Dealing with China: Lessons from the Past

The deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in a conflict that should have been avoided is a sign of failure on the part of the Narendra Modi government, but the Prime Minister can still turn this situation around.

The brutal killing of 20 Indian soldiers and injuries to an unconfirmed number of soldiers at point 14 in the Galwan area is the most serious strategic development on the Indian sub-continent since the Kargil war of 1999. It also brought back memories of what was happening before a full-scale Chinese attack against India in 1962. India has not fully learnt the lessons from the Kargil intrusion by Pakistan-backed forces, despite the in-depth report by the K. Subrahmanyam committee. The obvious result of this is the Chinese encroachments, not trespassing, on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Ladakh region adjoining Akshai Chin.

This is a highly critical juncture for India and two grave scenarios loom large vis-à-vis China. The first one is a Kargil-style limited war in Ladakh to oust the Chinese troops from the Indian side of the LAC. The desired outcome of this scenario will be the restoration of the status quo of 1st April 2020 in the Ladakh region. Given that there has been no word from either side on the de-escalation in the Pangong Cho lake area, the matter is unlikely to be through dialogue at the Corps Commander level. The second scenario is the emergence of ditto situations elsewhere along the LAC, wherein both sides would attempt to establish firm control over certain disputed areas. The third scenario of a combination of these two scenarios cannot be ruled out either. The avoidance of any of these situations without compromising India’s claims and the actuality of practice on the ground of patrolling the areas up to the LAC depends upon deft military and diplomatic handling of the current crisis.

Fortunately, the India of 2020 is much better placed than the India of 58 years ago on three counts, at least. Firstly, India has a sophisticated and advanced military and an evolved economic infrastructure compared to 1962. Post-1962, India fairly resolved military stand-offs with China to its satisfaction and also flexed its muscles whenever it was required. The Chinese are keenly aware of this little detail and perhaps want to change this equation in their favour. After the 1962 debacle, India also gained strategic prestige through three wars against Pakistan and establishing a military base over the Siachen glacier. Secondly, today there is economic interdependence of sorts between India and China. It gives India more bargaining and manoeuvring power against China. While India is not likely to lose territory to China, the latter would surely lose big business in India in case of armed conflict on the LAC. Thirdly and equally importantly, India has accumulated a strategic experience of 70 years of dealing with China and other neighbours, unlike in 1962. These three factors have created an opportunity to resolve the current crisis through diplomacy, provided India also keeps in mind the necessary lessons from developments that led to the Chinese aggression in 1962.

There are a minimum of 5 lessons that the central government, and particularly the Prime Minister, must reflect upon as India resolves to stand its ground. First, India needs to mobilize sufficient military capabilities to deter any further intrusion by the Chinese troops and to build enough pressure on China to retreat from their already advanced positions. It stands not only for the present time but for the future as well. Second, India must increase the frequency of patrolling along the LAC but refrain from setting up any new military posts on the disputed terrains. It means India will not give up its claim, but it will also not allow China to build any military posts or infrastructure on areas claimed by both the countries. At the same side, India will also not create confrontations by building new posts or infrastructure in disputed areas. Before the 1962 war, India had adopted the reverse of the above tactics, i.e. establishing forward posts without military preparedness.

Third, India must not discontinue or degrade diplomatic engagement with China. Over the years, Indian diplomacy has acquired the skills of keeping China engaged in talks, reading its mind, and eventually persuading it as well. In our pursuit to paint the Chinese as cunning crooks, we often underplay our own abilities of scoring points without battling it out on the ground. Today, the fact that the two countries are talking to each other even at the foreign ministerial level is significant and must be continued. There was no meaningful high-level communication between India and China after the then Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai’s visit to New Delhi in 1960.

Fourth, India must not compromise its strategic autonomy. The world is watching India’s strength, resolve and skills vis-à-vis China. Our neighbours are watching it more keenly than anyone else. Any message of India’s reliance on other powers, be it the US or Japan, would be counted as weakness and do more harm to the country’s prestige than building pressure on China. In 1962, one of the perceived intentions of Chinese aggression was to prove the hollowness of India’s non-alignment policy to third world countries. As India scrambled to resist Chinese aggression then, it explored options of seeking military intervention from the United States. The Chinese point was proved! The Indian leadership position still survived in the non-alignment movement due to the need of the hour and China’s descent into the Cultural Revolution. Today, if it dithers under Chinese pressure, India’s strategic autonomy would be forgone for a considerable period of time.

Fifth, the Prime Minister must take decisions keeping in mind the short-term and long-term interests of the country and not to promote his own image. A statesman must learn to be at the receiving end for a certain period to protect his country’s interests. A conflict with China must not be turned into an endeavour to lift one’s political popularity. While the Prime Minister must listen to the opposition parties and the people, he must avoid playing to the gallery.  In the late 1950s, Nehru danced to the tunes of the opposition leaders in order to protect his nationalist image. It resulted in a hardened Indian position on the border dispute. Nehru on his own, perhaps, would have dealt with China in a more refined manner to avoid a war if he had not have fallen into the trap. Interestingly, the trap was not intentional on the part of the opposition parties. Prime Minister Narendra Modi certainly knows this history. He is fortunate enough as well not to have the opposition leaders of the stature of Ram Manohar Lohia, Madhu Limaye, C Rajgopalachari and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to name a few amongst many of Nehru’s contemporaries. It was difficult for Nehru but it should be an easy task for Modi to keep the narratives and processes of dealing with China in his hands. Nehru failed against China as he could not remain true to Nehruvian legacy. If Modi wants to succeed, he has to carefully choose his framework.

But what are the parameters of ‘success’ today? The final border agreement with China is worthy of all the Peace Prizes in the world. However, the lasting solution is nowhere in the discourse that makes the immediate solution of the present stand-off as a hallmark of ‘success.’ The deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in a conflict that should have been avoided is a sign of failure. To convert this stinging failure into a success, Prime Minister Modi must put forward three demands to the Chinese President. One, the restoration of the status-quo to 1st April situation in the Ladakh region; two, the highest level inquiry into the killings of Indian soldiers in the Galwan region and severe punishments meted out to the guilty Chinese officers; and three, time-bound demarcations of the LAC and international borders between India and China. It’s beyond time to turn this crisis into an opportunity.

Parimal Maya Sudhakar
19th June 2020


Read this article published in Asiaville on 19th June 2020

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