The agreement reached this week by Indian and Chinese military commanders in the Himalayan region of Galwan Valley, Ladakh, to disengage troops from the disputed border points should diffuse tensions that had resulted in a clash between their security forces on June 15, in which 20 Indian troops were killed. China was silent on its casualties, but Indian officials said that 30-40 Chinese soldiers were killed. Foreign ministers of India and China, S. Jaishankar and Wang Yi, have also spoken over the phone and met on Tuesday, pledging to find peaceful resolution of the dispute.
The accord is not likely to resolve the crisis that has built over a period of several decades. The struggle goes back before the India-China war in 1962, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for India and the occupation by China of the Indian territory of Aksai Chin in Ladakh. This time no shots were fired, but the forces fought with sticks, stones, and clubs with nails or barbed wire.
The 2000-mile-long border is one of the longest unmarked borders in the world. Thousands of Indian and Chinese troops are stationed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which was established after their war in 1962. The Galwan Valley clash occurred when Indian soldiers tried to stop Chinese troops seeking to build a “structure” on the Indian side of the LAC. China has often asserted that it has historical sovereignty over the Galwan Valley.
In India, the public is outraged, with huge gatherings calling for a boycott of Chinese goods and putting pressure on the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respond decisively to Chinese aggression. Modi convened an all-party meeting, in which he announced that India wants peace but will defend every inch of its territory and the that sacrifice of 20 soldiers will not be in vain.
How should India respond? Modi has met China’s President Xi in informal summits and has been to China several times. However, China continues to aggressively pursue its geopolitical strategy of seeking hegemony in the region and considers India as the only rival to stand in its way.
Modi will not follow Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s fateful decision in 1962 to wage war with China as he knows China’s superiority, both militarily and economically. He understands that in 1988, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his counterpart, Deng Xiao Ping, agreed to form a forward-looking relationship between the two countries, they were near-equals, with similar GDP and defense spending. Today, China’s GDP is more than five-times India’s and its defense expenditure is almost four times that of India.
Things are further complicated by India’s ongoing disputes with Pakistan. Thus, the two-front situation – China and Pakistan – presents Modi with a difficult choice. As India cannot afford to fight on both fronts, should it make peace with one of these rivals? If this does not currently seem feasible, as dictated by history, public opinion, and the current geopolitical situation, India will have to get closer to the United States because the policy of nonalignment that India cherished for several decades is dead.
India getting closer to the West should not necessarily be seen as designed to contain China. India should substantially increase its defense spending and use its diplomatic and economic skills to counter China’s aggressive stance. India and China could be rivals and still good neighbors.
Modi is an astute politician with a stellar record, as he has won the trust of the people at home and gained respect abroad for India. To illustrate, India recently was elected as a member of the Security Council and chair of the Board of the World Health Organization. Just as one of his predecessors, Atul Bihari Vajpayee, he has reached out and created close relationships with neighboring countries in Asia and the Arab world. All expectations are that he will skilfully navigate this crisis.
Ved Nanda is Distinguished University Professor and director of the Ved Nanda Center for International Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. His column appears the last Sunday of each month and he welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.