The latest standoff on the India-China border represents an escalation of the sort not seen since 1962. We have had many standoffs since then, but it always involved differing perceptions about the Line of Actual Control. In most sectors, there is an overlap of these lines with Indian and Chinese claim lines going beyond each other’s LAC, sometimes by a few meters and sometimes by many kilometers. But we had tested Confidence Building Measures in place to keep the peace. The latest standoff at the Galwan Valley, however, represents a People’s Liberation Army ingress into a hitherto undisputed area. By doing so, China has thrown down the gauntlet. How does India now respond?

At Galwan, the People’s Liberation Army found an unguarded but very strategic spot on the LAC and occupied it. This places it less than 2 km from the newly rebuilt strategic all-weather Durbuk-Daulat Beg Oldi road that supports the lone Indian outpost of Daulat Beg Oldi at the mouth of the Karakorum Pass. It happened in a sector supposed to be guarded by the Home Ministry’s Indo Tibetan Border Police.

Each year, the People’s Liberation Army conducts an exercise on the Aksai Chin and its immediate forward areas along the LAC. Every year, the Indian Army sends its reserves forward to check a possible move by the Chinese Army. This year, the Indian Army held off, funked by the outbreak of Covid-19 in some formations in Ladakh. The Chinese Army stepped in, just like the Pakistan Army occupied the Kargil heights.

China has occupied a strategically vital bit of Indian territory. The irony is that they have done a Dokolam on us. In 2017, we had objected to a Chinese road leading to the disputed meadow in Bhutan, which we rightly surmised would threaten the Siliguri corridor, commonly referred to as the Chicken’s Neck. Here, China has put another chicken’s neck under threat by claiming the all-weather road actually threatens it in Xinjiang.

Inflamed public opinion

We have left the border question to fester for much too long. It seems unresolvable now with public opinions on both sides inflamed. There was a time when, with a little bit of give and take, this contentious and now protracted problem seemed solvable.

In 1960, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai on a visit to New Delhi suggested something akin to the status quo as a permanent solution. This was repeated in 1982 by Chairman Deng Xiaoping to India’s Ambassador in Beijing, G Parthasarathy. It was offered once again during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister to Indian Ambassador AP Venkateshwaran by Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang.

When Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing in 1988, both countries decided to keep a permanent solution aside and focus on immediate doables. All along, India felt that the internal political situation would not allow the government of the day the room to go with it.

What is commonly referred to as the “border dispute” between India and China has now manifested itself into two distinct disputes. The first is the dispute over two large and separated tracts of territories, which we have agreed to leave for history to sort out. But what causes the frequent frictions between the two countries is that they do not agree on the LACs to separate the jurisdictions.

To minimise the inflammability due to active patrolling by security personnel of both sides, the two countries have Confidence Building Measures in place. This is the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement that sets out norms of behavior for both sides. The important features are that nothing of a permanent nature will be built on these disputed areas and that the patrols will take all precautions not to confront each other. This simply means that if they come face to face, they will both withdraw. The corollary to this is that the patrols will not tail each other either.

The agreement also requires local commanders to frequently meet and exchange views and sort out local differences across the table. These Confidence Building Measures are now in tatters.

High-level dialogue

For three long decades since Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping met in 1988 in the Great Hall of Peace in Beijing, the two countries have been meeting to discuss the border issue. But so far, we have seen unwillingness by both sides to forget the past. Since 2003, these talks were elevated to a high-level political dialogue between Special Representatives, in India’s case the National Security Advisor and in China’s case an official at the level of State Councilor.

Schoolchildren in Chennai wear masks with the face of Xi Jinping as the Chinese president visited India in October 2019 for a summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The first meeting at this level took place between Indian National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bing Guo. The 22nd round of this dialogue was held in New Delhi December 2019 between India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, and China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi.

The Border Defence Cooperation Agreement is a major outcome of these talks and that has by and large worked. The next logical step of these talks should be to agree on an LAC. But unfortunately, even that is now being weighed down by aggressive nationalism driven by social media that equates “giving up” with national loss of face. This is something increasingly very important to both countries. We will not be seen giving up anything, even our obduracy and historical short sightedness. Now the immediate task is to get the People’s Liberation Army to leave Galwan without loss of face. On the other hand, is this could just be the opportunity for the two sides to settle new LACs in the three sectors?

Both India and China are now relatively prosperous and militarily powerful. This has engendered aggressive new nationalisms leading to hardening of hearts, and arteries too. To add to our confusion, many strategic thinkers in India now believe that when push gives to shove the recent bonhomie between US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Modi will translate into active military and diplomatic cooperation. They talk of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD between the US, Japan, Australia and India to face China. That’s just deluding ourselves. When push comes to shove, we will stand alone.

Mohan Guruswamy is the chairman and founder of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.