On the first Sunday of July, there was an important telephone call between the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi and the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Duval. Some important decisions were announced thereafter. This is not to say that these were the outcome of that interaction only. For weeks the militaries of both China and India and their diplomats had been negotiating on the grounds of the disputed territory along the Line of actual Control at the Galwan Valley, as well as through other channels to end the bloodiest border stand-off between the two Asian powers that had lasted two months. True, while not a bullet was fired in anger, troops had battled with sticks and stones that left twenty Indian soldiers dead and, reportedly, an unknown number of Chinese casualties. Indeed, it appeared that the two sides, who had fought a war in the Himalayas in 1962, was yet again on the brink of a possible war.
The situation was rendered dangerous by a combination of other factors. Over the immediate past, thanks largely to the policies pursued by President Trump of the United States, the multilateral global institutions such as the United Nations were left with eroded powers. The US itself embroiled in deeply divisive domestic issues and the burgeoning movement to reshape traditional values viz., ‘Black Lives matter’, was becoming disinterested in any further global engagements. Moreover, elections due come November speeded up the process of the return to ‘Fortress America’. The entire world was reeling under the merciless spread of the deadly coronavirus COVID-19 which had rendered their populaces vulnerable, and governments looking inwards. Amidst the global turmoil, China was racing to reach the status of a peer of the US with aggressive assertiveness, and had signalled that it would brook no opposition from any quarter along the way to reaching this goal. So, there was no global supervision of conduct of states in an anarchical system, and no watchman to keep any combatant nations apart.
The crisis between China and India seemed to have gone ignored by much of the world. Some Indians, if social media was any indication of prevalent sentiments, appeared to veer towards the US, as a source of traditional counterbalance to China. The embattled US Administration did little to assuage Indian friends, and in a Hawaii between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese senior leader Yang Jiechi the Indo-Chinese spat found a mention only in passing. The Europeans urged calm on both parties reluctant to choose sides. India’s immediate neighbours, nearly each of whom had issues with India,( either bilateral or flowing out of India’s domestic legislations alienating Muslims) and being beneficiaries of China’s deep pockets, remained silent, except India’s arch-rival Pakistan, which unsurprisingly supported China. So, both China and India seemed bereft of any significant external support, and were largely left on their own to resolve the issues.
Only Russia, friend to both China and India, seemed interested to constructively engage to help stabilize. In late June, in a celebration of Russian victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World war, the two key guests who turned up in Moscow, even in masks, were the Defence Ministers of India and China, though neither country had any significant contribution to Moscow’s wartime triumph over Berlin. It would be naïve to believe Russian diplomacy did nothing to try close gaps between the battling protagonists, though Delhi claimed the two never met, which ironically, might have yielded better results, and probably did, than if they had actually interacted frontally!
While the standstill was in progress, there was a huge display of nationalism, particularly in India, where the electronic and print media went to town in criticism of China. Stiff retaliation was being urged upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself struggling to lead India out of the twin crises of COVID19, and a major economic downturn. Modi was aware that war would mean taking on China and Pakistan simultaneously, a tall order at any time, and now more so given the global situation. So, Modi opted for discretion as being the better part of valour, did the right thing by visiting troops at the borders, and also by being extremely circumspect in getting Indian forces to exercise ‘fire control’ at the borders. The Chinese public opinion was eerily quiet, as if nothing significant was happening, except that the ‘Global Times’ often seen as Beijing’s mouthpiece, would issue warnings from time to time urging India to desist from provocative actions. China put across that its primary ‘contradiction’ was the US, not India, but any attempts to join efforts to constrain China would be severely dealt with. What China was doing was reading India the riot act from the textbook of ‘scientific realism’ in international affairs.
Immediately following the Duval- Yang Jiechi talk, Delhi issued a Press statement which said that “it was necessary to ensure at the earliest the complete disengagement of the troops along the LAC and de-escalation from India-China border areas for full restoration of peace and tranquillity” (Peace and tranquillity , ironically, is an oft cited expression that the Indians and Chinese use to describe their relations- this is also how they call the LAC line- however incongruous it may sound to the existing realities!) The Chinese Foreign Office also said, after the phone conversation, that the two sides had made ‘positive progress… to disengage frontline troops and ease the border situation. The Chinese were reportedly seen removing tents and structures in the Galwan valley. However, they will doubtless ensure capabilities are close at hand for instant deployment, if needs be. Indian withdrawal is as yet unreported at writing, but will surely happen, because India cannot afford to be engaged in a firefight with China at this time. It remains to be seen how far this disengagement can translate into genuine de-escalation. In July 1962 Chinese troops had disengaged from the Indians only to sweep down the Himalayas with a full-blown invasion in less than four months!
Even as they were withdrawing this time, the Chinese took out an insurance on Indian good behaviour, from China’s perspective. This was a Chinese fresh claim over Sakteng wildlife sanctuary in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district, supposedly based on an agreement between Bhutan and Tibet in the early eighteenth century. This is far away from Ladakh, on the eastern side of the LAC. Now, Bhutan, though sovereign, is bound by treaty obligations to India’s oversight of its foreign relations. Should it entertain any aspiration for untrammelled relations with China, this is not likely to be approved by Delhi. Now this Chinese claim is on territory that has no border with China, but with Arunachal, the Indian State, the entirety of which China claims for itself. Obviously, this is something the Chinese now have on the files, to be brought up at any time in the future, if so required. It also serves as encouragement to Bhutan to obtain its full autonomy from Delhi, with a warning that links with India henceforth will come at a price! Also, it is noteworthy that the lesson of history is that China might give up on territories tactically, but not on its claims.
In future, the two dominating powers will be the US and China. But in the meantime, there will be a period of instability as China maneuvers to position itself to be a peer of the US, which the US will oppose. At this time some deft crisis management will be necessary. If there is a new Administration in Washington after the November elections, it will settle down to business as usual with Beijing because of the pre-existing economic linkages, and sober policy analysis will support such policy-direction. The course of deglobalization that COVID 19 has set in motion is likely to be corrected. Just as no man is an island, States in the global -system cannot also function in isolation over a long period of time. Depending on the nature of post-COVID recovery, it will be a slow process, but an inexorable one.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg