The death of 20 Indian soldiers at the hands of Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh on the night of June 15-16 is the most serious national security crisis the country has faced since the Kargil War in 1999.
Not only has the incident dealt a body blow to a carefully-crafted bilateral relationship that moved on in other areas such as trade and business while managing boundary differences, it will also have a bearing on strategic choices India will have to make in the days ahead.
From early reports, it would appear that the Chinese side is downplaying any dead or wounded that it might have suffered in the worst boundary clashes since 1967 – the country’s system allows it do so – India’s doesn’t.
In an editorial, the State-controlled Global Times wrote that China, by not giving out the number of their dead and wounded, intended to “avoid comparing and preventing confrontational sentiments from escalating”.
It would indicate the Chinese might believe that they have come up on top in this round but probably underestimate the hard strategic choices that India will have to make in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.
While a clear strategic direction from the top leadership in India has to come, the fact is that the Army has to and must retain the positions India has held along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China over the years. The Army cannot pass the buck on this one. It has to hold firm on the ground and must be provided all the resources to do so.
The Galwan Valley incident is a game changer at a time when the buzzword on the India-China front has been the “ spirit of Wuhan ” – a term coined after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for an informal meeting – to address their differences.
Form cannot replace content when it comes to bilateral relationships. This is a message that should go out loud and clear to the highest levels of leadership in India – Galwan has superseded Wuhan.
Over the years, India has participated in Russia-India-China (RIC) meetings at the level of Foreign Minister, it has embraced Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and even joined the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a full member.
At the same time, the Modi government has revived and reinforced the “quad” – consultations between India, the United States, Japan and Australia – that have irritated China and possibly raised its security antennae.
One of the first choices the Modi government might exercise could be to jettison the RIC, BRICS and SCO formats that have failed as confidence-building measures between India and China in a multilateral format. India’s heart is not in these consultations in any case – they have continued as a hangover from the past.
In a sense, the Chinese might have forced India’s hand to go for a more formal embrace of the West by moving away from these formats, which essentially yield bland joint statements whose salience ends soon after they are issued.
Equally, India will have to evaluate objectively the impact of the August 2019 decision to neuter Article 370 on the Chinese mindset. On August 6, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said, “Recently, the Indian side has continued to damage China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally modifying the form of domestic law. This practice is unacceptable and will not have any effect.”
“China has always opposed the Indian side’s entry of the Chinese territory in the western section of the Sino-Indian border into the administrative jurisdiction of India,” she added. Clearly, New Delhi should have taken the statements more seriously.
During the Kargil War, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee rejected demands to use air power across the Line of Control (LoC) while Indian soldiers fought tenaciously to reclaim the lost heights.
In the post-Galwan dynamic, India will have to discover new levers to pressure China. During Kargil, Pakistan was not only cleared from Indian territory but also ended up in an international isolation ward.
China is a different position altogether. All the international powers courted by India are locked in transactional trade relations with China. They will ask for restraint and dialogue. Nothing more.
India will have to be atmanirbhar .