SOURCE: The Tribune 

India-China relations came to the forefront in this country’s external engagement this year. This is no doubt because of Chinese moves to change the status quo in some areas along the LAC in Ladakh. Otherwise, the real focus of public attention has always been India-Pakistan ties and not the country’s principal foreign policy and security challenge — China.

All governments, past and present, and the Indian strategic community are aware that China is of greater significance than Pakistan to the country’s long-term interests but relations with the latter are embedded in a long and bitter history and easily excite emotions, and are therefore in constant popular focus unlike those with China.

It needs to be emphasised that Pakistan’s implacable animosity towards India and its pursuit of terrorism against this country cannot be underplayed, let alone overlooked. India has paid a heavy price in lives lost and in economic costs but Pakistan does not, and can never have, the resources to effectively thwart India’s progress. On the other hand, China’s astonishing rise over the past four decades has led to its acquisition of an enormous advantage in capacities and resources over India. It is willing to use these to undermine India’s regional and global standing and hobble its rise. Its aggressive posture and actions on the LAC this year were partly undertaken with this objective.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s speech in the Lok Sabha on September 15 placed on record the bare bones of Chinese actions. It did not, however, clarify if Chinese troops were now actually physically present where they were not so, prior to their moves this year, because Singh’s different formulations about different Chinese actions and Indian military responses were ambiguous.

He noted that in April, a build-up of troops and ‘armaments’ was noticed on the Chinese side by India. In May, the Chinese hindered the ‘normal, traditional patrolling pattern of our troops in the Galwan Valley area’. Further, ‘in mid-May’, the Chinese made several attempts to transgress the LAC, including in ‘Kongka La, Gogra and north bank of Pangong Lake’. He asserted that our troops responded ‘appropriately’ but did not clarify what ‘appropriate’ meant precisely. He went on to state that the Chinese violated the understanding reached between the military commanders on June 6 and this ‘created a violent face-off on June 15 at Galwan. Our brave soldiers laid down their lives and also inflicted costs, including casualties, on the Chinese side’. Despite ongoing discussions, Singh stated, the Chinese ‘again engaged in provocative military manoeuvres on the night of August 29 and 30, in an attempt to change the status quo in the South Bank area of Pangong Lake’. He went on to say, ‘But yet again, timely and firm action by our armed forces along the LAC prevented such attempts from succeeding’.

Summing up the situation, he informed the Lok Sabha, ‘as of now, the Chinese side has mobilised a large number of troops and armaments along the LAC as well as in the depth areas. There are several friction areas in eastern Ladakh, including Gogra, Kongka La and north and south banks of the Pangong Lake’. In response to Chinese actions, he said, ‘Our armed forces have also made counter deployments in these areas’ to protect our interests. He sought the Lok Sabha’s understanding of not being able to go into further details because of ‘sensitive operational issues’.

Talks have continued since the time he spoke to Parliament but there has been no recent authoritative statement on the ground situation or on what the Chinese are offering, but media reports lead to the conclusion that they are reluctant to adhere to the letter and spirit of the 1990s agreements which were designed to ensure peace along the LAC. The government seems willing to settle for protracted negotiations. It has pointed to previous LAC situations which took years to resolve, though this is hardly comforting.

An important aspect of the LAC situation is the unfortunate intrusion of domestic politics in what should be a purely national security and foreign policy issue. The Modi government is determined to show that unlike past Congress governments, it has fully safeguarded India’s territories. On the other hand, the Congress sees an opportunity to show the government as weak on national security. This political point scoring by both parties is futile and harmful to national interest. There is an undoubted need for the entire political class to demonstrably come together to meet a very grave challenge to the country’s interests. That will send the right signals to the region and beyond.

China’s actions have made the earlier policy which relied on a peaceful LAC outmoded. There is need for a fresh China policy which reduces inter-alia import dependence on China. PM Modi’s emphasis on Atmanirbhar Bharat is timely and a strategic necessity too. A new policy will also have to look at some of India’s foreign relationships—in the Indo-Pacific, the immediate neighbourhood and with the major powers— at least partially through the prism of the Chinese challenge. Some useful steps were taken in this direction this year, including through the upgrade of India’s engagement with the Quad but innovative mechanisms will have to be crafted to ensure that Chinese ingress in the neighbourhood does not adversely impact Indian interests.

That Indian and US interests coincide regarding the need to contain Chinese aggression is obvious, but there are uncertainties about the precise direction that the incoming Biden administration will adopt vis-à-vis China. There is a compelling need for the Modi government to have an honest interaction with the Biden administration on China, though ultimately, India has to rely on its own capabilities to meet the Chinese threat.