The difference between the summer of 2020 and earlier face-offs between Indian and Chinese troops in eastern Ladakh is that, this time around, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has come in strength.
Several divisions of PLA have been deployed in the depth areas, and, consequently, there are also larger numbers of troops in close proximity to each other in the India–China border areas. The Indian Army has also made a matching build-up in the area and all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Due to the sheer numbers as well as the fact that armour and artillery have also been brought up, it is apparent that PLA has planned and prepared this current offensive. It aims at moving the ground positions of Chinese troops right up to what they conceive is LAC.
By doing so, what, in effect, the Chinese are attempting to accomplish is to unilaterally define and determine LAC without bilateral consultation with India. China will decide what is its territory and will move to exercise actual control over it. The Indian Army has blocked the Chinese and is deployed to protect Indian territorial integrity. What PLA has also managed to do is to violate all the principles, norms, standard procedures which have evolved over the past 25 years to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas. They have displayed how little store it sets by agreements signed by its own government.
Strategically, what the Chinese are signalling to India and the world is that they are the number one power in Asia and that they will throw their weight around as they wish, whether in the South China Sea or on the India-China border.
They also want India to understand and accept that China’s comprehensive national power far outweighs India’s, and that the nation must acknowledge its place in the pecking order of Asia. India must roll over and play dead. The 21st Century is not an Asian century but a Chinese century.
India’s military action in eastern Ladakh, in turn, sends China the very clear message that India does not accept Chinese hegemony and will not tolerate its bullying and pushing. India shall stand up to it. The nation’s brave soldiers did exactly this, on that fateful night of June 15 in the Galwan Valley. Remember, the rest of the world is also watching. If China has thrown down the gauntlet, India has picked it up.
Having militarily sent out the clear intention to take on China and oppose its aggressive methods aimed at browbeating other nations including India, we cannot let the rest of the India-China relationship continue as normal. It cannot be business as usual.
Why? If India was to do that we would be negating the message of our military action on the ground, and, in stark contrast, be conveying to the Chinese that India can live with what its army has done. Therefore, India needs to reinforce and reiterate its military messaging through policy decisions which further underline India’s very clear national consensus not to accept Chinese big brotherly attitudes and plain bullying. It is for this reason that India will have to take measures to indicate that if there is no peace on the border, the rest of the relationship with China will also be negatively impacted. A reassessment and recalibration of India’s China policy are required to make India’s messaging crystal clear.
The first step in this resetting of India’s China policy was the ban on 59 Chinese apps such as TikTok, WeChat and UC Browser. India is only getting started. Banning Chinese firms on national security grounds from participating in India’s 5G trials and rollout will be a strong indication of New Delhi’s mindset.
One consequence of Chinese actions will be for India to strengthen its partnerships with democracies such as the United States, Japan, France, South Korea and, perhaps, Indonesia. India must also expand its relations with Taiwan. Delhi will have to reassess its China policy with a cool, calm, rational frame of mind. There is no need for knee-jerk reactions. In order to weigh the options which can be on the table, India has to have widespread consultations which must be timebound. The new policy must be implemented within 2020 itself.
Such a reset and recalibration of India’s China policy, particularly in the economic realm, cannot be accomplished without causing some pain to ourselves. When we have decided that a strong message needs to be sent to China, then we must also be ready to bear the pain.
Indian soldiers have done this on our borders; now it is time for ordinary Indians to show that they are willing to do so too. The pain is likely to come in the form of higher consumer prices for certain products; it may come in the form of lower profits for firms; it may also take the form of lower revenues for traders.
We shall have to accept some pain, if we are to convey that we are a strong, united nation which China has made the mistake of riling. India’s strength of character will have to be put on full display to indicate to China that it will not be business as usual.