How Modi met the Chinese challenge without ceding political and strategic ground
PR Ramesh and Siddharth Singh | 10 Jul, 2020
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Nimu in Ladakh, July 3 (Photo: PIB)
PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi reached the far heights of Nimu on July 3rd, in the wee hours of the morning, for an unplanned but crucial interaction with the troops guarding the borders in extreme weather. Dressed in a thick down jacket and a black cap bearing the insignia of the armed forces, the Prime Minister had decided to personally thank the soldiers at the forward command and spell out his Government’s message to China. This was his first visit to Ladakh after the June 15th clashes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that took the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. After a brief interaction with senior officials of the army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) that morning, Modi was the picture of a man who meant business. His stride, as he headed towards the podium, was confident; his chin slanted determinedly upward, sunglasses on his face, the Prime Minister sent out a clear signal that India would no longer be blindsided by Beijing.
The landscape lying before his podium sported rows of chairs on which were seated jawans in camouflage gear. Nimu, of which thousands of Indians had not heard just a few days ago, was about to be etched indelibly on the nation’s mindscape. At 11,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by the stark and beautiful Zanskar Range on the banks of the Indus, it is among the harshest terrains for India’s security forces. Till hours before, it was Defence Minister Rajnath Singh who was supposed to visit the border troops on a motivational trip. And just hours later, it was the Prime Minister who flew to Ladakh. The trip was as imperative as the message would be categorical. As he stood on the podium, an expectation of something immense crackled in the chilly air.
Modi was about to firmly reset the terms of engagement and redefine equations with China, the first step for which he had taken as long ago as 2014.
In Tokyo, in September 2014, taking a jab at the People’s Republic of China, Modi had asserted that “The world is today divided among two schools: those who choose expansionism (vistaarvaad) and those who believe in prioritising development (vikasvaad) as the only way forward to achieve both progress and peace…” Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to India came just days after that speech. On its heels came also the standoff at Chumar, an issue resolved only after Modi took it up personally with Xi. Nimu was about to draw a new map of the India-China relationship, extrapolating from Tokyo.
At Nimu, the Prime Minister hailed the tradition and culture of bravery of Indian soldiers in an inspirational address. “Everyone believes that peace and friendship are important for the progress of the nation, the world and humanity. But we also know that the weak can never bring peace. The weak cannot initiate peace. Bravery is the precondition for peace…All of you are the leaders who have established this goal, tradition and this glorious culture of India.” Quoting Saint Thiruvalluvar, he emphasised: “…valour, honour, the tradition of dignified behaviour and credibility are the four qualities that are the reflections of an army of any country. Indian forces have always followed this path.”
It was an address that forcefully resonated with the strong martial spirit and culture of India’s security forces. “You are the heroes of the same land that has repulsed the attacks and atrocities of many invaders for thousands of years. This is our identity. We are the people who worship Lord Krishna who plays the flute. We are also the same people who follow Sudarshan Chakradhari Krishna as an ideal. With this inspiration, India has emerged stronger after every attack.”
It was a dynamic speech that addressed itself directly to each of the soldiers guarding the borders of the nation from its enemies. “Our support, strength and resolve for its [the Motherland’s] defence and security are as high as the Himalayas. I can see this ability and resolve in your eyes right now. It is clearly visible on your faces. The indomitable courage shown by the valiant sons of the country in the Galwan Valley is the depiction of utmost might. The country is proud of you.”
The discussion between Ajit Doval and Wang Yi dealt in detail with the situation in Eastern Ladakh. India insisted that peace and tranquillity on the border required careful handling of relations. This was reflected in the MEA statement. A day later, both Chinese and Indian troops withdrew
It was Modi’s political message to China from Nimu. His speech was a muscular echo of and a resounding sequel to the warning bells he had sounded in Tokyo in 2014 against the backdrop of the aggression shown by Xi’s regime in the South China Sea and its bullying of the nations in the region. “The era of colonial expansion is over; this is the era of evolution…It is an opportunity for development and development is also the basis for the future. In the previous centuries…obsession with expansion has always posed a threat to world peace…history is witness to the fact that such forces have been erased or forced to relent…The whole world is now against the policy of expansion. Today the world is devoted to development and is welcoming the open competition for development.”
