The renewed tensions between China and India, two Asian giants, along the contested Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayan region of Ladakh in early May crossed the 100-day mark on Thursday.
For the first time since the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility was signed by the two nations in 1993 – apropos the management of the 4,000-kilometre loose demarcation line that separates Indian and Chinese-controlled territories – there was a breakdown in the protocols carefully crafted over 27 years.
In the middle of June, 20 Indian soldiers including a colonel lost their lives in the Galwan River following a brawl with troops belonging to the People's Liberation Army of China. Beijing has yet to announce any casualties on its side, although Chinese media reports indicate that the PLA did lose personnel. In what was an anomalous development, no ordnance was used by either military at Galwan, even though both nuclear nations are militarily well-equipped. Soldiers on both sides, instead, resorted to sticks, stones and nail-studded clubs.
In their August 15 Independence Day speeches, the Indian President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the challenge of "expansionism" in the neighbourhood but did not explicitly name China. It was added that India would not be deterred by any kind of "aggression" and was capable of giving a "befitting reply".
An uneasy stalemate prevails despite several rounds of talks at the diplomatic and military command levels. The Indian assessment is that its military will have to prepare for the long haul along the LAC through the winter months.
In the run-up to the 100th day, however, some signals seem to suggest that diplomacy may yet allow for a modus vivendi of a complex and tangled territorial dispute between the world’s two most populous nations with a combined strength of 2.8 billion people.
On Friday, the Indian ambassador in Beijing Vikram Misri met with senior officials of the Chinese Military Commission to reiterate Delhi’s position on the LAC. Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Misri had met with Liu Jianchao, a senior member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Media reports suggest that another round of talks could be on the cards.
Also on Wednesday, the Chinese embassy in Delhi expressed hope through a tweet that the “Indian side can meet the Chinese side half-way” and not act in any manner that would further "complicate" the border tensions. The tweet also said that China hoped India would create “favourable conditions” for maintaining peace and stability in the border areas and the healthy development of bilateral relations.
However, this was also accompanied by the Chinese ambassador to India Sun Weidong asserting in a signed article that the onus for resolving the border stand-off in the Ladakh sector of the LAC was “not on China". In short, the picture that emerges is unclear and has elements of a tentative intent to negotiate – but the article suggests it would be on terms set by Beijing. This will not be acceptable to Delhi, which seeks a return to the status quo positions along the LAC as they existed before the PLA intrusions.
The bilateral relationship between China and India has now entered a post-Galwan phase and both nations are aware that what is at stake is not just contested territoriality – but the texture and tenor of the emerging Asian strategic framework with larger global implications.
This was outlined by the Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who earlier in the month noted: “We are seeing the parallel but differential rise of the two countries. To my mind, what it does is it puts a huge premium on reaching some kind of equilibrium or understanding between the two.” Highlighting the point that this equilibrium would have to be in the interests of both countries, he added: “How to do that is one of the big challenges that we face.”
While the Covid-19 pandemic has led to considerable uncertainty about the global economic recovery, it is expected that over the next decade, the world will see the emergence of three major single-state economies: China, the US and India, with the European Union being the fourth node.
In an earlier formulation, there was optimism about the resurgence of Asia, led by China’s economic growth followed by that of India, in addition to the sustained economic vitality of countries in the continent's north-east, south-east and west. It was envisioned that global prosperity and power would shift to the East, with the critical strategic triangle represented by China, the US and India.
This assumption, however, was predicated on a robust degree of co-operation among the major powers and a commitment to equitable globalisation in all the development sectors ranging from the economy, energy, infrastructure, investments, financial flows, trade, commerce and the sharing of technology. The past four years have turned out to be more turbulent and discordant across many tracks, and these include the souring of US-China, US-Russia and now China-India relations.
While the orientation of the US-China equation will largely be shaped by the outcome of the US presidential election in November, one factor will remain abiding – that of the swing-state relevance of India in the critical strategic triangle. How Beijing engages with Delhi in the post-Galwan era will have long-term implications for Asian equipoise and harmony – or the lack thereof.
C Uday Bhaskar is director of the New Delhi-based think tank Society for Policy Studies