Right from the 1950s, China’s actions have let down India’s trust and efforts to maintain good neighbourly ties
In a move laced with both hostility and aggression, China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) on June 15/16 laid claim to the Galwan Valley region and accused India of violating bilateral agreements. India’s foreign ministry has rejected these claims as untenable and exaggerated.
The Chinese statement coincided with the violent face-off along the India-China border that led to the loss of lives of 20 men in uniform, raising the possibility of a military confrontation in the absence of diplomatic efforts fuelled by political will from both sides to defuse the situation.
The face-off in the Galwan Valley during an agreed disengagement is reminiscent of two prior military conflicts between India and China: One, at Nathu La, in September 1967, and, two, at Arunachal Pradesh in 1975. The current face-off also necessitates it that we look back to see the progression of India-China skirmishes over the decades.
In 1959, three years after China’s first Premier Chou En-Lai visited in India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was engaged in a bitter exchange of letters with Chou over the border dispute. Simultaneously there was exchange of fire in Longju, opposite the Chinese military posts in Migyitun, Tibet, and at the Konga Pass area of Ladakh, among other tussles that could be termed as a cartographic war aggravated by the Tibetan issue. As political pressure was mounting on Nehru, he invited Chou for a summit meeting in Delhi, in April 1960.
It could well be termed as the mother of all summits on the border question. Chou stayed in Delhi for a week, and met Nehru for talks every day. However, by then the Dalai Lama question had emerged as the main bone of contention between the two countries, and democratic India was left with no choice but to give political asylum to the spiritual leader.
The 1962 BetrayalThe summit did not achieve much, and so did the subsequent meetings between the officials in the following months. By July 1962 the designs of the Chinese troops were evident. They clashed with Indian troops in the Galwan Valley and two months later opened another theatre of confrontation about 60 km off Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh. Later that year the bilateral ties further deteriorated after China’s military offensive which left India with a sense of betrayal. Nothing perhaps more succinctly summarises this feeling of abject dejection than Nehru’s words in Parliament, on November 8: “We in India who have sought the friendship of China and pleaded their cause in the councils of the world should now be victims of new imperialism and expansionism by a country which says that it is against all imperialism. Communist China has revealed itself as an expansionist, imperious-minded country deliberately invading another.”
Chinese Opportunism and A Bloody Nose
With the United States and the USSR busy with the Cuban Missile Crisis, China knew it would not be under any immediate international pressure to beat a retreat. India paid a heavy price for many shortcomings and unpreparedness, especially for not strengthening its border in the wake of development in Tibet that led to India giving asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959.
Though China pulled back the forces after announcing a ceasefire on November 22, it was enough to demonstrate how superior the Chinese army were. Five years later, in 1967, India having learnt its lessons, gave the Chinese PLA a bloody nose in Sikkim.
China’s Violent Contradiction
Both countries have come a long way since then. India and China are nuclear-armed states with fast growing economies looking to expand their spheres of influence in their backyard and beyond. Both work together in a security alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and in the most-influential grouping of developing countries, the BRICS. However, the lurking suspicion that Nehru expressed after the 1962 attack still lingers: that the war was a “violent contradiction” to China wanting to resolve the “border dispute peacefully”.
In 1962, China was finding its feet. In 2020, China is raring to fly higher, which often aggressively blurs the difference between a rising power and an expansionist power much to the discomfort of its territorial neighbours. Since history often repeats itself, lowering the guard would be as dangerous as falling into the trap of complacency detached from the reality.
The Himalayan Task
Since 1993, India and China have signed several pacts to ensure peace and tranquillity in the border areas including the protocols to build the trust between the armies — signed in 1996 and 2005. The last three border crises — namely Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, and Doklam tri-junction in 2017 — were uneasy events which took a lot of time and patience to get sorted.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited China five times as 2014 — that’s the most by any Prime Minister in the last 70 years, and each time it was emphasised that peace and tranquillity along the border is the prerequisite for the overall development of bilateral ties. Though the two informal summits between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping raised much hopes, the pushes and pulls of geopolitics seem to have frayed the trust between the two countries.
In addition, China's proclivity to use military power on issues of territorial disputes will make both peace along the border and building trust literally a Himalayan task.
This will call for a calibrated strategy of realism and realpolitik, and not an approach of any alignment. An incident-free disengagement from the Galwan Valley should be the ideal first step, which should be followed by no further escalation from both sides. At the same time, expecting the unexpected should be the guiding principle to deal with China.Jayanth Jacob is a foreign policy commentator who covered the ministry of external affairs for more than two decades. Twitter: @jayanthjacob. Views are personal.