Context: The deadly clashes at Galwan which resulted in the killing of 20 Indian soldiers and the ongoing standoff between India and China on the ridges or “fingers” around the Pangong Tso are a metaphor for the wider conflict between the two countries. 

More on the news:

  • It is the first such face off between Indian and Chinese forces in 45 years in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh.
  • The violent face-off took place during the de-escalation process underway in the Galwan Valley and resulted in casualties on both sides. 
  • In a statement, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) accused India of going back on its word and violating commitments reached by both sides at Corps Commander-level talks.
  • The last major military skirmish between India and China took place at Nathu La in September 1967. The clash eventually left 88 Indian soldiers dead and more than 300 Chinese soldiers were killed.
  • The last incident of firing and fatalities on the border with China occurred in 1975 when a patrol team of the Assam Rifles was ambushed by the Chinese troops at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh resulting in the death of four personnel.

Timeline of the latest stand-off on the LAC:

Source: The Hindu


  • Panchsheel agreement and aftermath: India and China signed the Panchsheel agreement in 1954, but the Nehru government had begun to worry about some of China’s proclamations before the 1962 China-India war. 
    • Especially after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, China began to demand self-determination in Kashmir and allowing Naga and Mizo dissidents into China for refuge and training. 


Panchsheel: The Five Principles stated in the treaty:

  1. mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty,
  2. mutual non-aggression,
  3. mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs,
  4. equality and mutual benefit, and
  5. peaceful co-existence.
  • India’s countermove: While India’s military miscalculations and defeat in the 1962 war have been studied in great detail, what is perhaps not so well understood is the three-pronged foreign policy New Delhi set into motion at the time, that provided an effective counter to Mao’s five finger policy over the course of the century.

India’s 3 pronged policy to counter Mao’s 5 finger policy:

Five fingers of the Tibetan palm: 

  • According to the construct, attributed to Mao - Xizang (Tibet) was China’s right palm, and it was its responsibility to “liberate” the fingers, defined as Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, or Arunachal Pradesh). 
  • Sixty years ago, India began to set about ensuring that all five fingers were more closely attached to India, not China. 
  • As the government of India grapples with its next steps at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it must cast a similarly grand strategy, to renew its compact with each of those areas today.
  1. Push for building border infrastructure and governance
    1. In the mid-1950s the government piloted a project to build the Indian Frontier Administrative Services (IFAS) for overseeing NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) and other areas along the India-China frontier. 
    2. While India’s border infrastructure is only now catching up with the infrastructure China built in the course of the next few decades, its base was made during the brief period the IFAS existed, before it was wound up in 1968. 
    3. The IFAS’s role has since been transferred to the Indian Army and the Border Roads Organisation, but it is an idea worth revisiting, especially as areas along the frontier continue to complain of neglect and a lack of focus from the Centre.
  2. Series of treaties with neighbours such as Nepal and Bhutan: 
    1. This resulted in the consolidation of control, militarily and administratively, of other territories that acceded to India, including Ladakh as a part of Jammu and Kashmir (1947), and NEFA (1951). 
    2. In 1950, India signed a treaty with Sikkim that made it a “protectorate”, and by 1975 the Indira Gandhi Government had annexed Sikkim and made it the 22nd State of India.
    3. Each of these treaties built unique relationships with New Delhi, and were seen as a win-win for both sides at the time. 
    4. However, over time, the treaties have outlived their utility, open borders and ease of movement with Nepal and Bhutan, jobs and education for their youth as well as India’s influential support on the world stage, have waned in public memory.

Reasons for China making inroads into Nepal and not Bhutan

  • The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty in 2007, which dropped an article (mentioned in the 1949 Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship) that had committed Bhutan “to be guided” by India on its external affairs policy. 
    • This has held India and Bhutan ties in good stead, even during the Doklam stand-off between India and China in 2017 in the face of severe pressure from China.
  • However, despite years of requests from Kathmandu, New Delhi has dragged its feet on reviewing its 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Nepal. 
    • A report of the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) on Nepal-India relations had also recommended a new treaty. 
    • New treaties may not, in themselves, reduce India’s security threat from China in its neighbourhood, but they create space for a more mutually responsive diplomacy that is necessary to nurture special relationships.
  1. The Tibet issue:
    1. While New Delhi’s decision to shelter the Dalai Lama and lakhs of his followers since 1959 is a policy that is lauded, it does not change the need for New Delhi to look into the future of its relationship, both with the Tibetan refugee community in India as well as with its future leadership.
    2. At present, the Dalai Lama has the loyalty of Tibetans worldwide, but in the future, the question over who will take up the political leadership of the community looms large. 
    3. Meanwhile, China will force its own choice on the community as well. Given that it is home to so many Tibetans, India must chart a more prominent role in this discourse.

As the government of India readying itself on dealing with China, it is important that it must not lose sight of every finger in play.

Why is China flexing its muscle?

  • J&K Factor:
    • While Pakistan’s extreme reaction to the move of  India’s own reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 was expected, China’s reaction was perhaps not studied enough.
    • Beijing issued a statement (specifically on Ladakh), calling it an attempt to “undermine China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally changing its domestic law” and warning that the move was unacceptable and will not come into force.
    • The new map of Jammu and Kashmir has impacted India’s ties with Nepal as well, which can be witnessed. 
  • Growing military might: The reasons behind China’s muscle-flexing in fact, are the PLA’s growing military capabilities and the political will to use them. 
  • Quad consultation: Indian government has revived and reinforced the “quad” consultations between India, the United States, Japan and Australia that have irritated China and possibly raised its security antennae.
  • India’s claims on PoK and Aksai Chin: The Home Minister’s vow in Parliament last year to take back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Aksai Chin was not taken lightly either, as China’s investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor runs through PoK.

Is the Peaceful Rise of China over?

President Hu Jintao, had adopted the “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development” policy to assure other countries, especially the U.S. and China’s Asian neighbours, that the country’s rise did not pose any threat to others.

Newfound aggressiveness in China’s Approach:

  • The same day news broke about the violent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh, a Chinese J-10 fighter briefly entered Taiwan’s air defence zone. 
  • This was the third Chinese incursion into Taiwan’s airspace within a week. Earlier, Chinese vessels had entered the waters of Malaysia and Vietnam.
  • Also, Chinese Coast Guard ships pursued Japanese fishing boats in waters claimed by both countries. 
  • Relations with the U.S. are particularly bad: With the Trump administration now openly targeting China for its handling of the pandemic. 
    • China has already slammed the U.S.’s “Cold War mentality”, referring to the period of the U.S.-Soviet contest. 
  • When Australia pushed for investigation into the pandemic outbreak, Beijing punished the country by imposing trade curbs. 
  • In Hong Kong, which has been seeing anti-China protests for a year, Beijing has introduced a new national security law, granting itself broader powers in the Special Administrative Region. 

Tensions in the neighbourhood are not new for China: 

  • The roughly 4,000 km-long India-China border, which is not clearly demarcated, has seen occasional flare-ups. 
  • In 2017, troops from both countries were locked in a face-off in the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction of Doklam for over two months. 
  • China has claims over the South China Sea and “reunification” with Taiwan is one of its self-declared goals. 
  • Last month, in an annual policy blueprint, China dropped the word “peaceful” in referring to its desire to “reunify” with Taiwan, ending a nearly 30-year-long precedent.

The whole series of positions China has taken with respect to Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, national sovereignty or whatever problems they have with the U.S. are nothing new. The question is what are the elements in China’s behaviour today which are different from what had happened in the past.

Why Sharp turn in policy:

This sharp turn marks China’s most major policy decisions post-COVID-19. 

  • Opposition at home: Xi Jinping was facing one of the biggest crises of his Presidency early this year, in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak. But, now he appears to be firmly in control, overseeing an expansive foreign policy that pushes the boundaries.
  • The virus factor: COVID-19 has brought on a “sharper turn” to China’s foreign policy because suddenly, it was quite obvious that China was on the back foot. 
    • The Americans are now open about building a coalition against China. So a lot of China’s response is part of their way of tackling this crisis. 
  • Part of “China Dream”: Laid out by President Xi after he took power in 2012, seeks to turn the country into wealthy, strong and modern global power by 2049, the centenary of the Communist revolution.
  • From differences to disputes: What is happening now across the spectrum, where differences predate COVID-19 or even the ‘peaceful rise’ policy, are literally becoming disputes.

Way ahead:

The tensions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between Indian security forces and China’s PLA have renewed the question of how New Delhi should deal with a rising, assertive Beijing.

  • Reducing economic and military imbalance: New Delhi must reduce its military and economic imbalance with Beijing for long-term regional stability and its own security. 
  • Example of South China Sea: Like China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea to gain effective control over the disputed waters, New Delhi has to change the situation on the ground in the disputed parts of Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Spirit of Wuhan needs to be respected: It was coined after Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President met for an informal meeting to address their differences and agreed to work towards global peace and development.
  • Using multilateral platforms: India has participated in Russia-India-China (RIC) meetings at the level of Foreign Minister, it has embraced BRICS and even joined the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a full member. These platforms can be used as confidence-building measures between India and China.

Without a full restoration of the status quo ante, reparations for the casualties, as well as some honest commitment to abide fully by any agreement, talks with Beijing at this point might not mean more than empty words.


Image Source: BBC