In 2017, two Asian giants erupted into a bitter standoff over a small piece of territory along their 3,488 kilometer-long border: at the tri-junction border area of Doklam, extreme tension arose between India and China when the latter attempted to extend a road on the Doklam plateau southwards near the Doka La pass. In the standoff, which was to last 72 days, both sides refused to budge from their respective territorial claims, often blaming the other side of unilaterally altering the status quo. To commentators who keenly followed India-China relations, the Dokhlam standoff suggested at the time, an apprehension that the breakdown of India-China border peace was imminent. Indeed, peace along the border, which the two neighbours had very consistently worked towards in the preceding decades, was soon to break down like never before.
The two sides were to confront again soon. In 2020, things came to a head when Chinese troops invaded deep into the Indian territory in the Galwan region of the Ladakh valley. In the ensuing escalation between the two armies, unprecedented, for the first time in decades, several casualties were reported along the border. This is particularly significant because the last casualty along the India-China border was reported in 1975. Matters seemed only precariously settled when the two countries mutually decided to withdraw their troops from the Galway Valley on June 6. Less than ten days later, a further contention developed, when on June 15, the troops from both the countries clashed over the long-drawn border dispute in the Galwan region. The Indian side reported twenty casualties and although the Chinese government and media did not confirm any casualty figures from their army, the Indian media reports indicated more than forty deaths from the Chinese side.
Even though the recent crisis was unparalleled by all means, boundary disputes between India and China in the western sector have a long history, dating back to the Johnson line proposed in the 1860s. At the time, India was under British colonial rule, while China, although not colonised, was divided up into spheres of colonial influences. During that time, the Johnson line extended up to the Kunlun Mountains and included the Aksai Chin area in the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. To claim the Aksai China area, India post-independence considered the Johnson Line as its official border with China. Although China initially did not react to the claim, in the years that followed China reversed its stand and not seeing why it should cede Aksai Chin to India, it considered the McMahon Line as its official border with India. China also claimed that it was not obligated to follow any treaties signed with British India i.e. the Johnson Line, among others.
India and China completed 70 years of their diplomatic relations in the same year that the Galwan clashes took place. In their long and checkered history of engagement as modern nation-states, India and China have also fought a massive war in 1962. However, post the 1962 war which soured Sino-Indian relations for decades to come, the two countries had still been able to build substantial economic cooperation, long-standing people-to-people contact, bilateral agreements, along with partnerships on multilateral world forums (like BRICS, etc.).
Relations between the two countries have heated up in the last few years but if we try to reflect, one can see that it has a lot to do with the change in nature of the Chinese leadership itself. China has increasingly become more assertive about its place in the world, as a potential world power surpassing the United States. As such, the Chinese attitude towards all its neighbours (including India) has also changed as a result. Consider how China reacted just a little more than a decade ago, to demands of the Indian government at the all-important Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) when the latter was seeking to rush through its approval for its Nuclear Deal with the United States. Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, when the India-US Civil Nuclear Agreement was being debated at the NSG, China pulled its weight, let its displeasure at the agreement become known by initially refusing to consent to it but eventually caved in and ‘swallowed its anger’. China initially resisted but eventually gave in and the NSG could approve the agreement. But if one must look now, the increasingly assertive leadership of Xi Jinping would not allow that. China today is more assertive, more nationalist, more expansionist than ever. Although there have been border disputes between the two countries, the China of today is increasingly becoming more and more of a country that is continuously self-asserting itself in the region. The shifting paradigms in the country’s approach are evident from the multiple border disputes that China is contending with several of its neighbouring countries.
The history of post-independence engagement between India and China is a history of complicated negotiations and dialogue processes which have tried to settle the boundary question while simultaneously enhancing cooperation in other areas. The June 2020 Galwan standoff highlights how important the settlement of the border question has become for sustainable peace and security between the two countries. This is particularly significant because we have seen the two countries enhance their economic engagements, business ties, technological integration, yet the question of the unsettled border, in a flash, threatened to undo this history of cooperation. Moving forward, if the two countries have to cooperate and coexist as Asia’s (and possibly the world’s) biggest two economies, they have to urgently settle their border disputes.
At one level, the Galwan Valley incident marked an irreversible turning point in relations between India and China. The balance of power that the two countries had painstakingly achieved over the decades since the Rajiv Gandhi visit to Beijing in 1988 seems to not be holding up anymore. As both India and China vie for an increasingly bigger role in not just Asia, but also the world economy and international politics at large, and as their ability to flex their military muscle grows exponentially, such incidents along the disputed border are only likely to become more frequent. The dynamics between India-China in the wake of the Galwan crisis have completely altered, in part, also because the two countries have significantly changed over the last two decades.
As such, the Galwan valley incident represents an opportunity for India and China to recalibrate their expectations and outlook towards one another. If both countries want to tread a path of mutual respect and cooperation, they would have to work hard again in buying fragile peace. Through hard negotiations over boundaries, the two countries would have to engage with each other’s concerns over a long-term horizon. In this context, nationalist calls made on both sides to ban or impose taxes on goods coming in from the other country are not likely to yield significant results. These maneuvers are more enacted more for their domestic populations and do not have the effect of imposing significant costs on the other side. If anything, the Galwan crisis was successfully prevented from turning into a full-blown military confrontation in no small measure due to the decades of economic engagement and interdependence that the two countries had worked to achieve.
In conclusion, the Galwan crisis should be read as a symptom of an increasingly fragile peace between the two countries. The crisis reminds us that the border dispute has been allowed to fester for too long between the countries. The crisis also represents an opportunity to rebuild and reassess the nature of the Sino-India relationship for the 21st century.