India and China have shared a contentious relationship, one routinely tested by issues such as Tibet, Pakistan, and the shared Himalayan border. Earlier this week, border tensions between the two Asian heavyweights blew up when Indian and Chinese troops engaged in an acrimonious brawl in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, mauling each other with fists, clubs, and stones.
The incident marked the deadliest bout of violence between both countries in over five decades, with 20 Indian soldiers killed. Despite the Chinese government and People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) reluctance to officially release the casualty count on its side, Indian intercepts and US intelligence estimate it to be at least 35.
Such events are harsh reminders of the increasingly forceful approach that Beijing has adopted lately to advance its territorial claims in India. The PLA has engaged in repeated infringements on Indian soil, which has led to insubstantial land claims in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and other regions.
There is no doubt that this standoff presents one of the toughest challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his administration. Earlier last Wednesday, the Prime Minister delivered a message to the nation, in which he stated India’s desire to maintain peace but willingness to give a befitting reply if instigated.
As such, how India responds -- and what this “befitting reply” entails -- will be crucial. While a full-fledged war is unlikely to be an immediate consequence, economic retaliation seems to be the most likely counter-attack. In fact, on Thursday, India’s Department of Telecommunications informed Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL, the largest state-owned telecom company) to not use any Chinese equipment in its services, and asked that it rework its tender immediately and reduce its future dependence on such materials. Given how lucrative the country’s telecom sector is, such measures also appear primed to keep Chinese vendors out of the 5G market in India.
Going forward, India cannot continue to trust China, and must reset the nature of its relationship with its neighbor. Attempts to build diplomatic bridges with the Chinese over the last six decades have largely been futile, with false promises issued from Beijing time and time again. Moreover, Prime Minister Modi has attempted to forge closer ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping in recent years. This has been evidenced by last October’s informal bilateral summit at Mamallapuram, a pompous event filled with an array of cultural performances and historical site visits to showcase the ancient cultural values that India and China share. However, it is time to realize that such efforts are pointless investments. It is simply a waste of time to build some amount of superficial bonhomie between both nations, only to be back in square one shortly afterwards.
As both governments have scrambled to defuse the current situation on the ground, the conflict has likely provided the final push for India to pivot away from China and towards the United States, Japan, and Australia. India’s relationships with these countries had already been strengthening prior to this week’s face-off, as one of the major byproducts of China’s growing political and economic clout. Washington has already called India a major defense partner, and India and the US have stepped up bilateral training frequencies.
To counterbalance China’s growing influence and alleged aggressions, New Delhi must double down on its partnership with said countries, and move towards making the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -- otherwise known as the Quad -- a more permanent reality. This entails conducting joint summits and military exercises, and cooperating on intelligence. Furthermore, any anti-China bloc could extend beyond the Quad. The US has reportedly invited India to join the next G7 summit, which, if true, would be monumental in furthering India’s foreign policy objectives.
In addition, India should move from a role of constant peace-seeker to a more unpredictable one vis-a-vis its approach towards China. Instead of immediately -- and expectedly -- moving to de-escalate the situation, New Delhi needs to show that it is in this for the long-haul: that it is militarily prepared for any potential exacerbation in tensions along the entire Himalayan border, and will no longer tolerate territorial infringements from Beijing. And over the last four days, it does seem as though this has been the case, with India re-stationing its fighter jets to forward air bases facing China, and deploying additional warships in the Bay of Bengal. And while conventional wisdom may give China a military edge over India, this may not be so true when it comes to the Himalayas and the surrounding high-altitude mountainous environments.
New Delhi must also take advantage of this geopolitical situation to make a greater push towards an Ātmanirbhar -- or self-reliant -- Bharat. Over the past few years, India has gravitated towards achieving greater economic self-sufficiency, with the “Make in India” Initiative serving as a prominent example. Domestic creativity and innovation should be encouraged and rewarded, as the country attempts to decouple itself from Chinese manufacturing. And though it has made significant overall strides in the ease of doing business, India must continue to find ways to lower costs of conducting business in order to grow optimism among global investment communities.
From last week’s developments, it is safe to deduce that any hopes of continuing the Mamallapuram spirit -- or its preceding Wuhan spirit -- have disintegrated. Attention will invariably turn to leaders of both nations as the world watches how the situation develops. Hence, it would be wise for India to start making prudent yet practical decisions, to ensure that China doesn’t have its way when it wants.
(Abhinav Seetharaman is a recent graduate of Columbia University, from where he obtained both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees).