Ever since the violent clash at Galwan that resulted in the martyrdom of 20 Indian soldiers and casualties on the other side as well, the India-China bilateral relationship has hit a trough. Seven weeks on, the bitter standoff between the two countries continues to keep them at loggerheads. On Saturday, the Indian Prime Minister made a quick dash to the forward posts in Ladakh valley in a clear signal that India would leave no stone unturned to ensure its territorial line. "The Galwan Killings Are the Nail in the Coffin for China and India’s Relationship," an editorial in the Foreign Policy read.
New Delhi and Beijing have held several rounds of diplomatic and military talks to ease tension. India has been insisting on the restoration of status quo ante in all areas of Eastern Ladakh in a bid to restore peace and tranquillity. However, there has been no visible sign of an end to the standoff though the two sides agreed to initiate disengagement of the forces from the region. Does it mean that the Sino-Indian relationship has taken a deep dent for life? None of the countries want a full rupture in bilateral relations, at least that's what Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert, feels. Galwan is not the first Chinese transgression but it definitely is the most blatant one that has hurt New Delhi and more importantly Prime Minister Modi who had hoped of better Indo-China ties -- his Wuhan visit and Xi Jinping's Tamil Nadu trip a case in point.
Add to it the posturing of Chinese PLA, who have been trying to change the status quo at Pangong lake, only to be denied by vigilant Indian defence forces. It is no secret that China is facing absolute heat at the world forum for its bad handling of the coronavirus crisis. India TV spoke to Michael Kugelman to understand what's behind China's posturing and can this standoff lead to a bigger war between two nuclear-armed countries knowing well how the two economies are linked. Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, stressed that China's actions largely aimed at "telegraphing strength.". Here are some excerpts of the interview:
From "Wuhan spirit" to Mamallapuram bonhomie and now to the current LAC standoff, how do you see the India-China ties change in the near future?
India is confronting an increasingly assertive rival that is keen to pursue its interests and assert its territorial claims in a more forceful way. This is, as China itself puts it, wolf warrior diplomacy. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s effort to strengthen ties with Beijing through his personal relations with Xi, Beijing is intent on taking a harder line-and that includes increasingly robust provocations along the disputed border in Ladakh.
What reasons do you see for China triggering the standoff?
There is a range of motivations that likely explains China’s behavior here. One is the Indian road-building on its side of the LAC, which includes new infrastructure stretching from Leh to the Karakoram Pass. This is a lot of territory, and it enables India to project power across a large area, and this worries China. The repeal of Article 370 also likely provoked China. Beijing rejected the move because (in China’s view) it was a unilateral measure to change the territorial status of Ladakh.
The coronavirus pandemic is also a real factor. China has received a lot of criticism for its initial handling of the virus, and it has found itself on the defensive in the court of global public opinion. So it has needed to take tough actions that demonstrate defiance and toughness. There is also the US-China-India triangle. With US-China relations deteriorating and US-India relations strengthening, Beijing wanted to send a tough message to audiences in Washington and New Delhi. Finally, there is the wolf warrior diplomacy issue -- China is on the offensive globally, and Ladakh is just one of the latest manifestations.
At a time when India is already battling a huge health crisis, do you think China purposefully chose the timing to engage India in a dispute?
Certainly. China, which had overcome the worst stages of the pandemic at a moment when India was experiencing the worst of it, may have sought to take advantage of India’s vulnerabilities. But there’s another, more global aspect to the coronavirus angle too. China hit back at India, one of many countries critical of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, by staging provocations to telegraph defiance.
What do you think is China's real motive behind such provocations? Is it just flexing muscles or does it look like the beginning of a broader plan?
It’s hard to say what China’s broader endgame is in Ladakh. But it appears quite clear that it is intent on putting a lot more pressure on India’s territorial claims than it has been before, along the LAC. The provocations this time are more robust than in the past, and PLA incursions have lasted longer than in the past. My sense is that China wants to send a strong message, and it doesn’t want to be the first to back down. Beyond that, I don’t think China wants a conflict. For Beijing, it’s all about telegraphing strength, and making India feel inferior and vulnerable in its own neighborhood.
There is widespread anger in India against China, especially on the economic front. A number of ripostes are coming at various levels. Will it really affect China?
Economic retaliations against China are inevitable, given that New Delhi would also not want military options against its more powerful rival but is nonetheless under tremendous political pressure to respond. But India takes a great risk in using economic punishment tactics against China. The Chinese economy is much larger than India’s, and it is very invested in key Indian sectors, from technology to automobiles. By pushing China away economically, India’s economy could well suffer more than China’s. And especially now, with India experiencing its worst slowdown in years, and one that has gotten even worse because of the pandemic.
All is not well between US and China. Do you think China is getting uncomfortable with greater India-US proximity? Do you derive any link of the same with the LAC clash?
Certainly the US-China spat is a key factor in assessing Beijing’s motivations in Ladakh. We can assume that Beijing wanted to send a tough message to one of America’s fastest growing partners in Asia, and a partner that the US views as a key player in Washington’s Indo Pacific policy, which is meant to balance out China’s power in the region. Now, am I saying that China would not have provoked the Ladakh crisis if its relations with the US were better? No. Beijing had plenty of other motivations to act the way it did. But its dreadful relations with Washington gave it an extra strong incentive to act boldly, and aggressively, against a country that is rapidly moving closer to China’s increasingly bitter rival.
Do you think India should rework its approach after the recent LAC episode?
Modi is already signaling a different and tougher position by announcing new economic retaliations against China. [India has banned 59 Chinese Apps including TikTok ]
The “Wuhan Spirit,” the idea that Modi’s friendly relations with Xi can keep overall bilateral ties friendly despite border tensions, is pretty much dead right now. However, Modi’s use of soft power more globally is important and will continue. Prime Minister Modi has many allies abroad, and he will want to leverage that support in case there are major escalations and India needs to draw on friendly global diplomatic support as well as on additional backing, such as the intelligence support that it has received from the US in the past during these border disputes.
Do you think Pakistan too will take advantage of the timing to play misadventures at the LOC?
At the very least, Pakistan will likely use India’s distraction on the LAC to scale up activities along the LoC through stepped-up cross-border firing. There’s also the possibility, especially as India-Pakistan relations continue to worsen, that Islamabad could encourage militant assets in Jammu and Kashmir to stage attacks against Indian security forces. This is a less likely possibility, but it’s still a real one, and especially taking into consideration that India has redeployed some troops from J&K to Ladakh.
India's great leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee had once said- "You can change your friends, not neighbours." Do you think, at least, the neighbour's attitude is going to change anytime soon, especially when it stands cornered globally for coronavirus?
I really think, despite the high tensions in bilateral relations, that China does not want a full rupture with India just like India does not want a full rupture with China. Beijing doesn’t want to have a confrontational relationship with both the US and India. It also benefits from Indian support in a number of global forums, from BRICS to AIIB. Cooperation with India in global forums helps China pursue its interests overseas, as part of its broader effort to become a top power. And incidentally India feels similarly about global cooperation with China, it would have a lot to lose if a ruptured relationship makes it lose out on opportunities to partner with Beijing overseas.