If his demeanour was grim; the spirit was martial. Modi’s message spelt decisiveness in the face of any territorial aggression. He signalled to China in clear terms that India would not be bullied, buckle under threats or retreat from defending its own land by any and all means. There would be no compromise and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would have to move back to its pre-May 3rd positions relating to the LAC or face dire consequences.
Modi’s Nimu address spells a landmark shift from the 1993 position on India’s relationship with its neighbour, when the then Congress regime decoupled the border issue from the rest of the relationship. Modi made it plain that the border issue will be part of the overall equation.
This decisive reset was initiated by Modi as far back as 2014, during Xi’s visit to India. At a meeting in New Delhi, the Chinese leader spoke at length about the robustness of bilateral ties, the participation of the two countries at various multilateral forums, trade links and so on. When it was his turn to speak, the Prime Minister showed his appreciation for the strength of the relationship but then ventured into an area that had, till that moment of the visit, been carefully skirted—the incursion in the Chumar sector just prior to Xi’s visit. A senior minister privy to the discussions between the two leaders told Open that Modi, brushing aside the rather careful stance taken in dealing with China, told Xi Jinping: “A single speck of dirt on the windshield could ruin a highly enjoyable high-speed cruise in a luxury vehicle on a state-of-the-art highway”. Implied in the Prime Minister’s remark was that India and China could not pretend it was business-as-usual when there were military incursions into one party’s territory. Soon after this exchange, the PLA began stepping back from Chumar.
Modi has, since then, been ramming the point home that the pursuit of good relations between India and China would mean agreements on all fronts and no tiptoeing around the highly sensitive territorial issue. The defiant note against China struck by Modi paved the road for India to opt out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) over worries about putting both domestic industry and agriculture at risk by allowing the level of imports under the agreement. The RCEP includes China and ASEAN members, with the objective of covering a third of the world economy. India, for its part, was looking for stringent protection against Chinese imports. That was 2019.
Earlier still, in 2017, the Modi Government had refused to be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for which China had enlisted the support of 130 countries, 68 of which had already signed up. India alone sent no representative, not even a low-level one. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) barred representatives from think-tanks and business lobbyists from taking its prior permission for participation, besides sending out an aggressively worded statement listing its objections and concerns, including that parts of the BRI involved projects on Indian land, that the project could push smaller nations into a debt trap, destroy local communities and irreversibly harm the ecology, and that China’s own motives were not clear. The underlying implication was that Beijing was looking more to expand its influence and assert its political standing. Bhutan, with which China has once again raked up territorial issues, was the only one of India’s neighbours not to enlist for the project. The rest, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives—nations where China has gradually but noticeably deepened its influence—have all signed up.
Modi sent a political message to China from Nimu. His speech was a resounding sequel to the warning bells he had sounded in Tokyo in 2014 against the backdrop of the aggression shown by Xi Jinping’s regime in the South China Sea. The message spelt decisiveness. There would be no compromise and the PLA would have to move back to its pre-May 3rd positions along the LAC
The Government’s redefining of relations with China on the boundary dispute comes as a complete break from 1993 when India separated it from the rest of the bilateral relationship. Curiously, that agreement on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the LAC made no provision for recognising the existing lines of deployment for the respective armies as they stood in 1993. Nor did the agreement reflect any attempt to have each side recognise the other’s line of troop deployment at the time of signing it. In January 2008, speaking at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that the independence of India’s foreign policy allowed the country to pursue the path of “mutually beneficial cooperation” with all the major countries of the world.
What followed was the period of the ‘Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention’ proposed by political commentator Thomas L Friedman, as a way of explaining how globalisation affects foreign policy and conflict.
