Takshashila Institution pointedly asked on Twitter, “Do you really have “strategic autonomy” when you cannot pursue many policy options for fear of provoking China?”

The harsher interpretation of strategic autonomy is India’s inability to make tough choices, and hardening that inaction into a policy position. Viewed from this prism, the imagined and real costs of aligning with another great power or investing in a coalition of middle powers to counterbalance China’s threat has been perceived to be greater than following a policy of appeasing the Dragon. Here, strategic autonomy has constricted instead of increasing India’s options.

As Brookings Institution scholar Tanvi Madan argues in Times of India, “Can partners constrain India? Perhaps, but they can also enable it. Managed well, alignment can indeed help strengthen Indian autonomy. Indian governments have worked to build a network of partnerships, recognising it can help India not just balance China, but also build capabilities. Yet, they too have often either let China or the pursuit of strategic autonomy set the bounds of these partnerships. Strategic autonomy is best thought of as a means to an end or an end that is subordinate to security and prosperity.”

The irony is that while India has remained super sensitive to China’s concerns that New Delhi may align with Washington, and has gone out of its way to convince Beijing that it believes in ‘strategic autonomy’, China has never been convinced of India’s neutrality and views India as an unreliable swing state that may easily cross over and hold American hand.

In this context, India’s faith in strategic autonomy is not only a failed policy but also a dangerous illusion that is leading it to make wrong choices. Concurrently, China has used the US-led international order to advance its strategic and economic interests while slowly rising as Washington’s biggest headache. The gap between India and China’s strategies is now evident.

India’s other assumption, that building economic interdependence with China will create mutual trust and help mitigate the geopolitical threat has also been proved wrong. In the process, China has beggared India’s manufacturing sector and developed a trade surplus that partly funds Beijing’s bill of containing India by using the Pakistan tool.

As National University of Singapore director C Raja Mohan writes in Indian Express, “While China has leveraged the deep relationship with the West to elevate itself in the international system, Delhi continues to think that staying away from America is the answer for good relations with Beijing. Beijing sees the world through the lens of power, while Delhi tends to resist that realist prism. India has consistently misread China’s interests and ambitions. The longer India takes to shed that strategic lassitude, the greater will be its China trouble.”

The current crisis offers India an opportunity to junk ‘strategic autonomy’ in favour of deepening the trend of aligning own interests with the US, a posture that is finding increasing bipartisan favour in Washington. Veering towards a closer military orientation with the US — not in the sense of a formal treaty-based alliance but cast in the role of an enabler — is not a new concept.

As Alice Wells, who has just retired from her post as a top diplomat for south and central Asian Affairs in Donald Trump administration, pointed out during a recent interaction, US sees India “as the long pole in the Indo-Pacific tent” and both nations “share a vision for an Indo-Pacific order that respects sovereignty and rule of law”. Washington respects India’s ambition of becoming a leading power that plays by the rules and “we in turn recognize that India’s successful rise contributes to an environment in Asia that serves US interests.”

Strengthen the quad

This trend will hopefully deepen as an immediate fallout of the current crisis, but India also needs to shake off its ambivalent attitude towards the quad — the grouping of four Indo-Pacific democracies and use the framework to simultaneously increase its strategic interests and build leverage against Beijing. Pussyfooting on India’s role in the quad has been counterproductive. Neither has it convinced China of India’s strategic neutrality, nor has it helped India on exploiting the framework, or building up an Indo-Pacific charter, as professor MD Nalapat has suggested.

The quad may also further Indian interests in punching above its weight as a middle power, boost its ‘Act East’ policy, give India a better foothold in Indo-Pacific and help it counter China’s String of Pearls strategy, give Indo-US strategic partnership a boost and deepen India’s strategic ties with Australia, as CLAWS fellow Amrita Jash has argued in The Diplomat.

There’s an argument that India might not be taking these steps unless it is absolutely convinced that the relationship with China has been damaged beyond repair, but New Delhi no longer has the luxury of exercising that choice. Analysts have noted, however, that India’s attitude towards China has already hardened to an extent not seen before (refer to EAM S Jaishankar’s statement to Wang Yi that “this unprecedented development will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship.”) There are also enough indications that Huawei’s chances of bagging a 5G contract in India is almost nil.

Economic decoupling

The third cog in this wheel, economic decoupling could be the hardest to achieve given the pivotal role China has developed in global supply chains and in forming inseparable trade links with India. The point to note here that though India suffers from a trade deficit that nations may otherwise use as a weapon to achieve strategic and geopolitical aims, China’s leverage over Indian market covers critical areas of dependency. India’s stated goal of being self-sufficient — reducing its dependence on China — will likely crash on the altar of imports where China is the sole supplier. India cannot seek to punish China without causing considerable self-harm at a moment when its economy is at its most vulnerable in decades.

The answer, as senior research Fellow of Institute of South Asian Studies Amitendu Palit was quoted as saying in the Hindu, lies in looking “at the whole situation very clearly and probably prioritise in terms of what are the areas where India can relatively more easily move back away from the dependency it has on China, and what are the areas where it will take much longer. Our approach has to go much deeper and has to develop sector specific strategies.”

Internal balancing

Developing internal capabilities, increasing allocation for defence and building capacity to remove constraints are the best ways to achieve deterrence against China but it requires political and policy tradeoffs that Indian politicians and policymakers have proved unable to implement. There is no gain without pain.

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