India’s Options for taming the Dragon at the Border


At a time when India and China were celebrating seventy years of their bilateral relations, the Chinese fatally and brutally set new, lowered standards of unprovoked and pre-meditated intimidatory behaviour along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the un-demarcated India-China border. The latest developments to rock the Sino-Indian border engagement started gaining roots in early May 2020 at the Pagong Tso Lake, with China occupying several areas on the Indian side of the LAC in Ladakh, and well as some areas in Sikkim.

Despite agreements and protocols in place, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on June 15, 2020, moved along the Galwan valley, the region between the point where the Galwan River enters the Indian side of the LAC and merges into the Shyok river. The Galwan standoff is east of the DSDBO Road (the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi Road) that runs along the Shyok River and almost parallel to the LAC. This led to an uncalled-for military transgression by China which led to the border dispute between the two countries to reach new heights with this wanton and illegal attack by the PLA. It led to 20 Indian soldiers being martyred and an unspecified number of PLA fatalities.

The Chinese coercive, belligerent and intimidatory behaviour evidently rests on various stimuli and motivations that acted as the catalytic agent. With the Indian infrastructural development and improvement in India’s military posture, through the completion of the DSDBO Road which provides access to the SSN (Sub-Sector North) and connects Leh to DBO, virtually at the base of the Karakoram Pass and its proximity to Aksai Chin (that is under the illegal occupation of China) and furthermore, the upgradation of the C-130 Hercules capable airfield at DBO, greatly boosted India’s deployment and reinforcement competences, spelling trouble for its adversarial neighbour. While China had coveted the region of Galwan Valley militarily in the pre-Galwan attack period too, the infrastructural developments by India that can help it maintain the neighbourhoods of LAC and the Galwan heights unnerved the Dragon about the possibility of the Indian Army and ITBP progressing to Aksai Chin that was an erstwhile India territory. The Dragon might have felt threatened and exposed, thus, leading to the malicious violent clash where China unilaterally sought to change the status quo.

Moreover, with the world turning against China in the aftermath of the pandemic, India is seen as a major threat to China’s hegemonic ambitions in the South Asian region and also as an important component of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the QUAD, as an ally of US that is the leading anti-China force. Apart from this, India’s open voicing of stakes on Chinese-held Aksai Chin and Pakistan-held Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK, in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, threatens to rupture the Chinese multi-billion dollar investment project, CPEC, the “flagship project” of the One Belt, One Road Initiative of Xi Jinping, if New Delhi is able to re-capture its erstwhile territories.

Furthermore, with the ever-growing nexus between China and Pakistan, there have been increasing reports of Pakistan-sponsored cross border terrorism and infiltration and China sees this as an opportune moment to gain mileage to overpower India in a military standoff, in case the border issue escalates. It militarily ad diplomatically provides assistance and aid to Islamabad, leveraging its capabilities, in order to achieve a strategic hedge over their common enemy, India. A dual attack on India from the “all-weather allies”, hence, might be a strategic calculation by Xi Jinping’s assertive and confrontational China which seeks to build up Pakistan’s nuclear and military capability. With New Delhi focussing on building its infrastructural capacity, comprehensive national power and engaging in addressing the military asymmetry with China, the latter faces more vulnerability and hence, the move by China to lay a political claim up to the Galwan-Shyok convergence for the first time. This can be seen as a catalyst for Chinese provocative military action as all of these factors are evidently perceived as risks by Beijing to its designs and hence, led to its frenzied reaction in the Galwan Valley, presaging as an open attempt by China to reopen the India-China boundary issues by challenging the former’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The Galwan border crisis has essentially shattered the course of betterment of India-China relations. With China acting out of line and raking up issues pertaining to India’s domestic issues, testing India’s operational capability and further, expanding and deepening its ruthless activities in creating troubled waters for India by engaging in anarchic misdoings, the state of regional geopolitics seems to have moved towards a more volatile and unstable phase. The recent developments along the border and the Chinese propaganda associated with it have dark undertones to it. It is one of the many activities in the grand Chinese strategy of encircling India and in general, its long-held expansionist and hegemonic ambitions. The Chinese intimidation is not just a stray development; it is a signal to a more hostile future in the India-China border, diplomatic and military relations.

In this game of perceptions, actions and reactions, India has to keep a firm stand against Chinese coercion, deterrence, border violations and incursions. While the violation of agreed procedures and other developments at present put the PLA and China under the trust radar, it is also amply clear that there is hardly any congruence between what the two countries mean by de-escalation. While the military and political level talks engendered the possibility of de-escalation and disengagement at the LAC, the back to back visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to Ladakh evidenced doubts about China’s actual willingness to disengage in the region and revert to the status quo ante prevailing till April, 2020along the LAC. India, thus, needs to be wary of China’s designs as the country will not compromise on its own territorial integrity and is a known sinister bully seeking to advance its own interests, through its policy of two steps forward, three steps back and also its salami slicing tactics.

With regard to India’s border security, the government has a tough task at hand. India needs to have a robust posture and needs to up its military infrastructure and capability, apart from its information sharing portals along the LAC. With the border at risk from its offensive adversary, India needs take care to not cut slack to Beijing. It cannot upset the regional balance of power and needs to engage in a sterner policy vis-a-vis China and not let the neighbours make a cartographic mockery of the territorial extent of India. Realism needs to be the practice as China is completely indulging in offensive realistic activities, trying to mould the world according to its strategies, and not abiding with the international law.

India, more so, needs to shed its image as a defensive party stuck in a reaction-mode to Chinese belligerent and aggressive posturing in the Himalayas. China has always made it amply clear as to how it does not want to settle the border dispute and it is imperative for India, at the moment to embrace the modernisation in defense and military and take on a new assertiveness in its policy to deal with the Chinese who only engage in aggressive military strength and not diplomatic mechanisms. India needs to engage with favourable allies and strengthen its position. Border tensions with China are a manifestation of the larger issues and in order to deal with the issue at hand, a genesis of the problem from historical perspective is a must and New Delhi needs to keep all its options open.

Vedika Rekhi
Vedika Rekhi
The author is a graduate in History from Miranda House, University of Delhi and currently pursuing Masters in Politics and International Relations, Pondicherry University.


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