The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A deadly border clash should end India’s delusions about China

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in Goa, India, in 2016. (Manish Swarup/AP)
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The deaths of 20 Indian soldiers, including a commanding officer, in the first deadly clash with Chinese troops in 45 years came as Beijing and New Delhi had supposedly reached an agreement to lower the tension along the border in the mountainous region of Ladakh, high in the Himalayas.

India blames China for trying to alter the status quo at the Line of Actual Control, or the LAC. Since May 5, Chinese troops had crossed the border and squatted on Indian territory, triggering a standoff. When Indian soldiers went into the Galwan Valley to supervise what was meant to be the agreed retreat of Chinese troops from the area, they were attacked by 500 Chinese troops with stones, iron rods, nails and other objects. It was a brutal attack on Indian soil, according to official accounts. There are also reports of Chinese casualties.

For the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this represents a grave and delicate national security challenge. But it’s clear that India must at once reset the terms of its relationship with China. India should accept that while it has spent a great deal of resources and political energy on Pakistan, with whom it has gone to war four times, its real adversary today is China.

Instead, for years India has built a false sense of stability and security around the absence of deadly conflict at its border with China. Until recently, Modi himself boasted that “not a single bullet has been fired” on the disputed border in decades.

But India now has clear evidence of China’s insidious intentions. The details emerging about the killing of the 20 Indian soldiers in hand-to-hand combat are horrific, including accounts of some Indian soldiers pushed down into the Galwan river. “China never believes in rules or rule-based commitment,” Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired military official who has served in the area, told me in an interview. “Their intent must be to exasperate us and keep this going longer. They chose not to use firearms which is a way they have largely followed at the LAC to project that they are not the ones triggering these exchanges.” He then added: “It’s going to take a very deliberate effort to restore relations.”

India’s singular focus on Pakistan and its patronage of terror groups has been justified. The nature of the conflict with Islamabad is of a different order — but we must not forget that Pakistan is effectively a vassal state of China today. China has stood up for Pakistan in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks in India and even blocked international sanctions against groups like the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

The dissembling in Ladakh should teach us an unforgettable lesson: China looms as a great threat in many real and potentially devastating aspects for India. Pakistan may infiltrate India by sending armed terrorists into Kashmir, but China has infiltrated India by gaining a powerful role in the economy and markets. India’s trade deficit with China is $53 billion. This is China’s imperialism at work. No matter how protectionist it may sound, it’s suicidal to allow China to have unfettered access to Indian markets and consumers while it also builds roads and infrastructure through the parts of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan. Talk of “decoupling” the U.S. economy from China should resonate with Indians.

The otherwise high-pitched muscular nationalism of the right-wing Modi government has always been inexplicably mild-mannered when it comes to China. Last year, there was a huge push within the government for India to join the 15-nation multilateral Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. This would have effectively been a free-trade agreement with China, diminishing Indian manufacturers further and strengthening China’s imprint on all of India’s products. The coronavirus pandemic has been a reminder of the perils of this economic imbalance. India imports 70 percent of its bulk drugs from China; when Wuhan shut down, India’s antibiotics supply was dangerously vulnerable.

Modi has spent time cultivating a relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping at multiple summits. It’s time for India to realize that this is a wasteful investment. “No doubt, earlier efforts at limited bonhomie through joint training between the two armies is now remote,” Hasnain, the retired general, told me. “And face-offs will no longer be just banner drills.”

While all-out combat may not be an immediate consequence of the deadly border clash, it’s clear India must reset the terms of its economic reliance on China.

If it doesn’t, the Chinese won’t just be assaulting India’s troops in the high mountain reaches; they will be right in our backyard.

Read more:

Tariq Mir: India is using the pandemic to intensify its crackdown in Kashmir

Stephen J. Hadley and Anja Manuel: How to use the next stimulus to counter China

Ruchir Sharma: As Modi discovered, India’s economy will never look like China’s

Barka Dutt: Modi likes to project muscular nationalism — except when it comes to China

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