China-India border dispute: what are New Delhi’s options to respond?

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 10:00pm, 18 June, 2020

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  • Officially, escalation has been ruled out after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a border skirmish with Chinese troops. But calls for a response are growing

  • India could target Huawei’s 5G deal, or boost ties with the US. And while all-out war is unlikely, its troops may take matters into their own hands

An Indian army convoy makes its way towards the border with China. Photo: AFP

While New Delhi and Beijing officially agreed against escalating the deadly conflict that erupted on their disputed border this week, unofficially in policy circles and the media there has been much speculation over India’s options in bilateral ties.

And among the Indian public, calls for a response are ringing louder as details – unverified by official sources – emerge over the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers killed in hand-to-hand combat with Chinese troops on Monday night.

 

News reports said some of the bodies were mutilated, and soldiers attacked by clubs and rods spiked with iron nails. The sub-zero mountainous terrain of the Galwan Valley in the western Himalayas meant retrieving bodies and assessing the number of casualties was challenging, the reports said. However, the army has clarified that no Indian soldiers are missing.

 

As the bodies of dead soldiers arrived at their homes, television channels showed massive gatherings of mourners and protests in various cities.

 

Images of a group of people in Gujarat smashing what appeared to be a Chinese brand of television set went viral. India’s Union Minister of State for Social Justice Ramdas Athawale demanded a ban on restaurants selling Chinese food.

A tourist walks through a street in Mumbai on March 12, 2020. Photo: AP

Harsh Pant, professor of International Relations at London’s Kings College, said the crisis was an inflection point in India-China ties.

“India’s entire China policy was based on the assumption that we can continue with our broader engagement and keep the border issue in abeyance. That assumption has been altered with this,” he said.

“You can’t have a normal relationship with China when your border is simmering.”

Senior military officials from both sides reportedly held talks on Thursday to ease tensions, after India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar spoke to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Wednesday, with each blaming the other for the deadliest border clash in decades. Jaishankar later tweeted that Indian soldiers had been armed, but choose not to use their weapons as per protocols designed to prevent conflict escalation.

Anurag Srivastava, India’s external affairs ministry spokesman, on Thursday said Chinese and Indian officials were constantly talking to each other.

 

“Both sides are in regular touch through the respective embassies and foreign offices. At the ground level, the two sides have maintained communications at the commanders’ level,” Srivastava said, adding that the two sides were also exploring activating other diplomatic mechanisms.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a short statement saying India wanted peace but if it was “instigated, we are capable in all ways of giving a befitting reply”.

While the government has given no official indication of actions against Beijing, India’s vibrant news media carried reports saying it was looking to restrict Chinese business interests in India – from asking a government telecoms provider not to use Chinese equipment for its upgrade to reviewing recent government infrastructure projects awarded to Chinese companies.

A government company, the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India, ended a US$62 million contract awarded to a Chinese firm in view of “poor progress” of the work.

CHANGING TACK

Over the last six years, New Delhi has been emphasising a new approach to dealing with an assertive China led by Xi Jinping. Modi and Xi have met 18 times in the last six years, with two informal bilateral summits in Wuhan in 2018, and another in Chennai last year. Throughout, New Delhi diplomats have insisted their approach is to strengthen ties and not allow thorny issues like the border take centre stage.

Policy analysts like Madhav Das Nalapat believe this is about to change.

“For far too long, India has insisted the border dispute will not overshadow our ties on other fronts. Those partitions are now gone. Modi’s speech indicates business will not go on as usual,” said the author and Unesco Peace Chair at the Department of Geopolitics and International relations in Manipal University.

“All this while, China has never paid any cost for border transgressions with India,” he added.

A satellite photo of the Galwan Valley near the Line of Actual Control between India and China. Photo: AP

Pant, the academic at London’s Kings College, said there would be a swift shift in India’s foreign policies as well as a realignment in the world order.

“In some ways, this event liberates India’s foreign policy. India has constantly grappled with the dilemma of maintaining equidistance from both China and the United States. Those assumptions no longer hold any basis today,” says Pant.

The ramifications, Pant says, could include making China pay economic costs. “We can now take 5G [allowing Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build India’s 5G networks] off the table. We are already seeing Chinese companies being disallowed from state tenders and there have also been restrictions on Chinese investments in India. All these things will only be accelerated.”

New Delhi will now have to consider its geopolitical alignment. Amid rising tensions between the US and China, Washington has indicated it plans to build a global coalition to tackle China in the post-Covid-19 era by expanding the Group of Seven (G7) nations to include India, Australia, Russia and South Korea.

Monday night’s incident might push India closer to embracing these efforts. It could also encourage India’s participation in the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy, which is aimed at containing China’s expansion and military activity in the South China Sea.

“The face-off will just give a tremendous fillip to India adopting a more robust posturing. It was happening gradually anyway – from its participation in the Indo-Pacific strategy as well as its role in reviving the Quad,” said Pant, referring to the strategic security grouping of the United States, Japan, Australia and India.

MORE BORDER TENSIONS

Early on Thursday, India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said China should not make “exaggerated and untenable claims” to the Galwan Valley, referring to how senior Chinese officials maintained the region was theirs, even though India has stressed that it was never under dispute.

Both sides have been building infrastructure on either side of the undemarcated border known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and analysts expect increasing militarisation of the area.

A top Indian military commander, who has served in the region, agreed and said the hostilities were likely to continue.

“There is tremendous anger among the men, especially because of the way in which the face-off occurred, using medieval methods like stones and clubs. Indian soldiers will look for a time and place of their choosing and pay it back,” said the commander, who did not want to be named as he was not authorised to speak publicly.

Vinod Bhatia, India’s former director general of military operations and a retired lieutenant general, said the country needed to boost its defence capabilities urgently.

“Neither of the two countries can afford a war and the situation is unlikely to escalate into war. However, we will have to re-look at all the agreements and protocols that have guided the border management between the two countries and update them.”

Pant said an all-out military conflict between both nuclear-armed neighbours was untenable. China is a much bigger military power than India – a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute this week estimated China had 320 nuclear warheads to India’s 150, for example.

This meant that the diplomatic relationship would fray and be marked by face-offs along the LAC, he said.

“The LAC will continue to be very turbulent in the coming years and months unless you find a permanent solution. It isn’t just that China is becoming more aggressive but that India is becoming better in projecting itself, from building infrastructure to more patrolling,” he said.

“This is going to be the new normal. It will not become any less aggressive or less confrontational unless there is a permanent solution.”

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