Two years after the Galwan clash in the Ladakh heights, in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed, and which plunged India-China relations to their lowest in decades, the two sides are normalising relations in many respects, with the Indian side displaying a pragmatism far ahead of the “lal aankh” rhetoric.
Even though New Delhi has not yet succeeded in getting the Chinese to vacate some parts of eastern Ladakh on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control or ensuring a return to status quo ante (as the situation existed in April 2020), bilateral trade has soared and it is now at its highest, first quarter data show.
Further, India’s trade with China in the calendar year 2021 was $125 billion, higher than in the previous year, and higher than pre-pandemic, pre-Ladakh standoff levels. Imports from China reached $97.5 billion, while exports crossed $20 billion for the first time. All this after India put in place restrictions on Chinese participation in the Indian economy, and banned several Chinese apps popular in India, and added more to the list subsequently. Tencent, the Chinese tech-entertainment giant, recently bought a stake in Flipkart, even while several apps linked to it such as Tik Tok remain banned in India.
While political contact is yet to resume fully, there have been significant interactions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Delhi in March. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval participated in meetings of the multilateral Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and on Wednesday attended a BRICS security officials meeting hosted by his Chinese counterpart Yang Jeichi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to attend the BRICS summit being hosted by China next week, in a virtual format.
This week, Beijing also lifted a two-year Covid ban on visas to Indian professionals and their families. It has also indicated it is processing visas of Indian students who had returned home on account of the pandemic.
Alongside, India has stepped up its engagement with the Quad, a grouping with Australia, Japan and the US that seeks to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region on both the economic and security fronts.
Despite the PM’s assertion in Parliament that no intrusion had taken place into Indian territory, 15 rounds of talks between India and Chinese senior army commanders in eastern Ladakh for resolution of “friction points” indicate otherwise. The negotiations have led to withdrawal of troops by both sides from Galwan, Pangong Lake and Gogra/ Patrolling Point 17A. While this is not yet a return to status quo ante in these areas, there are three other areas — Depsang plains, Hot Springs and Demchock — where Chinese troops continue to prevent Indian soldiers from entering areas they were previously patrolling.
In this time, there have also been several meetings of the Working Mechanism for Consultation & Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC). The Ministry of External Affairs said the two sides reviewed the situation along the LAC in the Western Sector, and agreed to hold the 16th round of senior military commanders at an early date.
Although the withdrawal of troops or disengagement, even partially, was supposed to be a prelude to de-escalation along the LAC, this has not happened either. Instead, China’s build-up of military infrastructure on its side of the LAC is going on apace. General Charles A Flynn, Commanding General of the US Army in the Pacific region, said during a recent visit to Delhi that the build-up was “alarming”, and while talks were useful, “the way they are acting and behaving is concerning, and should be concerning to everyone, and I think it is”.
China has been building roads, living units and entire villages at various parts of the LAC, but the build-up in Ladakh includes a 11-m-wide bridge spanning the narrowest part of Pangong Lake at Khurnak Fort in territory that falls on the Chinese side of the LAC but is claimed by India.
In military terms, according to Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle (retd), writing on his portal Security Risks Asia, “this bridge will facilitate quick deployment of troops from the Rudog base to forward areas as well as faster tactical deployment of troops within the theatre” to avoid being upstaged by India. On August 29-30, 2020, the Indian Army and Special Frontier Force occupied the Kailash heights in Chushul sub-sector, which dominate the strategically significant Spanggur Gap. China had used this area to launch its offensive in 1962. The heights also give India a direct eye on Moldo Garrison.
The Chinese could not deploy additional troops quickly enough to repulse the Indian forces because the only route available was around the lake. This is no longer the case. The bridge is on the halfway mark of the lake. Earlier, another bridge, 6 m wide, came up earlier to facilitate the building of this bridge.
India is also building road infrastructure on its side.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army had pitched tents and an observation post on India’s side of the LAC. After a general agreement on disengaging in the Galwan sector earlier in June, the Chinese had agreed to withdraw. But on the night of June 15, a disagreement over the continued presence of the Chinese led to the bloodiest clash between India and China since 1975 .
According to reports at the time, when Colonel Suresh Babu, commander of 16 Bihar that made up the majority of the troops at Galwan, walked up to ask the Chinese to leave, he was manhandled. This led to a five-hour confrontation between 600 soldiers from both sides.
Col Babu died after falling into the ice-cold river, apparently after being hit. At the time, an agreement between the two sides forbade the use of firearms. The Chinese side were equipped with clubs that had nails embedded in them. The Indian side had fibre glass batons. There was stone throwing as well. Many Indian soldiers also died after being hit and falling into the river or being pushed into it.
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Ten Indian soldiers including two Majors, two Captains and six jawans were detained by the Chinese for nearly three days before being handed back after several rounds of negotiations. According to unconfirmed reports, the Chinese may have lost more men than India, but so far, the PLA has acknowledged that four of its soldiers were killed. The first acknowledgement of Chinese casualties came eight months after the incident, in March 2021. In February this year, Klaxon, an Australian website, said at least 38 PLA soldiers drowned in the river.
The Galwan clash was the first in which Indian soldiers were killed since October 1975, when four personnel of the Assam Rifles were killed in an ambush by the Chinese at Tulung La in Arunachal Pradesh.