Essentially, no two countries that both have McDonald’s franchises have ever gone to war. The reasoning behind this correlation, Friedman said, was that once economies became sufficiently integrated, both the cost of going to war and the amount of contact between the two countries would increase. Both these factors lead to more effective conflict resolution, as states would attempt to pursue the more economically beneficial option. Friedman’s argument echoed the main suppositions of the democratic peace theory, which contends that democracies never go to war. His analysis took this argument further in its economic emphasis, although he placed a similar emphasis on the role of domestic society in influencing a government’s willingness to go to war.
In keeping with this, speaking in Beijing during a visit in May 2010, Jairam Ramesh, Congress leader and then environment minister, maintained that India was being “overly defensive and alarmist” over Chinese investments in India. “India should get rid of needless restrictions on Chinese investments…we are imagining demons,” he said in the backdrop of reports that New Delhi had barred import of Chinese telecom equipment from Huawei, especially in border areas, due to security concerns. “Huawei is creating assets in India, hiring Indian professionals. Over eighty per cent of its employees are Indians…China is implementing projects worth over $30 billion but unfortunately, the controversy over Huawei has overshadowed the whole issue of Chinese investments,” Ramesh argued, stressing “Manmohan Singh is totally gung ho about it. The MEA and the NSA back this. People who are raising concerns are the home ministry and security establishments…we have a huge trade deficit with China but we are still suspicious of them.” China had also given India information about the Zangmu hydropower project after first denying this information, Ramesh said, bolstering his argument that increased economic interaction could also lead to easier interaction on other issues, including security concerns.
Closer engagement with China was viewed, during the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) stint in power, as flowing from the Look East policy adopted in 1992. By and large, the UPA preferred a continuity couched in the perception that increased interaction with China was in India’s economic interest and should be pursued so that security concerns could also be addressed in an easier environment. The UPA perceived the relationship with China later also in the context of what Jonathan D James dubbed, in his analysis ‘The Prospect of Chindia as a World Power’, as ‘fanciful’. That is, a reading by some select scholars of the meteoric rise of powers such as China and India on the global stage. It was the age of ‘Chindia Rising’, and economists and global political analysts were busy churning out reams on the growth of China and India and the implications for global growth, prosperity and security and the working in tandem of the two. There was no reading of expansionism in the Chindia concept.
This decisive reset was initiated by Modi as far back as 2014, during Xi Jinping’s visit to India. In New Delhi, the Chinese leader spoke about the robustness of bilateral ties. Modi ventured into an area that had been carefully skirted till then—the PLA’s incursion in the Chumar sector. Implied in his remark was that India and China could not pretend it was business-as-usual. Soon, the Chinese soldiers began stepping back from Chumar
Two days after the Prime Minister’s visit to Ladakh, the special representatives of India and China on the boundary question, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, held a detailed discussion on the situation in Eastern Ladakh. This was on Sunday, July 5th. While the language of the release issued by the MEA was formulaic, there is no mistaking that disengagement on the ground and de-escalation are a reality now, after a tense 20 days since the fateful encounter at Patrolling Point 14 (PP-14) in the Galwan Valley region: ‘The two Special Representatives agreed that both sides should take guidance from the consensus of the leaders that maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas was essential for the further development of our bilateral relations and that two sides should not allow differences to become disputes. Therefore, they agreed that it was necessary to ensure at the earliest complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity. In this regard they further agreed that both sides should complete the on-going disengagement process along the LAC expeditiously.’
The discussion between the two, which lasted more than two hours according to sources, dealt in detail with the situation in Eastern Ladakh. India insisted that peace and tranquillity on the long border between the two countries required careful handling of relations. This point was reflected in the statement issued by the MEA. The two special representatives agreed to continue their conversations.
A day later, July 6th, these words became facts on the ground when both Chinese and Indian troops withdrew by 1.5 to 2 km from the site of the clash. The Chinese, Indian sources said, were now fully in their territory while Indian troops remained on their side. The withdrawal was said to be ‘complete’ at PP-14 in the Galwan sector, while some movement has also been seen in the Pangong Tso region—Finger 4—further south from the Galwan Valley area.
