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What does the future of India-China ties look like? 8 experts speak

As the disengagement process continues between India and China in Ladakh, experts weigh in on the future of the two countries' bilateral ties.

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New Delhi: On 15 June 2020, India lost 20 soldiers at the Galwan river valley in Ladakh. While India and China have had several border standoffs since the 1962 India-China War, this was the first time, since 1975, that a face-off had turned violent — albeit without the actual use of firearms, in line with the confidence-building measures in place for a long time now.

Since the clash, India and China have held several discussions at the level of senior ministers, military commanders and diplomats, and yet disengagement and de-escalation processes have not taken the direction that both sides had planned for.

While disengagement did take place in the Pangong Tso area where India had strategic advantage, the situation in rest of the areas remains the same.

India has now taken a stance that unless there is peace and tranquility in the border areas, the bilateral ties will not go back to normalcy.

ThePrint spoke to eight experts on how they view the Galwan Valley clash, one year later, and what it means for the future of India-China bilateral ties:

‘New low will push Asia into divisive, uncertain scenario’

“Expectations about India and China reaching a mutual accommodation of interests at the regional and global level have evaporated. The loss of the most significant achievement since the mid-1980s — a peaceful border — has come in the wake of worrisome power asymmetry. Nationalist sentiments and mistrust are rising and the strategic discourse is hardening.

“India’s continuing economic dependence on China jostles uneasily with China’s enlarging footprint in India’s neighbourhood. While geopolitical equations between the major and middle powers have yet to crystallise, between India and China also falls the shadow of the US. In the short to medium term, the wisdom and sagacity of leaders on both sides will be on test. This new ‘low’, if not resolved at the earliest, will push Asia and its much vaunted century, into a highly divisive and uncertain scenario.”

— Alka Acharya, Professor of Chinese Studies, Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University 

‘Indian ocean new theatre of India-China competition’

“The Galwan clash was a pivot that revealed China’s readiness to bear the enormous cost of bilateral damage, by using duplicitous means to coerce India. Incidentally, Galwan flagged off China’s active coercion campaigns against Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“China’s failure to enforce coercion and increased troop deployment and infrastructure at the LAC points to a permanent stalemate of deployment. Since not much headway can be made in the Himalayas, China exploits other dimensions. Revelations on Wuhan labs and brief power shutdowns in Indian cities are indications of bio and cyber warfare.

“India-China bilateral ties will be defined more by power balance in a divided Indo-Pacific. China has increased its leverage in the subcontinent — Sri Lanka and Nepal are examples. India feels a need for greater external balancing to counter China. Post Galwan, India shed pretensions of neutrality and grew closer to the US and QUAD. Indo-Pacific is a playground of future global tussles, with India as the fulcrum. The Indian ocean is the new theatre of India-China competition, given China’s naval expansion plans and India’s strategic alliance with an active America.”

— Probal Dasgupta, Army veteran and author of ‘Watershed-1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China’

‘Time and effort wasted in informal summits led to Galwan’

“One year after the Chinese incursions there has been nothing by way of an accountability exercise by the government. Clearly a series of mistakes were made in China policy. Instead of keeping China under pressure during and post-Doklam by banning Chinese apps and 5G then, the government gave Beijing an out with the ‘informal summits’. This betrayed a lack of understanding of how the Chinese system worked.

“China subsequently built up around the face-off site with New Delhi now ignoring the development. It is clear that the time and effort wasted in the informal summits led to Galwan. Current negotiations over disengagement and de-escalation show the government as too eager to reach a compromise with China. The government’s lack of both options and strategy is the result of a long-term process of blanking out and undermining critical voices and of the preference to focus on the more familiar issue of Pakistan.”

— Jabin T. Jacob, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University

Also read: A year since Galwan, China drags its feet on disengagement at four friction points in Ladakh

‘India, China must find alternate equilibria in their hugely transformed equation’

“Remembering Galwan incidents teaches us how our conventional mechanisms and mannerisms of resolving border standoffs have become ineffective and outdated. After dozen-plus long-drawn interactions between India and China at the level of military core commanders and senior ministers, we have not yet achieved even full military disengagement on the LAC to our satisfaction. We achieved disengagement only on the Pangong Lake area where India had managed to clinch critical strategic advantage on the South bank of the Pangong Tso whereas other points of confrontation still remain militarised with heavy deployment from both sides.

