This is the fifth part of a series of articles titled ‘A Savage Turn in India – China Relations’ on the India-China stand-off on the Line of Actual Control at Galwan valley by Major General Jacob Tharakan Chacko, Sena Medal (Retired).
There are options other than war available to India and China to defuse the current face-off. Both could accept status quo ante, or even negotiate and accept a new boundary. If both these are not possible, the situation could gravitate towards an uneasy truce and stalemate. If the face-off precipitates or tends to precipitate a stalemate, then both could adopt means to either escalate or deescalate the conflict to achieve the result desired.
How is the situation likely to unfold?
Status Quo Ante: The Indian demand
Indians are extremely emotional about territorial integrity. On November 14, 1962, just a week before the ceasefire, Parliament of India unanimously passed a resolution. It said, “With hope and faith, this house affirms the firm resolve of the Indian people to drive out the aggressor from the sacred soil of India, however long and hard the struggle may be.”. The people of India, even today, will not allow any government to settle for anything less.
Any territorial loss, however small, irrespective of its tactical or strategical value, has serious political implications for the party in power. Thus, status quo ante for Indians would mean getting China back to the pre-1962 positions which includes vacating Aksai Chin. If the government can achieve this seemingly impossible task, opposition parties would be driven to in-consequence in perpetuity. If that is not possible, China would have to agree to withdraw to the ‘pre-May’ lines of deployment. Settling for anything less will have serious costs.
Status Quo Ante: The Chinese dilemma
While Indian soldiers who died in combat at the Galwan Valley received state honours, Chinese soldiers remain deprived of dignity in death. China officially denied any deaths on its side and in doing so refused to acknowledge the valour and sacrifice of its soldiers. There is a chilling human dimension to this loss of life on the Chinese side that most people are unaware of.
In 1980, China officially implemented the one child policy across the country. All families thereafter were forcibly single child families. The oldest of such children would be less than 40 years of age. Most Chinese soldiers physically involved in the incident would also be less than 40 years of age. It means that all the dead are single children! The emotional trauma associated with loss of the only child is not easy even for communist ideology to subdue. Dying fighting for one’s country is a matter of pride and the ultimate sacrifice one can make. Having done so and not even being acknowledged is the ultimate abuse one can suffer. Accepting status quo ante as demanded by India would mean that the Chinese military initiative was an exercise in futility.
Accepting India’s perception of status quo ante would also mean pulling troops back, far behind the current deployment. That will be a serious climb down and loss of face for the Chinese establishment in front of the domestic audience and internationally. For a country that is attempting to project itself as more powerful than the US and Russia, it will be unacceptable. Status quo ante is therefore associated with loss of face domestically, climb down in the international community and a purposeless sacrifice of soldiers – certainly unacceptable to China. Thus, status quo ante, the way India perceives is a distant dream, at least as of now.
If status quo ante is not possible, will both countries arrive at a newly negotiated boundary?
Negotiating new boundary
China would be happy and willing to negotiate and even agree to freeze a new boundary between the two countries. Once the negotiation starts, there could be sudden spurt in incursions. China will certainly come up with the most outlandish of historical proofs ever heard of, to back their ludicrous territorial demands with the aim of cutting the best bargain. The entire 4,056 kilometres of boundary between India and China would be contested. Once China feels it has got what it wanted, it may even agree to freeze the border and sign a treaty. As soon as such an agreement is reached and inked, China will go to town with its entire propaganda machinery claiming moral, military and political victory over India, the aggressor.
A negotiated new boundary that involves giving away even an inch of land, even if it is for perpetual peace, will never be acceptable to the Indian public. No amount of explanation, falsification, grandstanding, justification or obfuscation will satiate the citizens.
The world hasn’t yet outlived the Shakespearean script, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, his ashes irrevocably one with the Indian soil, is often resurrected, with vengeance to serve political ends. Though many others were part of the decision-making process, he as their leader accepted moral responsibility. Thus, even today he alone carries the albatross. His successors suffer mindless cruelty, while history has set others free. The Congress party, unable to reach out with facts, figures and a compelling narrative to give him deliverance, continues to pay the political price despite whatever good it has done.
Indian negotiators will do well for themselves to be reminded throughout negotiations of such ‘unkindest cuts’ that future generations are capable of inflicting for times to come. Any loss or even perceived loss of territory will eventually be the perpetual albatross around someone’s neck irrespective of how well the loss is presented. All formal, informal, back-channel, bilateral and third-party-facilitated bilateral negotiations would be conducted under the shadow of this reality. Under the current circumstances, though China may be keen to go ahead with a new negotiated boundary alignment, Indians would be weary of this choice. But anything is possible!
Would both countries be locked in a stalemate?
Continuance in a state of stalemate is not an option for both the countries for the same set of reasons that status quo ante cannot be agreed upon. Such a situation is sure to invite instances of violence at different locations of the LAC at some time or the other. Two nuclear powers face-to-face in combative mood locked in stalemate is not something that the world will accept for long.
China seems to have grossly miscalculated the outcome of the adventure it planned and got more than what it bargained for. Despite all the propaganda, the Chinese establishment has realised that it has to deal with India on equal terms. Indians enchanted by the personal chemistry between their leader and the Chinese leader seem surprised. Both India and China have worked themselves into difficult positions from which they themselves have to extricate. Stalemate is a dangerous and potentially explosive option.
Can they find a way out? How would the situation evolve?
To be concluded