By July 8th, China had withdrawn from Patrolling Point 15, indicating that the disengagement process had gone ahead smoothly, unlike the June 15th clash at PP-14. It is expected that the entire disengagement process—including from Patrolling Points 17, 17A and other parts—will be completed within a few more days.
On the Indian side, there was no hype or outward jubilation. Instead, the army continues to maintain a cautious posture in Eastern Ladakh. The possibility that Chinese positions in the Galwan Valley area had become ‘untenable’ due to flooding caused by efforts to dam the Galwan river for their benefit has not been ruled out. Reports of ‘complete withdrawal’ were issued after re-verification of Chinese positions. The lesson of June 15th—when an Indian patrol led by Colonel Santosh Babu of 16 Bihar Regiment and his men discovered Chinese troops in an area from where they were supposed to withdraw after a meeting between corps commanders of the two armies—has not been forgotten. If anything, India has strongly reinforced troops and air force presence in the region.
By July 8th, China had withdrawn from Patrolling Point 15, indicating that the disengagement process had gone ahead smoothly, unlike the June 15th clash at Patrolling Point 14. It is expected that the entire disengagement process will be completed within a few more days. On the Indian side, there was no outward jubilation. Instead, the army continues to maintain a cautious posture in Eastern Ladakh
India’s claim line lies much further to the east and includes the entire Aksai Chin area that was lost in 1962. At that time too, the Galwan Valley was a zone of contention where hostile action was seen. But unlike 1962, when India engaged in a ‘forward policy’ without adequate preparation, this time round, not only are Indian soldiers equipped properly but the essential support infrastructure—roads, culverts, bridges etcetera—are all in place. The bone of contention involves the bridge that India has built on the confluence of the Shyok and Galwan rivers that is vital for its control over areas to the north of the confluence zone and the link road of about 12-14 km from this point to PP-14. Both have alarmed China even if these lie on the Indian side of the LAC. It has been speculated that the feverish pace of building infrastructure in this part of the Union Territory of Ladakh has made China think that India is planning to retake its lost territory of Aksai Chin. It is another matter that India has never crossed the LAC, by way of either aggressive patrolling or grabbing territory as the Chinese have tried since May. For all the trouble, India remains alert and wary of Chinese adventures in the area.
When it comes to safeguarding borders, every country has to do the job alone, however superior the enemy’s strength or economic power. That, after all, is the hallmark of sovereignty. But at the same time, no statesman will willingly take his country to war—whatever the provocation. In Modi’s case, the task was particularly complicated. Domestically, India finds itself in the throes of a pandemic that is yet to abate. Then the country’s economy is not exactly in the pink of health. The latter makes it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain a war beyond a certain duration. The cost otherwise is the certain destruction of the country’s economic potential, not just for the moment but also for the future. There were plenty of moments in the days between the clash at PP-14 when war seemed a distinct possibility. A long, geographically challenging, border with China and the possibility of Pakistan fishing in troubled waters were just two factors in the situation.
That, however, did not prevent India from taking harsh steps. On June 29th, India banned 59 Chinese apps. At that time, the step was laughed at, ignoring the fact that popular apps like TikTok had tens of millions of users in India. The derision stopped a week later when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about the app ban in India and Australia and said, in the course of an interview, that, “We’re certainly looking at it. We’ve worked on this issue for a long time, whether it was the problems of having Huawei technology in your infrastructure. We’ve gone all over the world and we’re making real progress getting that out. We declared ZTE a danger to American national security. We’ve done all these things.”
In the meantime, India—which had a trade deficit of nearly $50 billion with China in 2019-2020—began taking other, non-military, steps against China. The ban on apps was just the latest. A few months ago, India had tightened the norms for allowing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from China. In recent weeks, imports from China—on which India is heavily dependent, from vital areas like pharmaceuticals to key infrastructure projects—have been put on hold. Various state governments have responded with alacrity on the issue.
And the world has noticed India’s resolve.
