The question remains: what are the longer-term consequences of the skirmish between the forces of China and India high-up in the Himalayas that took at least 20 Indian lives on June 15, 2020? Then India and China fought a brief battle with crude weapons — bamboo sticks, iron bars and pushing and shoving. Even though the weapons used were crude the two sides inflicted a large number of casualties. Both countries had inched towards a fight. They had built their forces in the remote Galwan Valley high up in the Himalayas. As the forces of the two countries dug into opposing positions, China took an especially muscular stance. It sent in heavy guns, armoured personnel carriers and other equipment into the area. The June 15 skirmish that took many lives on the Indian side was in the same area where the two countries had fought a war in 1962. Each side was quick to blame the other for violence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the boundary that emerged from the 1962 war.
According to one account, “The spark for the recent tension seemed to have been a road to a remote air force base that the Indian Army is building through the Galwan Valley. Military analysts say that the road is fully within Indian territory but that the Chinese are determined to frustrate India’s efforts to upgrade its military positions. And the wider backdrop is that India and China have been competing for influence on many fronts across South Asia.”
Some of the Indian casualties occurred when soldiers fell off a cliff into the deep ravine below. While the Indians said they had lost 20 soldiers, China did not reveal the number of people killed or hurt on its side. Popular sentiment on both sides was hard and aggressive. India was in no shape to risk a major war with China as it has slipped into a severe economic and health crisis caused by the spread of the coronavirus that has cost the country 100 million jobs and thousands of deaths. Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, is till spreading in spite of the lockdown ordered by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India has the fourth largest number of people in the world who have become ill because of the disease. There was some irony in the fact that the virus had initially developed in China and had spread from there the world over. It had arrived in India via Iran where the Indian Shiite pilgrims had come into contact with those from China. Iran was also the source of Covid-19 in Pakistan.
But the initial Indian response to the June 15 incident was belligerent. The Chinese responded in kind. “This kind of provocation is aggressive, and we have no choice but to contain it,” said Yue Gang, a retired senior officer in the People’s Liberation Army. He blamed border tensions that flared up in May on India’s actions and Prime Minister Modi’s political ambitions. However, the expert consensus on the Indian side showed some worry that the conflict could escalate and get out of hand. That said, it was expected that both sides would limit their exchanges to words or to economic measures. If the latter, most of the cost will be borne by India.
The two governments had their senior diplomats talk on the telephone and issued statements after the conversation was done. In the call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was said to have used harsh language with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, which was revealed in a statement issued by Beijing after the call was made. “The Indian side must not misjudge the current situation and must not underestimate China’s firm resolve will be to safeguard territorial sovereignty,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hours later the Indian government posted its own version of the conversation saying that its Foreign Minister blamed China for “a premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties”. Outside the government, experts were deeply concerned. One reaction came from Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “For years, India and China have said there have been no fatalities along the border. That they have crossed that threshold in and of itself makes this a significant incident.”
India has a tendency to use patriotism in difficult situations it faces with foreign governments or foreign people. This was a powerful weapon when Mohandas Gandhi led India and the Indians in the struggle for independence from the long British rule. Under his prodding, boycott of British manufactures became a powerful tool that was used cleverly and effectively. Gandhi himself took to weaving himself the loincloth, the only piece of garment he used to cover himself with by wrapping it around his waist. This hurt the large British textile industry that had become a major exporter of its products to India. Some Indian’s wanted to draw upon that history.
Following the fight in the mountains, calls were made for boycotting Chinese goods. This may be difficult to pull off since most of the mobile phones the Indians use are made in China. India-China trade has grown enormously in the last few years, from $3 billion in 2000 to more than $95 billion in 2018. And as of last year, a trade deficit between the two countries reached nearly $60 billion in China’s favour. It is hard to tell whether the boycott would work in producing a change in China’s policy towards its large neighbour. The Indian Express, one of the nation’s leading English language newspaper, reported that India was preparing to cancel a huge railway contract that had been given to a Chinese company.
One consequence of the conflict between India and China would be to draw the former closer to the United States. Ever since the senior leaders of the US picked up a fight with Beijing, they have been working on India to join Washington and team up with Canberra and Tokyo to form a quasi-defense pact that is being called the “Quad”. India is happy to partner with these Pacific powers but is unlikely to give it any kind of formal shape. It has always been India’s policy not to enter into formal alliances. The big worry is that President Trump’s Washington may get deeply involved on the Indian side. Its initial response was on the side of caution. India signed a $3.5 billion arms deal in February with America. However, the US State Department said that Washington “was closely monitoring” the dispute. “Both India and China have expressed the desire to de-escalate, and we support a peaceful resolution of the current situation.”
Although India is at pains to stress the Quad is not a military alliance, Australia may join naval exercises involving the other three countries. “We are at a worrisome and extremely serious turning-point in our relations with China,” says Nirupama Rao, a former head of India’s diplomatic service and ambassador to China. She notes a “clear asymmetry of power” between the two countries.