Lead

Galwan: Postscript to a tragedy

The night of June 15, 2020 will go down in the annals of Indian history as one steeped in tragedy. Twenty Indian Army personnel, including the Commanding Officer of 16th Bihar Regiment, lost their lives at the hands of Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of Ladakh. The incident represents a watershed in India’s relations with China and marks the end of a 45-year chapter which saw no armed confrontation involving loss of lives on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The period of bilateral relations that was inaugurated with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in December 1988 also drew to a close in the darkness of that fateful Monday night.

The incident has deeply shaken the nation. It had been assumed all along that there would be a de-escalation of the confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops in the area after the Corps Commander-level talks between the two sides on June 6. That things went terribly wrong is more than evident. What is the import and significance of what happened in Galwan Valley on June 15? Can it be business as usual with China after this? That would seem unlikely given the manner in which the whole calculus of relations has been disturbed by the incident.

Ladakh face-off | Days after clash, China frees 10 Indian soldiers

From 1959 to 2020

Nothing on this scale was witnessed even in the run-up to the conflict between the two countries in 1962. In October 1959, there was a face-off between Indian and Chinese troops at Kongka La. Nine Indian soldiers were killed and three soldiers were detained then, including the legendary Karam Singh, the leader of the group who recorded after his release the ill-treatment he and his colleagues had been subjected to at the hands of their captors. It was after Kongka La that the national mood turned against the Chinese in full measure in an atmosphere already complicated by the revolt in Tibet and the granting of asylum to the Dalai Lama in March 1959. There was very little room for a reasoned, negotiated settlement being reached on the boundary question between the two countries after that juncture. The rest is history. The conflict in 1962 inflicted gaping wounds on the national soul and prestige from which India took time to recover.

Is the country at a similar juncture today? 2020 is not 1959. India and China are in a very different place in their history as nations today. They have grown immensely in strength and stature on the world stage and their relations have substance and a diversity of content in a manner absent in the 1950s. To assume that India is on a steep descent from here towards a full-blown conflict with China may therefore be an oversimplification. Both countries must stop that fall despite the terse messaging of statements issued in the two capitals after the incident. The statements are mutually accusatory, with each country disclaiming responsibility for the tragic turn of events. The mood is very sombre.

Assessing choices carefully

Cool-headed thinking is the need of the hour. All this comes at a time when the COVID-19 crisis demands the full attention of the government, the economy needs to recover from the stagnancy of the last few months, the tensions with Pakistan persist, and a dispute over territory with Nepal in the Lipulekh/Kalapani area has been headlined. There is considerable turbulence generated by all this. Even as we mourn the loss of Indian personnel in Galwan Valley, a reincarnated battlefront with China cannot be blindly embraced, however much national pride and prestige are at stake. The implications of such a choice must be carefully assessed. The instant gratification that an eye for an eye may provide, because we have scores to settle, has its attendant complications.

Ladakh face-off | China’s People’s Liberation Army planned attack in Galwan for at least two days, says senior government official

Strong political direction, mature deliberation and coherence are keys to handling the situation. The Army can make tactical adjustments and manoeuvres to deter the Chinese, but a comprehensive China strategy and its determination should devolve on those tasked with national security policy in the highest echelons of the Government of India under the direction of the Prime Minister. The responsibility of effective strategic communication too rests there. A clearer enunciation of the circumstances surrounding Chinese transgressions in Sikkim and Ladakh in the last few months would have been helpful in guiding the scattershot public debate. Were there early warning signs of the seriousness of the situation that could have been defused at the military, diplomatic and political levels so that the disaster could have been averted? We must draw the right conclusions that can help us in the future. The Opposition must not play politics on this issue.

Turning to the future

It is to the future we must turn. It is India that should take the initiative to insist on a timely and early clarification of the LAC. Pockets of difference of alignment as perceived by each side have to be clearly identified and these areas demilitarised by both sides through joint agreement pending a settlement of the boundary. At the same time, India must stand resolute and firm in the defence of territory in all four sectors of the border. Contacts between the two militaries — joint exercises and exchanges of visits of senior Commanders — should be scaled down for the foreseeable future. A border settlement is not envisaged in the short or medium term.

Bilateral relations in other areas will be under considerable strain and soft landings cannot be expected. No leadership-level contact between the top leaders of the two countries can be envisaged in the near term and there is no need for any haste on that front. Diplomatic channels must continue to be open and should not be fettered in any way because their smooth operability is vital in the current situation. Indian businesses in China and Chinese business operations in India can expect the going to be tougher than before. The scenario on trade and investments could encounter similar obstacles. In any case, in areas that impinge on national security, as in the cyber field and in telecommunications, and in technologies that enable spying and surveillance (5G, for instance), stringent controls, exclusions and clampdowns can be expected in the treatment and the entry of Chinese companies in India.

Also read | There has been no firing on the border since 1975

Taking the long view

But beyond all this is the outside world. India’s leverage and balancing power within the Indo-Pacific and the world beyond stems from its strong democratic credentials, the dynamism of its economy, its leading role in multilateral institutions, and the strategic advantage of its maritime geography — an asset possessed by few other nations, and which must be deployed much more effectively to counterbalance the Chinese ingress into this oceanic space that surrounds us. The events in Galwan Valley should be a wake-up call to many of India’s Asian friends and partners enabling a high-resolution envisioning of Chinese aggressiveness. This is also an opportunity for India to align its interests much more strongly and unequivocally with the U.S. as a principal strategic partner and infuse more energy into its relations with Japan, Australia, and the ASEAN. The time has also come for India to reconsider its stand on joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. If India is to disengage from economic involvement with China, and build the capacities and capabilities it needs in manufacturing, and in supply chains networks closer home, it cannot be a prisoner of the short term. It is time to boldly take the long view in this area as also on its South Asia policy. Good neighbourhood relations are crucial for national stability and well-being.

Nirupama Rao is a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 11, 2021 10:37:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/galwan-postscript-to-a-tragedy/article31863515.ece

Next Story