Two days after the incident at Galwan, the US issued a fairly low-key statement that noted the deaths of Indian soldiers and expressed condolences to their families. The statement also said that “we are closely monitoring the situation between India and Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control…we support a peaceful resolution of the current situation.” This was seized upon by domestic critics as saying that the US only offers lip service to India. What was left unsaid was the conversation between Pompeo and Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar in the days after the incident. India was not only offered words of comfort but also given vital intelligence on Chinese troop dispositions across the LAC, something that would be of immense value in case the LAC ‘flared up’. During this period, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a statement and earlier this month, Japan’s Ambassador Satoshi Suzuki said that “Japan also hopes for peaceful resolution through dialogues. Japan opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo.”
Thereafter, the US has also deployed two aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said on July 6th that “the message is clear. We’re not going to stand by and let China or anyone else take the reins in terms of being the most powerful, dominant force, whether it is in that region or over here.” He added: “And the message is clear. Our military might stands strong and will continue to stand strong, whether it is in relationship to a conflict between India and China or anywhere else.”
The Chinese released their own readout of the conversation between Doval and Wang Yi. Somewhere in the Chinese text was a line that said: ‘Both sides should adhere to the strategic assessment that instead of posing threats, the two countries provide each other with development opportunities.’
It was revealing in many ways and a tacit admission of China’s error in understanding India’s reaction to the events in Eastern Ladakh. The phrase ‘adhere to strategic assessment’ is as good as saying India should continue plodding the old path, one that Modi ruled out in his speech at Nimu and in India’s actions in the last one month.
India’s relations with China have been adversarial even at the best of times: the huge bilateral trade—which, it was hoped, would bridge the political, diplomatic and military frictions—did not overcome the legacy of 1962. With the unwarranted action at Galwan and threats in Sikkim, territories that were considered settled, matters have just gone south. It is unlikely India will go back to the belief that trade can overcome mistrust. But that chapter, which has a history of its own, is now over.
In January 2008, speaking at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that the independence of India’s foreign policy allowed the country to pursue the path of ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ with all the major countries of the world. Speaking in Beijing in May 2010, Jairam Ramesh, then environment minister, maintained India was ‘overly defensive and alarmist’ over Chinese investments
There are lessons for India from the latest crisis along the LAC. First and foremost, with China, it is important to hold one’s nerve in situations where it has transgressed the LAC. In the past, when India has refused to budge, it has usually managed to keep China at bay. The exemplar here is the Sumdorong Chu incident of 1986 that has eerie echoes of what has happened in Eastern Ladakh. In June that year, Chinese troops crossed the LAC in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh in the Sumdorong Chu Valley—named after a rivulet in that area. Soon, New Delhi lodged a strong protest with Beijing and the latter in turn denied having crossed the LAC. Within no time, China had amassed 20,000 troops in the region. At a distance in the rear, it had close to eight divisions. This was over and above the two threats issued by Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, that India would be taught a lesson. That did not deter India. Even before the tensions raced up later in 1986, 50,000-odd troops had been moved in the Zimithang area of Tawang district, a point near the contentious area. Later, another 10 divisions of the Indian army were kept ready in the Northeast region.
Then, as now, trouble arose because India decided to build military infrastructure on its side of the LAC. In the 1970s, the country did not have the capacity to build and maintain even basic infrastructure like hutments for posts in forward areas. By the early 1980s, the situation had improved to an extent and, in 1984, India had a permanent post in the area manned by paramilitary personnel. The post would be vacated in winter. In 1986, when a patrolling party returned, they found the area in Chinese hands. Again, this is something that has been observed multiple times in India’s military history since Independence.
The moral of the story is clear: the more you accede to China’s requests in such situations, the more it bends you, nibbling away at your territory. This does not mean one should rush to war with China; but it certainly means one should be prepared for war in case certain redlines are crossed. Wars are economically ruinous and draining in many other ways but if territory is not defended, there is pretty much nothing left to defend. The good thing is that China understands this. What is required is resolve. India displayed that in ample measure during the Doklam crisis in 2017—an event no less complex than the present crisis—when the territory involved belonged to a third country, Bhutan, but one that was of vital importance to India’s own territorial integrity. Eastern Ladakh marks a continuation in India’s resolve to confront China’s aggression, however difficult the circumstances may be.