One year after: How Galwan Valley changed India's relations with China

In this issue, I'll be focusing on the one year anniversary of the June 15, 2020 clash in Galwan Valley, in which 20 Indian soldiers and at least 4 Chinese soldiers lost their lives in the worst violence on the border since 1967, and the wide-ranging impact it has had since on India's relations with China, specifically on managing the boundary question, and the sharply contrasting views of both sides on the way forward.

I’ll be drawing on some of the many commentaries published both in India and China over the past week. (I'll spend more time on the latter, as it's far easier for readers to keep abreast of writings in India, although I'll flag a couple of pieces that caught my eye.)

I'll start with the readout of a recent conference organised at Tsinghua University to coincide with the one-year anniversary, published on Guancha. Here's what Zhou Bo, former PLA Senior Colonel now affiliated with Tsinghua who moderated the conference, which had both Indian and Chinese experts participating, according to the readout, had to say (usual caveat: these excerpts are translated with software which I cleaned up here and there so treat this as broadly true to the original, but don't use as a literal translation):

Let me get straight to my point about how we should approach the crisis in light of last year's conflict in the Galwan Valley.  I disagree with...the assertion that this was pre-planned by China and that this was definitely a coincidental incident. The border itself was not demarcated, and besides this is not the first time there has been a standoff, it just became more violent this time. I would say thankfully, we didn't shoot at each other. The multiple rounds of meetings between India and China at the military level on the ground are unprecedented. This has laid a good foundation for both of our countries to withdraw from the region. We should maintain such a mechanism. Also the border forces should maintain a mechanism of regular meetings and mutual visits. From 1993 to 2013, China and India established four agreements on confidence-building measures at the government and military levels, which is more than China has with any other country, and the measures in the agreements were developed in great detail but were not fully implemented.

The core issue between India and China is to develop bilateral relations while the two countries set aside their disputes so that the actual border control line between the two countries is within manageable limits. The Chinese approach and the Indian approach are almost opposite in terms of the approach to the Line of Actual Control on the border. India's approach prefers a bottom-up approach, validating the Line of Actual Control first, while China wants to take a top-down approach with mutual understanding and mutual adjustment. At least we can do a lot under the four agreements to make sure that conflict doesn't happen again.

I think this call for verification of the Line of Actual Control is beyond the current atmosphere of bilateral relations and is not very feasible at the moment based on the huge differences in bilateral positions. However, the four agreements are very detailed agreements and more room can actually be found within the agreements. According to the agreements, both sides are to refrain from holding large-scale military exercises of more than divisions, that is, more than 15,000 people, in the vicinity of the Line of Actual Control. We have so much space for additional mobilization that we should go from easy to difficult and first find out the parts of the agreement that can be implemented with consensus, otherwise it will be difficult for us to find a way out.

Zhou Bo also had a piece in English in the South China Morning Post this week where he repeated some of the same points he made at the Tsinghua conference. Considering that he usually isn't among the most quoted Chinese experts on the LAC or on China-India ties as he's not really one of the 'South Asia hands' in Beijing, it’s quite interesting that he has had so much to say this week (which leads me to speculate the SCMP piece also appearing is probably no accident).

Here's part of what he said:

In a few meetings with Indian scholars, I was surprised to learn how they almost invariably believed that the Galwan clash was the result of a planned attack by China. This is impossible. If China has to compete in an America-initiated great power competition, why would it suddenly divert its attention and strength away from that to take on India?

The deadly incident was dreadful in that it came closest to breaking a decades-old tacit agreement between the two countries not to use force. “In the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of [the border dispute],” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2017. But the Galwan clash, even though no bullet was fired, has changed the whole atmosphere.

To makes things worse, the LAC is not verified. A 1993 agreement between the two governments stipulates that “when necessary, the two sides jointly check and determine the segments of the Line of Actual Control where they have different views as to its alignment”. But when is it necessary? The approaches of China and India seem irreconcilable. China prefers a top-down approach, which is basically a land swap based on mutual accommodation, while India insists on a bottom-up approach of verifying the LAC as the priority.

Beijing suspects that, once the alignment of the LAC is verified, India would take it as a de facto border and refuse further negotiations. Such suspicion is not entirely groundless. India has refused any talks on the position of Arunachal Pradesh, which China holds as part of southern Tibet, citing the reason that Tawang is the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama.

How to prevent the dispute from spilling over into a conflict? The way forward is to look back. Between 1993 and 2013, China and India reached four agreements on confidence-building measures at governmental and military levels. This is more than any bilateral agreements China has signed with other countries.  And they are substantive, too, which is impressive. Both reaffirm that they shall reduce or limit their respective military forces along the LAC to minimum levels; major categories of armaments such as combat tanks, infantry combat vehicles, large-calibre guns, surface-to-surface missiles and surface-to-air missiles are to be reduced; large-scale military exercises involving more than one division in the proximity of the LAC shall be avoided; and combat aircraft should not fly within 10km of the LAC.

Perhaps the boldest step might be to establish buffer zones in the most dangerous areas along the LAC. Without prejudicing their respective positions on the boundary question, this is the most effective way to disengage and prevent conflict. Both sides agree they shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the LAC. Building buffer zones is a step further. And it is possible, too. From the mountains around Pangong Lake, a de facto buffer zone has already been established after the mutual withdrawal of troops.  It is ridiculous if, in the 21st century, Beijing and New Delhi are still hijacked by a dispute that is a colonial remnant, not least because apart from this dispute, they have no outstanding problems with each other.

COMMENT: Zhou Bo is not the only one in Beijing pushing this idea. Hu Shisheng of CICIR has also written previously about turning the disputed "line” of the LAC into a "belt". Not sure that will fly with Delhi which has been emphasising the need for clarifying the line, but what's clear in this messaging, which doesn't bode well for managing the boundary, is Beijing seems to be saying again, 'forget about clarifying the LAC'...

Antara Ghosal Singh has a useful round up of Chinese commentaries on the boundary and what she calls "a political stalemate" in addition to the LAC one, in how both sides see the space occupied by the boundary vis-a-vis the broader relationship:

As per the Chinese assessment, even if China agrees to the settlement of the border dispute, China-India competition will continue unabated at various levels, only China will have one less card in hand, a crucial one, against India. For instance, Liu Zongyi, Secretary-General of the Centre for China and South Asia Studies of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, argues that, if the LAC is determined and the border is delineated, next India will turn the gun towards Pakistan, establish its dominance over South Asia, and subsequently concentrate its entire strategic focus and main resources on the Indian Ocean, preventing China from entering the Indian Ocean, and controlling China’s lifeline.  Some believe that the disputed border is a point of leverage for China given India is the only Quad country that shares a border with China. Therefore, from the political, economic, and strategic perspectives, China seems to be in no rush to resolve the border issue. Rather, in a sharp contrast to the “end of shadowboxing” narrative emanating from New Delhi, China’s leading South Asia experts have been hinting at a “continuous struggle, a long term see-saw between forces” at the LAC, for at least the next 4-5 years. Any long-term and substantial breakthrough at the LAC can only result from genuine reconciliation between the two sides’ conflicting positions on LAC clarification, the impact of border clashes on bilateral ties, and their respective perception of antagonistic policy changes by the other side.

The other major point of contradiction between New Delhi and Beijing is related to the position of the border dispute within their overall bilateral ties. Following the Galwan clash India took a series of punitive measures against China, beyond the realm of military, by banning popular Chinese apps, restricting Chinese investments and, most recently, excluding Huawei from India’s 5G trials. The goal was to convey to Beijing that peace and tranquility on the border is “absolutely essential” for good relations.... However, in China, India’s stance is interpreted as a part of what is often referred to as India’s “adventurist policy” under the Modi government, where India is not only building pressure on Beijing to urgently resolve the border issue but also placing the border issue as a necessary precondition for the positive development of overall China-India relations. As observed by Lou Chunhao, Deputy Director and Associate Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, bilateral relations could be normalized and improved in 1988, when India finally agreed to decouple the border issue from the rest of the relationship. Since then, successive leaderships in both countries have tried to downplay the boundary issue for the sake of overall advancement of China-India ties. However, the present Indian government is trying to re-link the border dispute with the progress in bilateral relations, which not only violates the bilateral consensus to not allow differences to rise into disputes, but can also create insurmountable obstacles to the long-term development of bilateral ties.

This piece appearing originally in Global Times (Chinese edition) and then in a few other places got quite a lot of play on Chinese social media (same disclaimer applies, used translation software, cleaned up a bit, broadly true to original but don’t treat as a literal trans.):

June 15 is a day worth remembering for Chinese people. On this day in 2020, a fierce battle broke out on the Sino-Indian border. The Indian army brazenly crossed the line. That bloody battle lasted from day to night. Qi Fabao, the leader who took the lead to negotiate, did not yield a single point on the border in the face of the Indian army, which outnumbered us several times, even though he was seriously wounded and his head was bleeding. Four other heroes died heroically, and their names deserve to be remembered forever: Chen Hongjun, Chen Xiangrong, Xiao Siyuan, and Wang Zhuoran…

COMMENT: It took as long as 8 months for the Chinese military to acknowledge what happened on "the day worth remembering" - which did not even find a mention in the pages of the official PLA Daily throughout 2020 - but I digress....

Now a year has passed, the Chinese side has shown a strong front-line mobilization capability, plateau combat capability, logistics supply capability, infrastructure construction capability, etc., so that India's domestic "force to solve the border problem" voice is greatly reduced. However, this does not mean that India's misconceptions about China are diminishing.

Despite the Chinese side's repeated demonstration of great power's magnanimity and broad mindedness, some of India's practices are inexplicable - the Indian government continues to purchase weapons and equipment from other countries in the midst of an epidemic, with a large number of patients dying every minute due to lack of medical care.

Individual ministers of the Indian government have also claimed that India-China relations are at a "crossroads", stubbornly insisting on linking border developments to India-China relations and clamoring that India-China relations will not be restored as long as border developments are not resolved. This leads one to suspect that the Indian authorities are trying to repeat the same tactic of stirring up trouble in the Sino-Indian border region to divert domestic conflicts and pressure through "internal and external treatment".

At the "crossroads" of India-China relations, where to go depends entirely on India's choice....

For The Hindu, I reported on China's evolving propaganda narrative on the clash, and how it has turned around what happened at the LAC and painted India as the aggressor, through its release of selective and sparse details. You can read the full piece here (partial paywall).

From the piece:

While Chinese officials have said repeatedly in recent months “the rights and wrongs are clear” of what led to the LAC tensions, Indian officials say Beijing is, in fact, yet to provide any clarity or credible explanation of its actions last year, starting with mobilising a large number of troops in April following annual military exercises and deploying them close to the LAC, not just in Galwan Valley.

That mobilisation in April, coming at a time when India had to delay its own summer exercises because of the COVID-19 outbreak, is one of several key missing details in China’s official accounts so far.

A reading of all of China’s public statements issued in the year since the Galwan clash underlines a two-fold approach in Beijing’s messaging: a focus only on the Galwan Valley with little to no mention of the other troubled spots on the LAC, where PLA transgressions led to multiple stand-offs, and since February this year, a more proactive propaganda effort aimed at emphasising the bravery of China’s troops in Galwan and portraying Beijing not as the aggressor, but as defending its sovereignty.

As I mention in the piece, the now famous Galwan video put out by the Chinese government in February is a case in point, which showed Indian soldiers crossing the river and Chinese soldiers holding their ground -- making it seem to Chinese audiences that India was the aggressor while of course leaving behind the crucially important context that the Indian soldiers were trying to push back Chinese troops who had earlier crossed the LAC and had come up to Patrolling Point 14, a point that, it is worth noting, Indian troops had previously routinely patrolled up to (and which wasn’t among the previously known disputed spots along the LAC), and which was around the site of the clash.

The propaganda narrative within China has been effective. No surprise that the widely prevailing view there is India was the aggressor, and also that most people consuming Chinese media are most likely unaware of the still unresolved multiple stand-offs (ignored in most coverage) or the fact that it is India, not China, that is asking for a return to status quo as of April 2020 (it’s quite telling to me that China hasn’t even used the word status quo).

These are details which would not sit very well with the portrayal of China as being the innocent party here and of India being the transgressor. I wonder what Chinese readers would also make of the multiple reports in the Indian press of India losing access to hundreds of sq km since last summer in total in several areas along the LAC, which would be quite a feat for the side that was supposedly transgressing…

That was pretty much the tone in most coverage last week, too. From Global Times:

On the first anniversary of the Galwan Valley clash, Chinese netizens honored and expressed gratefulness on social media platforms to Chinese frontier soldiers and officers who had sacrificed their lives in the deadly military clash for defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity, while warning the Indian government not to  attempt to provoke fresh conflicts along the border as the South Asian country suffers from the epidemic.

Videos and photos of how four soldiers engaged and fought the Indian military over their illegal trespass in the Galwan Valley Line of Actual Control were re-circulated on Chinese social media on Tuesday, touching the hearts of millions of Chinese netizens.  

"Chinese people and history will never forget these heroes in the remote Galwan Valley for protecting the country's sacred borderland in the face of the despicable Indian military. No words can express our deepest respect," a Chinese netizen wrote on Sina Weibo. 

Another said that "pure love is only for the motherland. They used every drop of blood to defend every inch of our territory. The four martyrs will forever stay in the country's frontiers and protect Chinese people."

In the video of the Galwan Valley clash released by China, Qi Fabao, the regimental commander from the People's Liberation Army Xinjiang Military Command, along with other PLA soldiers, opened their arms in the river to intercept the Indian soldiers who were trespassing the border. 

"If the troop is compared to a sharp sword, the courage and uprightness of soldiers is the blade of the sword. We are not afraid of sacrifice, and we have always held on to the belief that we would rather sacrifice our lives than lose an inch of our territory," Qi said in his first public appearance in early June after his recovery. 

Qi was awarded by the Central Military Commission with the title of "Hero Regimental Commander for Defending the Border" and honored with the July 1 Medal by the Communist Party of China Central Committee. Chen Hongjun, one of the four martyrs, was awarded by the Central Military Commission with "Hero to Defend the Dorder," and awarded first-class merit to three other martyrs - Chen Xiangrong, Xiao Siyuan and Wang Zhuoran. 

Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma (retd) reflected on lessons one year after:

In a very large number of face-offs on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the protocols had been followed to the hilt, the troops disengaged and moved to their respective bases. There were sporadic incidents of scuffles and fisticuffs, the long drawn stand offs in 2013, 2014 and 2017, which were later discussed at the Border Personnel Meetings and diplomatic levels and resolved.

Out of the blue, in May 2020, with the pandemic raging, China attempted expansionism at multi-points in Aksai Chin in Eastern Ladakh, after side-stepping two mechanised and motorised divisions to the area, a rarity by itself.

COMMENT: Another detail, unsurprisingly, absent in Chinese media reports, and one that makes Zhou Bo’s comments last week on confidence-building measures and not mobilising troops read rather hollow.

The piece continues:

The Chinese focus area was limited to Aksai Chin – from Depsang Plateau to North-South of Pangong Tso, and pointed towards an apparent desire not to be involved in larger conflict. However, the eventology sums to PLA having deliberately and in a well-planned manner broken the systemic understanding and behaviour based on varied Agreements, protocols and norms. Obviously, China undertook the transgressions in Eastern Ladakh surreptitiously, exactly like it had occupied islands, shoals and reefs in South China Sea without firing a shot, attempting to fix a new Line.

The whys and wherefores of the Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh are immaterial at this stage. Whether CCP/PLA had decided and achieved its political and military end-state is also of lesser consequence, as no further step-forward is possible without many steps up the escalatory ladder. Distrust is complete, there is realisation that China is a quintessential expansionist country, and trade relationships must be disaggregated in form and substance. It has taken three decades of extensive negotiations, but one year of aggression, to comprehend that China’s underlying policy remains far from benign…

2020-21 became the Year of Clarity for India.

In The Hindu (partial paywall), some hard questions from Sushant Singh, who says dealing with the LAC over the past year has been for Delhi “a difficult balancing act between its domestic rhetoric and external reality.” Worth reading here in full.

In Times of India, former Indian ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale writes on the broader structural reasons in his view that led to the crisis, and he argues India should pursue “balancing coalitions” to mitigate them:

We in India must also be clear that China’s aggressive military measures in eastern Ladakh were aimed at bringing home to India and the world at large that China’s economic, military, technological and comprehensive national power far exceeded that of India. In other words, China was also messaging that she was the pre-eminent power in Asia and that other nations including India must realise, accept and acknowledge this fact.

India must comprehend that the military coercion being employed on our northern borders by China was possible only due to the huge power differential and asymmetry which exists between our countries. This necessary condition was met in the summer of 2020 enabling the PLA to undertake the kind of deployment it did in Ladakh.

And finally…

Highly recommend reading this new paper from Manoj Joshi at the Observer Research Foundation on “Eastern Ladakh, the Longer Perspective”. It’s worth your time. He writes:

Incidents on the border—the stand-offs in Depsang and Chumar in 2013 and 2014, and the various incidents and clashes in Pangong Tso and Demchok—were all linked to Chinese proposals in the BDCA and on the Code of Conduct on border affairs. These were for the Indians to freeze construction in the border areas. But far from freezing, the Indian construction process which had slowly gathered speed since the mid-2000s, began to move expeditiously after 2010. The completion of the Darbuk Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road in 2019 was an important marker of India’s determination to maintain some degree of parity with China.

Perhaps an even more important marker of Indian behaviour was the Doklam episode of 2017: Chinese forces, who were positioned at the end of a long and narrow valley dominated by Indian troops along the ridgeline—were outplayed. China initially took a hard-line stance but soon decided on a compromise. It was following this incident that the PLA reviewed its entire posture along the Sino-Indian border and began a systematic buildup: they stationed more troops proximate to the LAC, plugged gaps in the air defence system, and hardened airfields and helipads. Presumably, as part of this, the decision was taken to iron out the LAC wherever possible, especially near the DS-DBO road.

China’s sudden military move in April-May 2020 was partly an act of strategic coercion aimed at quelling what Beijing felt was an overweening Indian posture on the LAC. It would go out of control in the icy banks of the Galwan river, and lead to casualties—something which China could not have expected.

That’s it for this issue. Safe to say, the boundary is front and centre once again in the relationship, and there remain starkly differing views on managing it which suggests a turbulent period ahead for broader ties as well.

The newsletter will be back next week with more diverse offerings — given the volume of commentaries and analysis over the past week on the LAC coinciding with the anniversary, I thought this merited a detailed look (and there was a lot I left out too!).

Thank you as always for reading, and see you next week.