India’s Galwan Lesson: Local Clashes Can Spiral Out Of Control

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It is one year since the Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in a brutal and bloody brawl in the Galwan River valley on 15 June 2020. Deaths on both sides were the first since 1975, when four Assam Rifles soldiers were ambushed and killed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh. Although PLA transgressions in Ladakh had been reported since early May, there were attempts by the government to underplay the situation, perhaps in the hope that it could be resolved peacefully.

However, the Galwan clash hammered home the truth that the current crisis was entirely unlike the past incidents, and required a comprehensive and combined political, diplomatic, and military response.

Looking Back

It would be helpful to do a brief recap of the past year to understand the current situation and look at future prospects. The initial PLA transgressions across the LAC took place in the areas of Depsang, Galwan, Gogra, Hot Springs, and the north bank of the Pangong Tso. Although the situation at Galwan was quickly defused after the clash with both sides pulling back in July, the Chinese refused to withdraw from the other areas. The Indian Army rapidly mobilised approximately 50,000 troops into Ladakh, matching the PLA deployment.

In late August, the Indian Army mounted a swift operation to occupy heights along the Kailash Range at the south bank of the Pangong Tso. This added to the ongoing tensions, and firing was exchanged between the two sides, although it was quickly controlled.

The occupation of the Kailash heights gave a tactical advantage and a bargaining chip in future negotiations on disengagement.

There was also a flurry of activity at the political and diplomatic levels. 267 Chinese apps were banned on the grounds of being "prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order." The import of Chinese equipment in the power and telecom sector was restricted, and Chinese companies omitted from the 5G trials.

Also Read: Have India-China Managed To Convince the World of Peace at Galwan?

Did India Really Lose Its ‘Bargaining Chip’ At Kailash Range?

In September, there were two high-level meetings between the defence and foreign Ministers of the two sides. Some signs of a breakthrough were visible when the two Foreign Ministers agreed on a five-point consensus to resolve the ongoing standoff. This probably led to further negotiations that resulted in an agreement to disengage from Pangong Tso.

In February, disengagement took place at Pangong Tso with the PLA withdrawing from the north bank, and the Indian Army vacating the heights on Kailash Range occupied in August. There was some criticism that India had lost its only bargaining chip by leaving Kailash heights, but in my view, the PLA would not have withdrawn from the north bank without a quid pro quo from the Indian side.

However, it could be argued that we should have insisted on a deal covering all the areas of intrusion rather than localise the agreement to Pangong Tso. Whether such a deal could have been struck is a matter of debate.

Today, the two sides are in a somewhat tense stalemate. The PLA continues to occupy areas across our perception of the LAC in Gogra and Hot Springs, and prevents our patrols from accessing the LAC in the Depsang Plains. This situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. I make this assumption because there appears little urgency to resolve the standoff.

Also Read: COVID, Galwan Aftermath: How Much Does India Still Rely On China?

Despite Border Conflict, China Emerged As India’s Biggest Trading Partner In 2020

Between June 2020 and January 2021, there were nine Corps Commander-level meetings between the two sides. In the last five months, only two meetings have been held, with little results. There have also been no high-level contacts at the political or diplomatic level to find a solution. Where matters of territory and borders are concerned, military commanders have little authority to take decisions except to follow what has been agreed in discussions between political leaders.

Some of the pressure that India put on bilateral trade and economic engagement also appears to have weakened. The Foreign Minister has repeatedly pointed out that the current situation has a “damaging impact” on ties, but China has emerged as India’s largest trade partner in 2020.

In the first five months of 2021, trade between India and China soared by 70 percent, leading the Chinese State media to say that “China-India trade has largely shrugged off the impact of the political tensions caused by the border friction last year.”

On 8 June, the Ministry of Finance issued a letter stating that "there is no bar for bidders to have a Transfer of Technology arrangement with the entities of a country sharing land border with India." This could provide a backdoor for Chinese technology companies to enter into critical infrastructure projects from which they were previously barred.

The Way Forward

It could be said that it is impractical to have a complete decoupling of trade with China, and that the current priority for the government is to handle the crippling second wave of the pandemic. These are valid arguments, but we must also be conscious that our communications and actions express our intent and are closely watched by the adversary.

Therefore, any impression that ‘business-as-usual’ is possible without restoring status quo ante along the LAC, will only harden the PLA’s stance on further disengagement.

The current situation is not without risks, because about 100,000 soldiers remain arrayed on both sides of the LAC, viewing each other with suspicion and mistrust. If the Galwan incident teaches us a lesson, it is that local incidents have a life of their own and can spiral out of control. Both India and China need to give an impetus to find a quick resolution to the ongoing standoff.

[(Retd) Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, VSM & Bar, ADC is the former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian army's Northern Command. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are of the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.]

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