The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Why India Needs to Draw the Line With China: The Geopolitics of the Sino-Indian Skirmish

India needs to draw the right lessons from the Galwan Valley skirmish.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri
Why India Needs to Draw the Line With China: The Geopolitics of the Sino-Indian Skirmish
Credit: AP Photo/Channi Anand, File

A recent skirmish in Galwan Valley, on the disputed border between Indian Ladakh and Chinese Tibet, led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers, and an as yet undetermined number of Chinese soldiers. This skirmish was neither an isolated incident, nor an accident. According to a United States intelligence assessment, a Chinese general, Zhao Zongqi, head of the People’s Liberation Army’s Western Theater Command, authorized the attack because he did not want China to appear weak in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and be open to exploitation by the United States and India. The attack on Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley was an opportune way to “teach India a lesson,” especially in light of an Indian infrastructure buildup in Ladakh. Over 20 people died so this point could be made.

It is clear that the present conflict, as well as the overall Sino-Indian dispute is not merely about borders. Of course, a clear, final border delineation would go a long way toward diffusing military tensions, so that no more young soldiers have to die in defense of barren valleys with no strategic significance. And the Indian army ought to continue to strengthen its defenses in the area, because, contrary to what India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in public, it appears that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) altered the status quo on the ground in its favor, perhaps occupying up to 40 square kilometers recently.

If the question were: “Should 20 soldiers die so that the honor of a country could be salvaged over some barren land?” The answer would be “no.” On the other hand, if the question were: “Should India use its military to shore up its defenses against China in order to push back against the perpetuation of a pattern of aggression and bullying?” Then the answer ought to be “yes.” It will send a lesson to China, and empower and give hope to other, smaller countries that have disputes with China.

But the present situation did not arise because China merely wanted to take over some disputed territory. Rather, it is part of a pattern of blatant Chinese assertiveness, enabled in part by the weakness of the United States and the twilight of the post-World War II international order. This pattern can be observed in China’s dealings with Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, Australia (which China recently tried to blackmail with trade restrictions), and Canada, where China is essentially holding two Canadians hostage so that Canada does not extradite Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecom giant Huawei to the United States, where she is wanted on trade secrets theft.

Countries and populations from around the world are tired of China’s high-handedness, but there is little they can do about it because of its economic and, in the case of its neighbors, military might. A pattern of escalation and subsequent de-escalation works in China’s favor, for example in the South China Sea, because it allows China to entrench itself in a forward position, which no country wants to then challenge for fear of a bloody conflict.

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Acquiescence is the norm, not escalation — a choice that Modi also seems to have made, even though Indian forces are capable of putting up resistance in a way that the armed forces of the Philippines or Brunei cannot. In short, India is the one neighbor of China that cannot easily be bullied into accepting China’s terms because of its size and potential economic prowess. There may in fact be no power gap between the Chinese and Indian militaries in the Himalayas, and China is clearly not impervious to retaliation, as it likely lost some soldiers in the recent clash in Galwan Valley.

India, however, needs to do more, and draw the appropriate lessons from what happened in Galwan Valley.

First, on the tactical level, India needs to continue to shore up its defenses on its border with China, and allow commanders at the local level to deal with situations as they arise. Indian forces should not retreat for perceived diplomatic or political gains, because these will not be forthcoming. This is not to suggest that India should seek out conflict, merely, it should hold firm. Furthermore, the actual specifics of where the border lies and the political status of the entire region, the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, is secondary to the broader balance of power in the Himalayas.

Second, and relatedly, India needs to be clear-eyed about the realities of geopolitics in the context of China. Modi has learned the same lesson that India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru learned: There can be no appeasement of China in service of the naïve belief that China would not put its strategic interests first. This is less a critique of China, than of the Indian establishment to come to terms with the realities of geopolitics. Even Modi, who preached strength and realism, came up short against China, hoping that personal diplomacy with Chinese President Xi Jinping and economic ties would prevent conflict. None of this changes, however, the underlying Chinese strategic imperative, which has been for decades to weaken India, because India is the only country in Asia that could conceivably challenge China.

As the Indian foreign policy analyst C. Raja Mohan points out, China and India have always had different strategic interests, and a newly empowered China will seek to achieve its own self-defined goals. The sooner India comes to terms with this, the better. As Tanvi Madan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution wrote in Foreign Policy, “the standoff will likely weaken the position of those within the Indian government who seek more engagement with China or argue that stronger economic ties would ease political strains.” Geopolitical realities will inevitably push both political and public opinion in India away from naïveté regarding China’s intentions.

India also needs to dispense with the fiction of being a balancing power between the United States and China, and of being “non-aligned.” Closer ties with the United States does not mean that India will abdicate its own commitment to putting its interests first; it merely means that because of its rivalry with China, it must inevitably draw closer to other like minded countries, led by the United States. Despite its traditionally close ties with Russia, India has little to gain from being equidistant from Russia and the United States, especially in light of an emerging China-Iran-Russia revisionist nexus.

Third, and most importantly, as Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute has argued at the Wall Street Journal, India can only truly counter China and take its rightful place on the world stage when it has the economy to match its ambitions. As Dhume writes, “India should up its own game by slashing red tape, improving its roads, ports and railways, wooing foreign investment, and embracing multilateral trade agreements that force its firms to become more competitive.” Indian manufacturers and goods were among the most sought out globally before the advent of the British Raj: in the 18th century, India was 25 percent of the world’s economy, and traders from the rest of the world flocked to export Indian goods. India must counter China and its near-cornering of the global supply chains of most industries. For this to occur, government policies must change, regardless of the short-term costs this may inflict on the agricultural sector. India has yet to fully industrialize—it simply cannot skip from being an agrarian economy to a service economy.

On one hand, India is behind China, economically, developmentally, and to an extent, militarily. On the other hand, however, India is unique among China’s neighbors in having at least some capacity to draw the line. India needs to hold the fort and strengthen its geopolitical position by being firm militarily, and going speeding up on economic reforms. When he came to power in 2014, Modi articulated the way forward—economic growth, development, and geopolitical realism—but largely failed to deliver on these premises. But it should be the imperative of his government, as well as future governments, and state governments, to do all they can to promote these goals. There will be no détente with China for many years to come, and India needs to be ready to face more trials in the future.