In an earlier article on how China has crossed the Lakshman Rekha, I had noted that ‘diplomatic virtuosity is insufficient to resolve the issue unless it is accompanied by political sagacity and boldness’. Two weeks later, we saw talks through military and diplomatic channels between India and China, but there is not much sign of the role that political sagacity is playing. It is well possible and understandable that political moves beneath the surface are going on and the matter will be resolved through an agreement. The incident at Galwan, which has resulted in the tragic death of a Commanding Officer and 19 jawans on 15 June, is symptomatic of China’s continued violations of agreements and protocols.
The illusion is that despite China reneging on most of its agreements, we still believe that India can attempt to get them to restore status quo without giving them something in return. Or we can give them something and that need not be known publicly. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh gave a hint of that approach when he stated, “All issues will be revealed at the right time”.
Political astuteness was certainly displayed to defuse the Doklam crisis, because both sides could declare victory. In hindsight, we know that China has technically kept to the agreement, in that it has not changed the status quo at the face-off site. But it has militarily occupied most of the disputed Doklam Plateau and worse, India being a party to the dispute has kept its silence, acquiesced to China’s aggression and finds that its reset through the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit has brought in only temporary peace. But it seems that the bully has taken Indian pusillanimity for granted and is asking for more.
This time around, the situation is very different and the stakes are higher on the strategic scale. There is no wriggle room for too-clever-by-half agreements that can be sold as victory to the domestic and international audiences. On the contrary, the approach to Ladakh has to be radically different and seen not so much as a threat but an opportunity.
The threat is that China would change the status quo in a manner that it gets to control more territory than it had before the current crisis. The signature style is that it takes two steps forward and agrees to takes one step backwards and, therefore, gains one step eventually. Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso seem to be three main areas still in contention.
Army Chief M.M. Naravane has indicated that disengagement is taking place in a phased manner and in Galwan, “lot of disengagement” has taken place. However, disengagement is not equal to restoration of status quo, and the Chinese continue to hold newly created positions that prevent movement of Indian patrols. India has to ensure restoration of status quo in Galwan, Hot Springs and China does not get to keep its new hold in Pangong Tso. The approach of solving the problem through an understanding between military commanders does nothing to keep China from a repeat in any other area, a few months down the line. This is the issue that must be tackled diplomatically and politically, and is also the domain that provides India with an opportunity.
Not the time to hush up
The Narendra Modi government must take a political stand and stop underplaying the issue. Such a stand must be founded in the trust that the Indian military is not a pushover and can match the Chinese in escalation, which must necessarily be backed by political will. India must remind itself that military capability and valor cannot be a substitute for defective policy. China is a bully and when viewed in the larger global context, India must base its risk calculations on relative power and not get taken in by its absolute power. China has enough trouble of its own, and India has the capacity to weaken its capability for its primary problems in Taiwan and South China Sea. The main point is that the playbook is a mind game.
The mind game is that China wants India to acknowledge that it is the boss. Seizure of unoccupied and claimed/disputed territory, which is normally patrolled but not occupied, is a tactic it has practised with India, Bhutan and in South China Sea area for several decades. India’s political moves must be aimed at putting a stop to this practice.
There are both military and political pathways that must be utilised. But before that, India must change its stance of ‘playing it down’ and convey that such strategic behaviour is unacceptable and would have grave repercussions for the relationship. Obviously, such messages must use the diplomatic instruments to drive home the point to China that the Indian leadership, being mindful of its domestic political dynamics, can be expected to settle on terms that portray neither victory nor defeat, but is more sensitive to annoying China in the larger gameplay of regional and global geopolitics. It is China that has so far proved itself adept at stabbing us in the back and weakening our edifice of strategic autonomy.
Time for a new gameplay
It is natural and understandable for the political class to adopt a posture of ‘let us get this over with’ and move on to tackle India’s economic crisis. It is also highly probable that is the reason why China has chosen to attrite India’s strategic autonomy at a moment tempting for them, especially since it has more or less recovered from Covid-19 and most of the world is still grappling with it.
It is becoming apparent that India’s approach is going back to its comfort zone of agreements that merely serves as a band-aid and leaves the door open for similar and further strategic misbehaviour. The time for taking a stand is long overdue. Whatever the risks, military, political or economic, it must leave no doubt in the Chinese mind that using its misperceived tactical military advantages on the northern borders will not impact India’s political posture on global and regional issues. China must mentally accept that India will never be in any camp but, depending on the context and issues at stake, it will sit in the same tent with nations having common interests. This should be India’s gameplay.
The author is the Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore and Former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He is the author of The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan Under the Nuclear Shadow. Views are personal.