Should we trust China as a friend, neighbor or an economic partner?
Apparently, China is a “mercurial” state when it comes to friends and neighbors.
There has been a big dilemma for India to treat China as a friend or a foe since late 1940s. Many countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines also faced similar dilemma.
China and India are neighbors with no mutually agreed borders. There is estimated to be 120,000 square kilometres of disputed territory between China and India.
True to its mercurial nature, China has frequently changed its border claims and maps. There was a period before 1962 when people from both countries called each other not just as friends, but also brothers.
The real enmity between India and China began because of Tibet, which was an independent state until 1950. Tibet is located between China and India. Tibet agreed to India’s border proposals, while China rejected them in the past.
In 1950, China annexed Tibet and ruthlessly crushed the Tibetans’ uprising. Tibet leader Dalai Lama and his followers fled Tibet, took refuge in India and established an exiled government in Dharamshala, India.
China wanted to teach India a lesson and bring the nation to the negotiating table on its own terms. In a surprised move, China launched a massive attack on India in 1962. India never expected this hostile move from China.
Chinese troops entered deep into Indian territory. India suffered huge losses due to the sudden nature of the attack and extreme weather at the Himalayan border.
In another surprise move, China declared a unilateral ceasefire just one month after their initial attack. It retreated from most of India’s territory, except Aksai Chin. China occupied 38,000 square kilometres of Indian territory in Aksai Chin in the 1950s but consolidated its grip over the area during the war in 1962.
Just five years after the 1962 Sino-India War, overconfident China launched another attack in 1967 in the areas of Nathu La and Cho La. This time, Indian troops fought back Chinese aggression and pushed Chinese troops back within their territory.
Let us look at China’s recent conflict with India on June 15. What is China’s motivation this time? People say that the recent border clash in Galwan Valley clearly indicates China’s expansionist ambitions. It also wants to exert influence over India, which, in recent years, has been leaning towards the U.S. and its allies, like Japan and Australia.
More details are emerging about the circumstances of what happened on June 15 in Galwan Valley. Let us look at what China has been doing along the 3,488 kilometer-long Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between China and India, prior to the clash. The term LAC was first mentioned by then-Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai in 1959 in a letter to his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru.
According to Indian government sources, the LAC is divided into three sectors. The first one is the Western Sector, which consists of the Ladakh region. The second one is the Middle Sector, west of Nepal, which includes India’s Uttarakhand state. The last one is the Eastern Sector, near the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a brawl in Galwan Valley on the night of June 15, where 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed.
Despite two wars, there were efforts to reach important agreements regarding borders from both sides. India and China signed partial border agreements in 1993, 1996 and 2005. The 1996 agreement banned soldiers from both sides from carrying weapons along the border in Galwan Valley, which is located 4,300 meters above sea level.
It is very difficult to trust Beijing. China is currently one of India’s biggest trading partners, with a US$85 billion bilateral trade in 2019. China had a $51 billion trade surplus with India in 2019.
Despite good economic relations, China has shown its bad behaviour by amassing its troops near the LAC and crossing the Indian border multiple times during the last few years.
According to Indian government sources, Chinese troops crossed into Indian territory 1,025 times from 2016 to 2018. Even during high level talks between the leaders of China and India, there were 663 Chinese transgressions in 2019, mostly in the Western Sector of the LAC.
During the first four months of 2020, according to India, there were 170 Chinese transgressions, with 130 occurring in the Ladakh region. During the same period in 2019, the region witnessed 110 transgressions.
It is a clear sign that China wants to exploit the present dire situation due to COVID-19 to flex its muscles against India. All Chinese actions near the LAC are aimed at changing the status quo and making new claims.
The present conflict in the Galwan Valley began when China raised its objections about India’s building of infrastructure, including a makeshift bridge on Shyok River near the LAC, but in Indian territory.
At the same time, the Chinese were building a road along Galwan Nallah, a Chinese territory near the LAC.
Prior to the June 15 clash, China had mobilized a large number of troops in the Western Sector of the LAC. India also responded by mobilizing its troops.
In an effort to deescalate tensions, both countries held talks on June 6 to calm the situation. Later, China erected a temporary tent in the Galwan Valley on India’s side just across the LAC. There was no indication when the Chinese would remove the tent.
On June 15, India sent its troops to erect its own tent next to China’s. The brawl then started in which 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese troops were killed.
The Chinese alleged that Indian troops entered into Chinese territory, while India has denied this allegation and claimed it never had any intention to change the status quo.
Upset with China’s aggressive behaviour, India wants to change its strategic approach towards China.
“The era of great caution, the era of greater dependence on multilateralism … That era is to a certain extent behind us,” said Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently.
“If we are to grow by leveraging the international situation, then we have to exploit the opportunities out there. You cannot do that by saying, ‘I’m going to stay away from it all and when I find it useful, I’ll step out.’ Either you are in the game or you are not in the game.”
Since the June 15 brawl, both India and China have engaged in a series of talks at the military and diplomatic levels to deescalate tensions. Now the question is: Can India trust mercurial China?
India, as a peace-loving country, must make all efforts to prevent war during this difficult time. It should not bow down to Chinese pressure. It has the courage, capacity and military strength to stand up to China.
India can join countries like the U.S., Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and the European Union to put pressure on China to stop its aggressive behaviour and respect international rules and norms.