Mr Modi's dream that the 21st century will be a China-India led Asian century is practically over. It is obvious that Mr Modi did not take a correct measure of Mr Xi. Whether Mr Xi took a correct measure of Mr Modi is a matter of speculation.
Are India and China at the beginning of a new and contentious era? So it seems. In chapter 1, Chinese troops stealthily intruded a few kilometres into Indian territory — without being detected — and occupied key points in the Galwan Valley, Hot Springs and Pangong Tso. The face-off on May 5-6 brought to light the intrusion. In chapter 2, on the night of June 15-16, Chinese troops clashed with Indian troops leaving 20 men dead on the Indian side; 80 soldiers were injured and 10 were taken prisoner and released on June 18.
The India-China border — or Line of Actual Control (LAC) — has been simmering since the 1962 war, but this is the first occasion since 1975 when lives were lost. To hold the peace for 45 years was no mean achievement. Under Mr Modi’s watch, that tenuous peace has been shattered.
A false narrative
The narrative that the Modi government had assiduously built in the last six years was absolutely false. That Mr Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, was a favourite of the Chinese, who hosted him on four occasions; that Mr Modi, unlike any other prime minister, visited China on five occasions, underscoring the special relationship between the two countries; and that Mr Modi and Mr Xi had a special chemistry between them as reflected in Wuhan (2018) and Mahabalipuram (2019) – all these were part of the false narrative. The bubble burst on June 15-16.
After the bloody confrontation and loss of lives, India remained conciliatory. The MEA put out a weak statement that read “…a violent face-off happened as a result of an attempt by the Chinese side to unilaterally change the status quo… all Indian activities were on its side of the LAC and it is expected the same of China”. The Chinese counter was swift and aggressive. The PLA said “the sovereignty of the Galwan Valley region has always belonged to China” and China’s Foreign Minister admonished India to “stop all provocative actions……..The Indian side must not underestimate China’s firm will to safeguard territorial integrity.”
There are many theories about why China acted in the manner it did in May this year. The scale of the intrusion points to careful planning over several months – maybe going back to August 2019 when the Modi government changed the constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir. The government either overlooked or brushed aside (more likely the latter) the fact that China has been in occupation of a large tract of land in Ladakh over which it claims sovereignty; that it is building the Belt and Road connect to Pakistan through Gilgit-Baltistan which is a part of Ladakh; and that it had objected to India constructing a feeder road to link with the DBO road on the Indian side of the LAC. China must also have taken note of the Home Minister’s statement that Aksai Chin will be part of India.
It is a sobering thought that India did not suspect China’s intentions. If any one must take the blame squarely for India’s complacency, it is our external intelligence agencies as well as defence intelligence agencies which have boots on the ground in Ladakh. In a sense, it is an unforgivable repetition of Kargil, and especially inexplicable in an age of satellites and images and photographs beamed regularly from space. The difference between Kargil and the Galwan Valley is that the adversary is not a bumbling Pakistan but a wily China.
In Depsang (2013), India taught a lesson to China and China withdrew completely. In Doklam (Bhutan, 2017), China learned a valuable lesson about India’s strengths and weaknesses. India celebrated the withdrawal of some Chinese troops from the tri-junction, but meekly acquiesced in the structures built by China on the Doklam plateau, and the Chinese are ensconced till date in the Doklam plateau!
Mr Modi’s error
The Chinese are applying the Doklam lesson to the Galwan Valley and will, eventually, apply it to Pangong Tso and the area between Finger 4 (the LAC according to China) and Finger 8 (the LAC according to India). There was an opportunity to avoid the Galwan Valley loss. Immediately after the Corps Commanders-level negotiations on June 6, Mr Modi should have dialled Mr Xi and persuaded Mr Xi to agree to a common readout by both sides endorsing the outcome of the negotiations. Maybe the tragedy of June 15-16 would not have happened. It was a grave error on the part of Mr Modi.
Mr Modi’s dream that the 21st century will be a China-India led Asian century is practically over. It is obvious that Mr Modi did not take a correct measure of Mr Xi. Whether Mr Xi took a correct measure of Mr Modi is a matter of speculation. The two leaders cannot be close friends again. They can still do business and sign one-step-at-a-time agreements in the manner that Mr Narasimha Rao, Mr Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh did with their counterparts in China and keep the peace on the 4,056-kilometre border that includes the LAC.
It is certain that there will be no more ‘summits’ or ‘swings’. It will be just hard-nosed negotiations. It will be useful for Mr Modi to remember what Saint Thiruvalluvar said over 2,000 years ago: “Fate’s strength, one’s strength, the adversary’s strength, allies’ strength, weigh all these and decide your course of action” (Kural 471).