Indian Army has moved K-9 Vajra howitzers to Ladakh

A great deal has already been said about the Chinese perfidy in quietly tearing up the Panchsheel, while prosecuting actions leading up to the 1962 war. Genesis of the Galwan clash was tactical in nature is, however, belied by the build-up and standoff that followed the conflict

by Maj Gen Neeraj Bali (Retd)

The history of China’s duplicitous behaviour with India is long and well-chronicled. Strategic wisdom demands that we do not read the adversary’s intent with our template of ‘rationality’; two of our neighbours have repeatedly demonstrated the core wisdom of that thought by acting with ‘cultivated irrationality’.

A great deal has already been said about the Chinese perfidy in quietly tearing up the Panchsheel, while prosecuting actions leading up to the 1962 war. China’s occupation of Wangdung in the pasture of Sumdorong Chu in 1986 was unprecedented and largely inexplicable. It resulted in a massive counter move by the Indian Army, moving troops and logistical set up to the Lungro La and Hathung La massifs. In the early 1990s, I was a part of an Indian contingent that attended a Border Persons Meeting with the Chinese Army. Even to my inexperienced mind, it was more than evident that while there was bonhomie at the display, the Chinese had every intention of letting the border question simmer.

When Prime Minister Modi came to power, India made a substantial effort to reach out to China. During the visit of Xi Jin Ping in September 2014, the Prime Minister personally accorded a warm and affectionate welcome, escorting the Chinese premier to his home and later characterising the relationship between the two countries as ‘two bodies one spirit’. It must be noted that during that very visit, there were unconfirmed Hindustan Times and The Guardian reports of the incursion of 200 People Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers into Indian territory.

Then, of course, there was the 2017 10-week standoff at Doklam that repeatedly threatened to spiral into a violent clash of larger proportions. Mercifully, that prognosis did not run its course, though many commentators felt that China would regard the outcome as a loss of face for itself.

What led to the bloody skirmish at Galwan on 15/16 June 2020, resulting in multiple casualties on either side? The ground-level explanation is that the PLA troops retaliated when the moves of an unarmed party led by Colonel Santosh Babu of the Bihar Regiment, asking the PLA unit to remove temporary structures from the Indian territory, spun out of control.

The issue of the carpeting of the road from Darbuk to Daulat Beg Oldie along the Shyok River by India was also currently on the Chinese minds. The Chinese may have perceived the development of that axis as a clear and present threat to the Aksai Chin highway.

The analysis that the genesis of the Galwan clash was tactical in nature is, however, belied by the build-up and standoff that followed the conflict. Indeed, it points to a Chinese design at a far deeper level.

It has been analysed that the Chinese have long held the growing strategic partnership between India and the US with unmasked suspicion. Even back in 1998-2000, when Strobe Talbott and the Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh had held several rounds is well-reported talks to resolve matters relating to nuclear power and non-proliferation, China saw it as an attempt by the US to prop India as a countervailing force against a rapidly growing China. The more recent cementing of that relationship between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi might have revived that conspiratorial notion. Under the Modi government, India had begun to embrace powers like Japan, which might have exacerbated that sense of unease. Was the Galwan skirmish – and what followed in its aftermath – an attempt to ‘re-establish China’s supremacy and send a message of caution to India?

Or should we read this as an unprecedentedly belligerent Chinese foreign policy, increasingly in evidence since Xi ascended to power? It appears to have opened several fronts – with the US, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, the EU, Bhutan and India, even while it struggled to erase the PR disaster over its role in the origin and spread of the COVID 19 pandemic. Has China decided to shake off its cloak of ‘soft power’ and asserts itself as a pre-eminent power on the world stage? Was Galwan merely a marker in that quest?

Last month, a respected analyst and scholar Fareed Zakaria called China’s approach damaging to itself. In a recent Washington Post article titled ‘Xi’s China can’t seem to stop scoring own goals’ it called out Chinese propensity of the recent period as ‘over-reactions and surmised that ‘China’s current foreign policy is far removed from its patient, long-term and moderate approach during the Deng Xiaoping era and after. Now Chinese diplomats embrace conflict and hurl insults in what is known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy.’

The aggressive Chinese approach even flies in the face of its economic efforts to reap handsome benefits from globalisation.

In light of these conclusions, what should our stance and approach be?

Uneasy calm prevails in the area of last year’s conflict. Till microscopically verified, claims of disengagement and withdrawal can hardly be accepted. It is also evident that our build-up of over 60,000 troops and logistical infrastructure, made with impressive speed and herculean effort, must not be reversed in the foreseeable future; the cost of maintaining this posture in Eastern Ladakh is high, but the deployment must be treated as inevitable.

India’s economic disengagement would hardly cause a mortal blow to China’s economy, but the signal is unmistakable; we will pursue all that we can to uphold our security. This approach must unrelentingly continue.

This moment in history is pregnant with the possibility of reaching out to the West and countries in the Pacific Ocean region for meaningful strategic partnerships. Many countries in the area are smarting under China’s heavy-handed approach and would be more than willing to establish alliances. Malaysia expressed its annoyance to the Chinese envoy over ‘suspicious’ Chinese air activity only last week.

It may be a cliché that today’s India is not the India of 1962 but it still bears repeating. The Indian Army has come a huge distance from the 303 rifle-wielding braves that stood and fell along the banks of the icy Namkha Chu, in the shadow of Thag La. The political leadership and the Army have shown a resolve that reflects that confidence. While we must do everything to ensure that no tactical action leads to a strategic mistake and maintain peace along the LAC, our current strategy must be bolstered and continued.

After Galwan, the country has displayed that it does no longer brings a knife to a gunfight. That is not merely a motivational statement; it is also a sound basis for our future strategy.