The clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley – that has caused the deaths of Colonel Santosh Babu of the Bihar Regiment and reportedly 19 other Indian Army personnel, and an unspecified number of Chinese casualties – should not surprise us. Given the increasing tension on the Sino-Indian border, it was only a matter of time before the situation exploded as it has now. According to sources, more than twice this number of casualties has occurred on the Chinese side.
Ironically, this violence has taken place during the de-escalation process.
As the Indian Army statement notes, “During the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley, a violent face-off took place yesterday (Monday, 15 June) night, with casualties on both sides. The loss of life on the Indian side includes an officer and two soldiers. Senior military officials of two sides are currently meeting at the venue to defuse the situation.”
Indeed, on Saturday, 13 June, Indian Army Chief MM Naravane had himself said that both armies “are disengaging in a phased manner” from the Galwan Valley, and that the military talks between the two sides had been “very fruitful”, and that “the entire situation along our borders with China is under control.”
India-China Border Violence: Collapse of Confidence Building Measures Regime
The Ministry of External Affairs has charged that the incident was the outcome of an effort by the Chinese forces to “unilaterally change status quo there.” The Chinese seem to be suggesting that the boot may be on the other foot.
Reports suggest that a quarrel over the Chinese side not removing a tent, which they had previously committed to do so, was the immediate provocation for the scuffle.
The situation got out of hand; people have lost their lives or been injured, and both sides are now trying to contain the problem. It needs to be noted that while iron rods and stones are not guns and knives, they can be equally lethal – and it is a wonder that someone hadn’t got killed until now in the other scuffles that have been happening in recent years.
More than anything else, the event in Galwan Valley marks the breakdown of the 27-year-old Confidence Building Measures (CBM) regime, through which the two sides were trying to work out a mutually acceptable border, even while maintaining peace along the Line of Actual Control.
Earlier there had been clashes, such as the ones in Sikkim in 1967 when artillery was used, leading to hundreds of casualties. Then there was the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in Sumdorong Chu Valley and other areas near Tawang in 1987, but this had ended without any physical clashes.
Why We Shouldn’t Underestimate Seriousness Of India-China Border Violence
In a peculiar way, the incident in Galwan on the night of 15 June 2020, can also be seen as a ‘success’ of the CBM regime – that the casualties were the outcome of stone-pelting rather than the substantial weaponry both sides have brought up near the LAC. In some ways, this was a repeat of the violent clashes that occurred in Pangong Tso on 5-6 May, when soldiers on both sides clashed with iron rods and stones, with several being injured on both sides.
Given the massive military deployments along the LAC, we should not underestimate the seriousness of the situation. The reason is that with the CBMs breaking down, there will be little to restrain the two sides in an area where there is no recognised border.
If both sides begin to press their claims unrestrainedly, or create new claims, we have all the ingredients for a larger conflict. Neither side can afford to have one at this time when they are reeling from an attack by another enemy — the COVID-19 virus.
If Beijing Thinks New Delhi May Throw Its Weight Into US Camp, Then All Bets Are Off
Already, it seems clear that the Chinese want to redraw the LAC in the Galwan sector. There have never been clashes earlier in this area since the end of the 1962 war when Indian posts upriver were wiped out or withdrawn during the conflict. The Chinese motive now seems to be two-fold – one being to threaten the vital Indian road running along the Shyok linking Darbuk to Daulat Beg Oldie.
They know fully well that this means a major shift in maintaining peace and tranquility on the LAC, and here, their signal seems to be aimed at India’s steady drift into the American camp.
As long as India maintained its strategic autonomy, it could leverage its independence for the guarantee of China’s ‘good behaviour’.
But if Beijing thinks that New Delhi has decided to throw its weight into the American camp, then all bets are off.
Whether India has indeed begun the process of becoming a military partner of the US or not is unclear. The Modi government has taken several steps, including the signing of three of four foundational agreements to cement military-to-military ties, and upgraded the Quad dialogue to the ministerial level.
But the sheer scale of the casualties on the LAC will now drive decision-making in South Block – and that is not a good thing.
Why India Must Remain Cautious – And Not Become ‘Collateral Damage’
In normal times, the situation could have been managed, as, indeed, it was through the Wuhan and Chennai summits. But these are not normal times.
COVID-19 has greatly heightened US-China tensions, and given the rhetoric coming out of Washington, Beijing could be on edge. And what we are witnessing on the India-China border is a manifestation of that.
Our endeavour should be to stay out of any Big Power conflict in which we could be collateral damage. But the number of dead may force India’s hand in taking an action that generates its own dynamic.
(For live updates on the India-China situation, click here.)
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)