The second year anniversary of the Galwan clashes- that occurred on the night of June 15-16, 2020 passed quietly- no memorials, no speeches-- a tweet from the defence minister. 20 Indian soldiers were killed brutally that night, in fighting with PLA soldiers using clubs with spikes, and rocks, and even drowned in the Galwan river. China has only admitted to 4 of its soldiers being killed, but there are believed to be many more casualties at Galwan- which marked the first deaths in clashes along the India -China boundary since 1975, and since the 1962 war at the LAC along Ladakh.
What has happened since then:
1. No deaths in clashes have occurred since June 2020. There has been some jostling, even firing reported between soldiers, but the peace has more or less held.
2. There have been 15 rounds of border commander talks since April 2020, when China first amassed its troops along the LAC, and these continued despite the Galwan clashes. 10 rounds of the multi-ministerial Working Mechanism on Coordination and Consultation on the India-China boundary. Talks have yielded agreements to demobilise troops from positions on Pangong lake- North and South Bank, at Galwan and at Gogra, PP15. However, massive troop and infrastructure deployments remain in Depsang, Chumar and PP17. In operation Snow Leopard in August 2020, the Indian forces took control of points atop the Kailash ranges- Rechin La and Rezang La in South Pangong but gave up manning those as part of a package during talks in January 2021.
But there’s little talk of a reversion of positions to Status Quo Ante- pre April 2020.
3. At other points of the boundary where Chinese transgressed - including Sikkim and Arunachal, there has been relative piece, but reports of skirmishes, including one in which Indian soldiers captured and then released Chinese soldiers in Arunachal. More disquieting are Chinese villages settled along the LAC aimed at extending its claims, and a possible deal with Bhutan over the boundary in Doklam, where India and China had a standoff in 2017.
4. At a ministerial level- EAM Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have met their counterparts Chinese FM Wang Yi and Gen Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of SCO and BRICS meetings. NSA Ajit Doval has spoken to his counterparts over the phone and sidelines of conferences on Afghanistan. This week right on the anniversary of Galwan, Mr. Doval attended a BRICS NSA meeting virtually hosted by Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi. And Chinese FM Wang Yi made one visit to Delhi in March 2022 for direct talks.
5. At the leadership level, PM Modi and President Xi Jinping, who had met 18 times prior to the standoff, have not met or spoken directly even once since 2020. They have however, taken part in multilateral conferences, and on June 23-24, PM Modi will attend a virtual BRICS conference hosted by President Xi.
6. India has taken a number of financial actions: banning Tiktok and other Chinese apps, putting a go-slow on Chinese imports at Indian ports, and security restrictions on Chinese FDI which needs special clearances. In addition, there have been a number of raids on Chinese companies operating in India, which Beijing has protested.
7. Sporting ties took a hit this year when Beijing decided to include a soldier who had fought at Galwan in its torch bearers for the winter Olympic games in February. India announced a diplomatic boycott of the games and did not send any officials to the ceremonials.
There are also many questions that remain 2 years later, including:
1. What prompted the Chinese move- was its part of its general trend of aggression, or to stop Indian infrastructure building, or post-J&K reorganisation, to deter India from attempting to take back Aksai Chin?
2. Why India gave up its best leverage on the Kailash ranges in the early roundd of talks, and what will make the impasse in talks end and result in a full demobilisation of troops now?
3. Why is India’s response to China, continued occupation of land and two years of Galwan so muted, compared to its response to the other border with Pakistan ?
Even as bilateral ties have been virtually frozen- a number of international events have also affected ties:
1. Covid Pandemic: This has impacted ties in many ways- from the lockdowns and lack of bilateral travel, to India’s demand for more WHO enquiries into the origins of the virus, which China has opposed.
2. Afghanistan: India-China’s old plan of cooperating on Afghanistan as agreed by PM Modi and President Xi was shelved post Galwan, and both sides have had different response to the Taliban takeover- while India pulled out its embassy from Kabul, China has remained there and remained engaged. However, they have both worked with Central Asian countries at the SCO, and India is now planning a re-entry into Afghanistan
3. US’s new initiatives in the Indo-Pacific: Since Galwan, the US has taken a number of initiatives to raise its profile in the Indo-Pacific region, which seek to counter China’s influence: including more summits of the Quad countries, the launch of the AUKUS for nuclear powered submarines in the Indo-Pacific, and the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum a few weeks ago. This has prompted strong reactions from Beijing that accuses Washington of trying to drive a wedge between it and India.
4. Russian invasion of Ukraine: has put India and China on the same side, although their positions differ in terms of degree- both have refused to condemn Russian actions, abstained on many of the same votes at the UN and Human Rights Council, looked for ways to circumvent sanctions, and have become important consumers of Russian oil that has been banned by US and restricted by European countries. China is the biggest consumer, taking about 1.6 million barrels of Russian crude a day. India’s imports of crude from Russia rose from 100,000 barrels per day in February to 370,000 a day in April to 870,000 a day in May.
5. Oil price rises and International economic downturn: these have arisen from both the pandemic and the sanctions against Russia, but will mean that India remains dependent on cheap Chinese imports, and China will seek more ways to increase trade in a market like India, despite the security crackdowns. Indian trade with China was more than $125 billion in 2021, up from $92.8 bn in 2019 and $87.6 bn in 2020. There are also rising fears from the neighbourhood about prolonged economic distress, that has prompted government changes in Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
This demonstrates the paradox of how we look at 2 years of Galwan- not much has changed on the ground, yet the whole world has changed, and certainly, India-China ties have changed completely and will not go back to the past at any time in the foreseeable future. The Galwan clashes will overshadow ties for a long time to come, and the government must never forget what happened, nor must it ignore lessons from the tragic deaths of 20 Indian soldiers that day.
1. I had spoken of Shyam Saran’s How China sees India and the World- this is definitely an important book on the past and the future of India China ties. I interviewed Mr. Saran about 2 years of Galwan, and for The Hindu on Books podcast as well.
2. My colleague Ananth Krishnan is the author of two books: India’s China Challenge and one he co-authored with my other colleague Stanley Johny called Comrades and Mullahs.
For the history of the LAC conflict, I would suggest 3 books all heavily researched and based on archives:
3.The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China 1949-62 by former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao
4. Nehru, Tibet and China by Avtar Singh Bhasin, who is a treasure trover of MEA archives
5. India-China Boundary Problem, 1846-1947 by AG Noorani
6. India vs China: Why they are not Friends by Kanti Bajpai
7. China and India: Asia’s Emergent Great Powers by Chris Ogden
8. Full Spectrum : India’s Wars, 1972-2020 by Arjun Subramanian, now out in paperback