Indian and PLA soldiers arguing moments before the Galwan Valley clash erupted into a full blown clash where it was reported that more than 100 PLA and around 40 soldiers lost their lives

China wants to be unipolar in Asia in a multipolar world. India’s rise is being perceived by China as a threat to becoming unipolar in Asia

by Dr Arvind Kumar

The ongoing debate on India-China relations among members of the strategic and academic community has raised a number of issues including the future prospects and the major challenges confronting the bilateral relationship in the current context. The little more than seven decades of India-China relations have seen more of mutual mistrust and suspicion than friendliness and cordial atmosphere. Such mutual mistrust and suspicion grew over the years and have gone beyond proportions in the current context. The challenge has always been to bridge the differences of opinion from both sides and reach a common understanding on a number of sensitive issues including Sino-Indian border issues. At the same time, one should not come to the conclusion that both India and China have always been at loggerheads. A series of serious attempts have been made by both India and China to bridge the differences, more particularly on the border issue. But, unfortunately, China’s fast changing behavioural pattern could not help in resolving the differences.

China must understand that bilateral relationship with India needs to expand and deepen despite several divergences on many pertinent issues impacting the relations. The deepening of relations was reflected when the two countries established the Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in 2005 and also signed “A Shared Vision for 21st Century” in 2008. Undoubtedly, India and China have emerged as the two rapidly growing economies and their bilateral relationship to a greater extent had assumed global and strategic relevance in the recent past.

It would be important to introspect on the India-China experience in the past and then explore the mechanisms—whether the bilateral cooperation can again take a robust shape after their adventure in Galwan. The Galwan Valley clash in June 2020 seems to be the deadliest confrontation between India and China since the 1962 conflict. The clash has taken place along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh, following a stand-off over actions of the People’s Liberation Army. The provocation had come from China because their plan has been to alter the status quo.

In April 2020, Chinese forces began intensifying their efforts by setting up infrastructure in the Galwan Valley, when India was making all its efforts in evolving a robust constructive engagement. The rest of the world was keenly watching the aftermath when skirmishes broke out between Indian and Chinese troops along the India-China border and these skirmishes got extended from Galwan Valley to Pangong Lake in Ladakh and Tibet.

China has no regard for any of the commitments they make either at the bilateral or multilateral level. The signing of agreements between India and China on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the military field along the line of LAC in the India-China border areas could not yield any dividends for India because China broke all the existing protocols and the agreements by arming soldiers with lethal weapons during the stand-off.

After the Galwan clash, there has been disengagement from some areas but it is not enough unless and until China accomplishes complete disengagement and also restores status quo ante in eastern Ladakh in its military talks with China. India’s insistence on China’s complete disengagement has not yielded any results. The ongoing talks at the military commander levels from both sides must get concluded and the restoration of status quo ante in eastern Ladakh should be adhered to by China.

The trajectory of India-China bilateral relationship has obviously witnessed many positive as well as negative connotations since India became independent. The bonhomie created with the slogan “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” during the early 1950s could not continue even for a decade. China could not adhere to Panchsheel principles signed in 1954 and initiated a conflict with India in 1962. The euphoria created in terms of having a constructive engagement did not sustain and the “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” slogan got culminated into “Hindi-Chini Bye Bye”. This is exactly what the West and the United States wanted.

History repeats itself and the recent conflict between India and China across Galwan Valley obviously is a pointer for the West and the US that there will be again an escalation where India and China will cross the threshold of the escalation ladder. China must make an attempt in understanding that if there is an escalation of conflict between India and China, it would serve the purpose of the West and the US because the centre of gravity, which is shifting from the West to the East will never get shifted and the 21st century will never become an Asian Century. In the East, both India and China are emerging economies and they will have to learn how they can work together.

China wants to be unipolar in Asia in a multipolar world. India’s rise is being perceived by China as a threat to becoming unipolar in Asia. This is the reason why China is engaging Pakistan to serve as a proxy and hurt the interest of India. More importantly, China lacks the art of working in a team. They also do not treat India as an equal partner. Unless and until China changes it stance and approach towards India, there will not be any tangibles in India-China bilateral relationships. The friction points will keep growing in the foreseeable future.

China seems to have completely forgotten that India and China perhaps are the only countries in the world that have a legacy of ancient culture and civilisations. Both also share a similar heritage of colonisation. Both are the two most populous countries in the world. India and China are still developing Asian countries. Despite a number of similarities, both have many times found themselves at different poles especially on bilateral contentious issues. There have, however, always been cooperative attempts on a number of sectors other than contentious sectors. The past 75 years of India-China relations have obviously signalled that China wants to be the “hegemon” in Asia. China’s encirclement of India’s strategy has reflected their intentions and many times both the countries have not attempted seriously to find a mutually acceptable solutions to the main contention relating to boundary issue.

The bilateral differences are getting reflected in India-China relations. Is there anything which can be learnt by the current regime led by President Xi Jinping from formerly Chinese President Hu Jintao, who had emphasised that “the good neighbourly friendship and cooperation between China and India and their common development not only benefit our two peoples but also serve the peace and development of Asia and the entire world”. It was reflected during Hu Jintao’s visit to India in November 2006.

India would require to put all its efforts in building capacity among the younger generation who can understand China better in a holistic sense. Those of them who argue in the current situation that India has all the wherewithal to call China’s bluff perhaps lack the vision that a direct conflict with China will have a destabilising impact and will only serve the purpose of the West and the US. There is obviously a greater need on the part of India to understand China’s psychological intentions, fundamental goals and its behavioural patterns. The strategy to deal with China can only be evolved by India after having a thorough knowledge in the holistic sense. There is an urgent need to develop “China Study Centres” across central, state and private universities across India, which can produce a good number of Sinologists and that, in turn, can help India address any eventuality arising from China.

Dr Arvind Kumar is a Professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi