India’s unwavering signals at Galwan will be decisive for South Asian countries and beyond

The scene of the violent clash between Indian and Chinese army troops on the night of June 15, Galwan River Valley is acquiring the dimensions of a major conflict between the two largest countries in Asia. The Galwan incident led to 20 Indian Army personnel being killed, with more than double the number in Chinese casualties.

Replying to the Chinese foreign ministry observation that Galwan Valley “always belonged” to China, India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated such claims are “exaggerated and untenable” and reminded Beijing that it is “not in accordance with China's own position in past”. And, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated at the all-party meeting that “those who tried to transgress our land were taught a befitting lesson by our brave sons of soil” and vowed to protect the country’s borders.

Galwan thus is a turning point in India-China relations in recent times. Named after a Ladakhi explorer, Ghulam Rassul Galwan, the region saw fierce clashes in 1962 between India and China, in addition to Chip Chap valley and Chushul. This region once again has become the battleground militarily with China drawing troops and equipment from a military exercise conducted recently even as India beefed up its defence in the area.

Tensions arose since May 5 as a result of the intransigence in resolving the vexed territorial dispute, despite the 22 Special Representative meetings, 15 Joint Working Group meetings and eight border talks uninterruptedly from 1981 (except in 1998 during the Indian nuclear tests), regional domination efforts of China, its strategic considerations on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, control over water resources or other extraneous considerations.

An undefined Line of Actual Control (LAC) further added to the troubles in the bilateral relations, reflected either in the periodic, but sometimes spectacular, transgressions by the border patrols or intentional nibbling away of the territory. For instance, when the Indian Army withdrew from Khurnag Fort in Ladakh to reinforce counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir, China had set troops to occupy the fort in the 1980s. From here, today China’s troops were able to venture between Finger 4 to 8 in the Pangong Tso lake area.

Firm resolve to protect India’s sovereignty

Stiff opposition by the 16 Bihar Regiment and the resolve of the political leadership to protect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as the Indian Army press statement suggested, meant that the Galwan region could become another flashpoint in the near future as China has been flexing its muscles.

If India resists China’s forays into the Galwan Valley, as has been stated, then, firstly the Asian strategic landscape is expected to change radically in the coming years. Already with the debilitating impact of the Covid-19, many an Asian country has been seething with resentment on the spread of the virus from Wuhan.

Secondly, the Asian landscape is getting sharply polarised between the United States and China and their 18-month tariff war. This has created a void and uncertainty in terms of the trade value supply chains, investments and technology flows, which are aggravated by the Covid-19 shutdown of transportation and manufacturing centres. While many transnational corporations have been shifting base from China to Southeast Asian destinations, a decisive Indian response to the uncertainties at Galwan could have a cascading effect in attracting such investments.

Thirdly, China intended to create a niche for itself through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a part of which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) in Gilgit and Baltistan. China thus had spent $42 billion in dual-use infrastructure projects out of a total outlay of $62 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

China also began deploying 36,000 “security guards” to protect these projects in Pakistan, in addition to the latter’s one division of army personnel deployed to these areas. China’s recent military activity closer to Galwan can thus be addressed by India’s decisive actions in the area.

Fourthly, as China has been making inroads into South Asia, India’s decisive action at Galwan sends strong signals to the neighbouring states. With the BRI projects and arms transfers, China has been able to make inroads into Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and other countries, although Maldives came out of its influence last year. More significantly, BRI has led to debts for many of the smaller countries in South Asia and beyond who were unable to pay back the high interest rates or other conditionalities imposed by Beijing.

For instance, in lieu of driving away Tibetan refugees or other restrictions placed on their freedoms, Nepal is rewarded by Beijing with infrastructure projects, costly though they are. With Nepal raking up the source of Mahakali river and the recent Parliamentary vote on changing the map to include Indian territories, China is relieved that a third front could be opened for India, in addition to China and Pakistan.

India’s unwavering signals at Galwan will be decisive for South Asian countries and beyond.

Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi