Authors: Dhritiman Banerjee and Subarna Mustari*
The Galwan Valley clash between India and China which started on 15th June, 2020, was a result of building tensions between the border forces of the two nations since May 5along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that crosses through the valley in Ladakh. Such tensions have their roots, historically in the Sino-Indian War(1962), but more recently in both China and India’s expansion of military infrastructure along the LAC. In this article we would analyze the current Sino-Indian standoff and how this standoff would increase Sino-Indian competition in the other spheres of their influence.
Ashley J. Tellis asserts that the 2020 standoff is different from previous Chinese incursions in the LAC because unlike the discrete and localized confrontations of the past, the latest confrontations are taking place at multiple points in Ladakh which suggest a high degree of Chinese premeditation and approval of its activities from the very top of the Chinese leadership. He also states that the roots of this crisis began when India abrogated the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 dividing the state into two union territories namely Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, a move which amplified Chinese anxieties. China’s fierce opposition to this decision set the stage for the recent Chinese aggression on the Indian side of the LAC.
India’s construction of a feeder road that would connect with the road built last year from Darbuk-Shyok in Galwan Valley to Daulat Begh-Oldi was a trigger to Chinese Officials who saw this as an aggressive tilt in India’s border strategy. This road strategically connects Leh to the Daulat Begh-Oldi military airbase allowing expedient mobility of troops and equipment to the LAC. Control over this road requires a control of the Galwan valley ridgeline where the June 15 clashes took place. More importantly, control of the valley would provide India access to Aksai-Chin, which holds the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. West of DaulatBegh-Oldi is Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) region and part of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor). China is apprehensive of India’s strategic leverage in the region to compromise the CPEC. This could have a disastrous impact on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China’s socio-economic and political stability. BRI also links to China’s own security concerns in Xinjiang and therefore any threat to the CPEC may be viewed as a threat to China’s unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. This road also raises China’s trepidations regarding Aksai-Chin which it occupied after the 1962 war.
Additionally, the remarks of Indian Union Minister, Amit Shah, in 2019,claiming the Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin to be within the territory of India had served China’s geopolitical and nationalistic insecurity no better.
However, India’s increase in military reinforcements along the LAC has been fairly recent compared to China’s long-term escalation of military presence in the area without much reaction from the Indian side. Considering these, the timing of the Galwan Valley clash, therefore, warrants two questions – First, why has India amplified its efforts along the border only in recent times? And second, why has China, despite its military superiority and claims of Indian wrongdoing, partially withdrawn its troops from the contested area?
India’s inferiority in military infrastructure compared to China but equal fever in national territorial interests gives her very little space to maneuver. However, China’s current investment in broader long-term goals might have given India that exact space. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, China has forcefully pursued its other territorial claims, especially the control of semi-autonomous Hong Kong. Currently, Hong Kong seems to be a national priority for Beijing and the economic backlash from the more powerful US, a certainty. The US Senate on June 30thpassed sanctions on China that threaten over $1.1 trillion in funding. India’s equal threat to crackdown on Chinese Foreign Direct Investments and economic predictions of a 50% cut in Chinese FDI in India are bound to aggravate China’s conditions. Moreover, the inauguration of the Daulat Begh-Oldi Bridge amidst the height of the Hong Kong protests, China’s receding global image, and preemption of the possibility of international sanctions, points to a more strategized long-term approach than is usual for Indian defense.
These multifaceted threats justify China’s de-escalation of its current interests in the Galwan Valley. The military challenge of the LAC is a safe future gamble owing to China’s superior military resources and skill; but the national challenge of Hong Kong and apprehended economic challenges of subsequent international backlash demand a more urgent deliverance on China’s behalf. India, on the other hand, was presented with a small window of opportunity to scale up its defense along the LAC, which it seems to have taken advantage of.
Summarily, it can be claimed that adversarial relations between the two States is bound to worsen in the future and the two states will look to increase competition in their other spheres of influence including the maritime sphere. Therefore Asian waters are set to witness a more pronounced Sino-Indian rivalry. China will look to resolve its “Malacca Dilemma”, or in other words its over-dependence on the Malacca Strait for energy-security, and hence increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. An increase in Chinese presence would gravely intensify the rivalry with India which views the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as a strategic priority. Such intensification of China’s “string of pearls” strategy in the IOR which comprises of a combination of hard military tactics, political patronage, and an ever-widening list of economic dependents to gain a foothold in South Asia, will set up a direct altercation with India at sea. India will look to counter increasing Chinese presence in the region with multilateral diplomacy and with alliances with like minded countries and through forums like BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). The recent naval exercises of the Indian Navy and the US Navy is proof of India’s intent of countering China in the IOR region. As India’s Naval capabilities are also inferior to China therefore it is important for India to pursue multilateralism in countering China and for that US-India relations have enormous significance. Therefore, geopolitical tensions between India and China are set to become more volatile in the future.
*Subarna Mustari is an undergraduate student of Political Science at Bethune College, Kolkata. Her interests lie in Political Science and International Relations as well as in history of war, colonialism and philosophy.