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The Galwan Clash and the Future of Sino-India Relations

Jul 09, 2020
  • Hu Shisheng

    Director, Institute of South and Southeast Asian and Oceanian Studies

The Galwan Clash broke out on the night of June 15th, with fierce physical conflicts and heavy casualties. It was the first outbreak of violence in the border area between India and China since 1975. 

In the early 1960s, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru pursued the “Forward Policy” – an attempt to push Chinese troops back to Chinese territory which eventually led to the 1962 Sino-India Border War. This new clash in the Galwan Valley looks very much like a new “Forward Policy” from India – an attempt to use salami-slicing tactics to erode China’s claimed Line of Actual Control (LAC). India’s obsession with seeking absolute security at its borders – especially at the border with China – was a strategic legacy left by British India to the newly independent India. The obsession has been carried forward ever since by successive Indian governments from Nehru to Modi, and has led to conflicts and even wars with nearly all her neighbors. To seek absolutely secure positions along the disputed borders, the Indian authorities have given free rein to the patrolling soldiers to trespass into areas claimed by the Chinese. In 2019, Chinese officials claimed that there had been 1581 instances of illegal entrance by Indian troops. When these carefully-schemed trespasses encounter physical rebuffs from the Chinese side, clashes will naturally follow. Luckily, most of the clashes have been settled peacefully. The Galwan Clash would have been no different, if an Indian army colonel had not ordered an unauthorized night raid on Chinese soldiers. This newly-arrived Indian army colonel was met with not only head-on blows from Chinese soldiers, but was also punished by the tough local environment – its freezing temperatures, lack of oxygen and landslides. 

It was the self-inflicted heavy casualties that turned this clash into a media sensation and rapidly stirred up national fury, and hence caused a build-up of tension along the frontier regions. Both sides have similar feelings of being bullied and being cheated by the other. And, as a result, China-India relations saw another big setback since the Doklam Standoff of 2017. Many scholars have even suggested that there is no prospect of normalization under the current situation, and that the relationship needs to be fundamentally reframed anyway. 

However, I still don’t believe that the two countries will run into a second border war. But what then should the next developments be? Here are some thoughts.

First, make it a priority to stop the escalation of frontier tensions as soon as possible. It is good to see that both sides have actively engaged in negotiations at different levels to cool down tensions. Amid the building up of military forces in the frontier areas from both sides and media hype, the two foreign ministers have made a phone call, the second corps commander-level meeting was held, and the China-India Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on Border Affairs held a video meeting in a candid and in-depth way that explored measures to alleviate the tension. While the top-level talks are important, the observation of the agreements, guidance and consensus reached by the above-mentioned efforts are all the more important. The Galwan Clash happened due to India’s violation of the consensus reached by the first Corps Commander-level talk.

Second, the two sides need to prevent the Galwan Clash from disturbing other areas. The two governments should thus take more preemptive measures. For example, the two governments should seek to maintain their planned cooperation on Covid-19,refrain from encouraging boycott campaigns against one other; and, more importantly, not be derailed – by the Galwan or other clashes – from the projection of rising into global major powers.

Thirdly, the two nations need to get accustomed to a “new normal.” Here, “new normal” refers to living with border standoffs and even violent clashes, whi h started with the Depsang Standoff in 2013. Nowadays, this “new normal” has become a reality on the western section of the Sino-India Border, with an uptick in trespassing incidents and intrusions having occurred there in 2019. 

The two countries have to live with this “new normal” created by the high frequency of border faceoff and even clashes. The reasons are as follows: 

Due to the rapid improvement of frontier infrastructure and patrolling facilities, the advancement of the positioning and tracing technologies, patrolling soldiers from both sides can now encounter each other more and more frequently. The alarming tendency now is that faceoffs and even clashes occur once the two armed forces encounter each other along the LAC. As both sides now have more capacities and resources in consolidating their control of their claimed territories near the LAC, they may not stop plugging the holes, in line with their own but different understandings of the claimed LAC, until these two finally realize their actual control of their claimed LAC from their maps onto the ground. 

More importantly, each faceoff or clash could gradually contribute to the building up of a high-voltage wire (a kind of red line or bottom line) along the disputed LAC. It is safe to say the clashing spots along the LAC could gradually be turned into “poles” for the high-voltage wire, which would gradually frighten away the patrolling soldiers from trespassing it. Gradually, this would lead to fewer new face-offs, hence making the LAC area more and more peaceful on the ground. In the end, even without a verification of the LAC legally, both sides could obey it. In this regard, viewing it from a positive aspect, a faceoff could even serve as a useful tool in verifying LAC of each other. Just as the sayings goes, a good fence makes a good neighbor. A high-voltage wire along the LAC would serve as a good fence between India and China.

Therefore, it is necessary for both sides to ensure that, in the for seeable future, the cooperative momentum and general bilateral stability is not disturbed by any new border faceoff or border conflict.

Finally, the two nations must co-exist in a new kind of modality. In such a “new normal,” it is better for both China and India to reset their co-existence modality. I personally believe that these two giants would be better off treating each other as an accompanying partner in the process of rising into global major powers, just like two cars running in two different lanes.

While driving, the two drivers should avoid any sudden lane changes or any forceful cutting in to prevent accidents. If needed, the two drivers can sit down for a cup of tea or coffee, share with each other their feelings towards driving, as well as any skills, tips, experiences and lessons. In the case of an accident, the two drivers should help each other, like their cooperation against Covid-19 at present. In the case of threats or challenges ahead, the two drivers could jointly remove them on the way. Both drivers can provide public goods together, to make the driving environment safer and more comfortable.

However, there will still be some uncertainties ahead in this regard, such as who would draw the lanes, who would decide which car to use which lane, what kind of traffic rules should be made or should be followed, or what kind of mechanisms should be enforced in supervising.

But once there is a will, there is a way.

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