“History teaches us that such episodes were resolved only by structural changes plus bold initiatives by strong and ambitious leaders. This time again untying these knots would require direct intervention from the very top. The upcoming BRICS Summit in September could be that important occasion to find a breakthrough in disengagement followed by early demobilisation at the LAC to return to the peace and tranquillity template of their border management. But learning from Doklam and Galwan, both sides must explore building a new set of confidence-building measures to find alternate equilibria in their hugely transformed India-China equation.”

— Swaran Singh, Professor and Chair, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

‘Chinese hawks and doves seem to agree there is no need to turn India into a distinct enemy’

“An influential section within the Chinese strategic community believes that China’s ‘cooperative approach’ towards India in the past years has failed to deliver desired benefits, particularly reduction in strategic pressure on China in the southwest direction, so that it can concentrate on facing its main strategic opponent, the United States. And therefore, China’s India policy from hereon should focus on an occasional show of strength or an assertion of China’s strength advantage vis-a-vis India from time to time so as to effectively check and balance a rising and more confident India and undercut what is considered as its strategic opportunity period induced by the geopolitics of Indo-Pacific.

“However, there is also widespread concern within China if such a muscular approach will eventually lead to a rupture in China-India ties and what implications it will have for China in the present not-so-friendly international environment. Interestingly, Chinese hawks and doves seem to agree on one point that as of now there is no need to turn India into a distinct ‘enemy’. Rather, having India as an occasional partner on specific issues continues to serve the Chinese interest better — and hence China’s all-out effort to de-link the border issue from the rest of the relationship.

— Antara Ghosal Singh, Research Associate, Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP)

‘India must engage proactively with its neighbours’

“With it being one year since the Galwan Valley clash between Indian and Chinese troops, there is a need to reflect on the continuous implications of the tragic event. China’s incursions in Ladakh represent a dissatisfied revisionist rising power bent on altering the geopolitical landscape of the Eastern Hemisphere in accordance to its narrowly defined interests. As China will continue to grow in terms of military and economic capability, more of these incursions will be expected despite the presence of cooperative agreements such as those in 1993 and 1996. India must realise that China’s assertive activities along the LAC represent a bigger picture. China views India as a major competitor in its strategic designs in the Indian Ocean Region. Thus, it will be inevitable for the former to craft measures to constrain India’s influence in the region. This is quite evident with Beijing’s increase in strategic engagements with states throughout the region.

“Moreover, as India is faced with the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, its preoccupation with containing that disease has provided China with a golden opportunity to alter the region’s architecture discreetly but effectively. These include recent reports on Chinese activity in Bhutanese territory, its refusal to follow through with the initially planned broader disengagement process, and the continued fortification of Chinese military presence in the depth areas of the LAC. The shock of the bloodshed from the Galwan Valley Clash alone ensures that the standoff will long remain in India’s public consciousness. India must internally and externally balance against China by: 1) advancing domestic policies for development and economic recovery, 2) engage proactively with its neighbours and 3) enhance deterrence.”

— Don McLain Gill, Fellow, International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC), Philippines

‘Still no clarity on casualties on Chinese side’

“A year after Galwan, there is still no clarity on the number of casualties on the Chinese side. It could be anywhere between four and 120 deaths. Currently, China is recycling troops in forward areas due to the harsh terrain and looking at new strategies like drone usage, which had helped Azerbaijan defeat Armenia last November. India isn’t far behind here. Going forward, India should be mindful of China’s attempts to develop border settlements and expand Han Chinese populations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). They’ve set up 628 new villages already which means if India were to take action, there would be a real risk of civilian casualties.”

— Srikanth Kondapalli, professor in Chinese studies, JNU 

‘Open society with free media can’t reveal all that’s afoot’

“Managing a complex relationship with China is intrinsically difficult for India; an open society with a free media cannot reveal all that’s afoot. For me that translates into trusting my government to do the right thing.”

— Kishan S. Rana, former ambassador and currently Emeritus Fellow at Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS)

Also read: China has an Achilles’ heel. India must take the battle there from LAC


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