15 June 2022 marks two years since the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China saw its deadliest clash in forty-five years, in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, resulting in the death of several soldiers on both sides.
The ground forces of India and China, two big nuclear-armed neighbours, are stuck in a tense and risky standoff in the Himalayan borders of Ladakh since May 2020. Both sides have conducted fifteen rounds of military-level talks so far to diffuse tensions and disengage frontline troops from the friction areas, with the latest one in the series being held in March, this year. Parallel talks at the diplomatic level are also being carried out on multiple occasions. However, little progress has been made since August, last year, when the two sides pulled back their troops from the Gogra friction point, and the standoff now continues to persist in its twenty-sixth month.
Out of the six friction points along the border, troops have been pulled back from the June 2020 clash site of Galwan Valley (in the following month itself), the north and the south banks of Pangong Lake (in February, last year) and Gogra (in August, last year). But, two long-standing standoff sites – Depsang Plains and Demchok – that predate the current stand-off, alongside the Hot Springs area, still remain. A complete de-escalation of tensions along the LAC would require a complete disengagement of troops by the both sides from all the remaining friction areas, including the long-standing ones.
Following last month’s meeting of the 2012-initated Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination (WMCC) on India-China Border Affairs, both sides agreed to hold a fresh round of military-level talks “at an early date” without making any reference to a specific date. This was also indicative of a lack of progress in the crawling talks. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to New Delhi in March, this year, also failed to make any substantive breakthrough, while the disengagement of troops is moving at a snail’s pace. Both sides continue to deploy tens of thousands of troops and advanced weapon systems on both sides.
While China wants to put the LAC issue only at an ‘appropriate place’ in the overall India-China bilateral relations, India doesn’t share that view and considers peace and tranquillity at the LAC as a ‘pre-requisite for normal ties’ with China. Before the WMCC talks began in 2012, a series of confidence-building measures, including border management agreements and protocols, were agreed upon by India and China in 1993, 1996 and 2005. But, the current standoff has rendered all these LAC-specific negotiations ineffective in practice, even though these agreements are evoked by the Indian side frequently, and New Delhi hopes to restore status quo ante as of April 2020 to normalize the status of the border.
On the other hand, the last two years saw the Chinese side continuing to provoke Indian sensitivities by exploiting the Galwan incident and the Ladakh standoff for propaganda purpose, with the aim of harnessing larger public attention and support among the Chinese populace. Chinese state-run media and the ruling Communist Party are also creating new narratives of territorial assertion and public memory surrounding the Galwan Valley and the border with India, something which was previously non-existent as compared to traditional Chinese public imaginations of the South China Sea or Taiwan.
To conclude, the Galwan incident has widened the already-existing trust deficit between India and China. 2022 also marks 60 years of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Both countries are now highly inter-connected via economic, trade and other linkages that continue to grow, irrespective of the status of the border. For India, the capability difference with China in terms of comprehensive national power is also a serious issue to be addressed, particularly with regard to achieving military modernisation comparable to China. And, Beijing’s expansive great power ambitions for Asia and the world will continue to cause hiccups for realising stable ties with an undaunted India in the years to come. But, the pursuit of diplomacy should continue unabated.