The Galwan crisis may be ending with troops from China and India disengaging after a two-month standoff. But, it is neither the first nor will it be the last. As long as the border dispute between the two neighbours continues, the conflict will continue to simmer, and at times boil over. The next one is even possibly round the corner.
Unlike earlier, the incursions and the resulting tensions, as the latest instance at Galwan shows, are increasingly impinging on other aspects of the relationship between the two neighbours, particularly on the trade front. But this was not always the case, and the time has now come to examine whether “friendly” ties are tenable when the border is constantly simmering.
For several years, after the 1962 war between the two, the relationship between the two had all but frozen. In 1976, diplomatic ties resumed but they largely remained cool, until 1988 when the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China. Three years later, the then Chinese premier Li Peng came to Delhi, when India was launching economic reforms. This was also the time when China was transforming into a capitalist-type economy.
The two countries did a fundamental reset in their relations during this period between 1988-91. According to the new policy, agreed by both, the border dispute could remain in the backburner but that should not be allowed to come in the way of other engagements – mainly on the economic front.
Since then, trade between the two countries has risen exponentially to a point where China is today India’s largest trading partner and the volume of trade annually is in the range of $95 billion. Though the balance of trade is in favour of China and Beijing relies on just three per cent of its imports from New Delhi, in real terms this translates into high volumes. Not just that, scores of Chinese investors and high-end companies have staked their interests in India including Huawei, Haier, OnePlus and Motorola.
In this context, the border dispute has turned out to be not just a nagging irritant but, as Galwan shows, also has the potential to jettison the overall relationship between the two. Galwan is particularly important as it resulted in violent physical clashes between the troops of both countries leading to the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of casualties on the Chinese side including a colonel (which was the only casualty Beijing officially confirmed) – a violent confrontation after 45 years.
The incursions along several points on the east and west of the 3488 km-long tenuous border (Line of Actual Control) between the two countries are interesting in the sense that in most cases the transgressions by both sides are resolved at the local Commanders’ level using a mechanism put in place by the two governments.
Sample this. According to reports quoting Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju in the Rajya Sabha, in 2014 there were 334 cases of Chinese transgressions, 411 in 2013, 426 in 2012, 213 in 2011 and 228 in 2010. Recent reports say there have been 1025 transgressions by China between 2016-18. Incursions are therefore commonplace. China too often times alleges Indian transgression on its territory.
Behind the smokescreen of trade and friendship therefore lies a dispute that the two nations have been unable to crack. Several rounds of negotiations, amid piles of sandwiches and gallons of tea, have yielded little results, and the dispute has festered. China may appear to gain from the dispute, but that may not be entirely true.
Though overall, in terms of military and economic superiority, China scores over India, it still cannot take New Delhi for granted. In the latest instance, Chinese troops have pulled back troops from Galwan valley and the disengagement process, when complete, will restore status quo ante in this particular location. So, what did China achieve in the process?
According to one view, China’s strategy is to transgress at a few points on the LAC, disengage from a part of it and then leave the other transgressed areas as they are – meaning they continue to remain. The upshot of this is China gains territorially, even if it is by only a few kilometres.
A look at past incursions shows that Indian local commanders do object when they notice transgressions and don’t take them lying down. If China’s strategy is to gradually nibble at the border where there are no clear markings to differentiate the territories of the two, it may work to some extent but cannot succeed wholesale.
In an earlier situation, when there was hardly any relationship between the two, China could have afforded to antagonise India but not at present, since New Delhi too can retaliate even if minimally.
China’s recent actions in the Asian region show that it wants to dominate and expects its neighbours including India, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and other countries in the Pacific to recognise this as reality. But it is easier said than done as all of them are resisting this to varying degrees. With other big powers led by the United States watching the situation, it may not be easy for Beijing to push its power beyond a point.
Which brings us back to the Chinese strategy of pressuring India on the border, and what it can achieve. Going by the latest reports, it is Beijing which stated that it did not want to aggravate the situation and provoke a nationalist reaction in its own country by revealing the casualty figures of its troops in the Galwan clash.
Further, in response to India’s attempt to boycott Chinese goods, the government in Beijing merely warned India not to make a “strategic miscalculation”. This has been followed by withdrawing its troops by over a kilometre from the Galwan valley.
The Chinese actions lead to an inescapable conclusion that Beijing would want to expand its territory on the border with India without significantly affecting relations on other fronts. In other words, China would not want to provoke India while at the same time acting in a manner that does exactly that. As the saying goes, “you can’t have the cake and eat it too”.
India too cannot afford to become complacent as there is no way of knowing when the next challenge will emerge. It is high time that the two countries, using diplomatic means, resolve the border dispute so both can get on with their business – without having to constantly look over the shoulder.