This is the last thing the world needs amidst a pandemic
The rules of engagement stand changed between India and China. Inevitable. The Galwan incident in the Ladakh region that left 20 Indian soldiers killed and many more wounded, has led to the resetting of tactical measures on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China.
The brutal initiation of violence by Chinese soldiers using barbed-wired clubs and archaic styles of combat led to the revision of the previous 2005 and 2012 MOU on the basis of which the bilateral border forces had established the norms of a “bayonet-down” understanding.
Now Indian armed forces commanders can decide the course of response to Chinese provocations. The new tactical measure to employ firearms may also include movement of patrols in key areas of the LAC -- the delineated but undemarcated border which is in many places based on rival perceptions over the bilaterally agreed claim lines.
It is only recently that India started developing roads and infrastructure on its side, which China had been developing for several years. Indian moves to develop border infrastructure -- in the form of roads, bridges, and installations -- raised the shackles of the Chinese PLA.
While this may be the immediate trigger for the latest transgression by China, it seems to be a reasonable point to ask if such hostile acts are not only seen as self-defeating but also whether bilateral ties were based on false premises of peace and amity?
China has outstanding border issues with 14 countries. But while it has resolved many of its land-border disputes it continues to keep the one land-border dispute with India openly festering.
Despite the 22 rounds of high level special representatives, the progress seems unremarkable. This apart, there exist several layers of bilateral mechanisms for maintaining peace and stability at the borders along with confidence-building measures that have taken place several times in the past decades.
While these conflict resolution mechanisms have kept the two Asian neighbours on an uneasy modus vivendi for over the last 45 years, there have been many points of bilateral irritants.
China is India’s largest trade partner but that has not come in the way of it disputing the sovereignty of the Arunachal Pradesh state that shares a border with China, displaying aggressive military postures at the Doklam trijunction with Bhutan, helping Pakistan shield an international terrorist, all the time expecting India to defer to it.
It is being argued that India’s outreach to the extra-regional powers, such as the US, Japan, and Australia, as well as its disassociation with the massive BRI projects undertaken by China, has led to its sense of discomfort about India. Whether its growing partnership with the US or QUAD or even the EU, India’s preference for rule-based order in the Indian Ocean region has further annoyed China.
While China is an economic giant with recognized military strength, India is also an Asian civilizational power that has been recording reasonable growth and increasing attention from other international actors.
Arguably while India may not be the most popular power in the South Asian region, such aggressive posturing by China is unlikely to be watched with equanimity by other neighbours.
China seems hard-pressed to prove that it is a revisionist power. While regional stability may not be a priority for China, the smaller South Asian countries may not want to be thrown into the unenviable position of having to take sides.
After the violent confrontation of the likes that have not taken place after 1967, there is bound to be a severe impact on the bilateral ties. Given PM Modi has met Chinese President XI Jinping more times than any Indian leader, it will be impossible to reconcile the exhibited camaraderie at the Wuhan and Mamallapuram informal summits and the present volatility.
While China may feign indifference to the heat from the World Health Assembly that will hold an investigation over the Covid-19 crises and China’s role, it will find it difficult to attempt to redefine the LAC again given the Indian armed forces’ present state of combat-readiness.
Indeed, establishing new rules of engagement with some specific confidence-building measures in place should be the best option available.
Former president of the UN’s Security Council, Kishore Mahbubani, asserts China is bent on changing the world. Be that as it may, do we expect a scenario where the military is the invariable option despite mechanisms being in place?
When the world is faced with the worst pandemic of the century and is in dire need of reallocation of resources for public welfare, such mindless aggressive posturing needs to be thwarted soundly.
It is in the interest of world powers, as well as countries in South Asia, to resist Chinese expansionism in order to enable regional stability and harmony.
Sreeradha Datta, PhD, is Centre Head, Neighbourhood Studies and Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.