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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement on Friday that Chinese troops have not intruded into the Indian territory in Ladakh could have been prompted by the government’s realization that New Delhi was not in a position to take back the land occupied by China in Aksai Chin, including intrusions in the 1980s and 1990s, says Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University. Disengagement between Indian and Chinese troops have to take place to defuse tensions, but it cannot be done in the current atmosphere with emotions running high among the soldiers after their face-off on 15 June, he says. Some extra steps, such as new confidence-building measures, will be required, he adds.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

The Galwan incident is seen as a major turning point in India-China relations. Will you agree? Where does one go from here?

I partially agree, because we have had a more serious incident in 1967 where the death toll was very high and the mobilization was also very high. In contrast, in the Galwan incident, we haven’t seen much of action or mobilization, so the Galwan incident is not the first turning point—we have had 1962, then 1967 and now this.

This incident is shocking, to say the least because of the kind of brutality involved—barbed-wire bats and the nails. This is not in sync with China and India saying they are civilizational and responsible states, which abide by international law, including humane treatment of soldiers. This is touching the nadir in bilateral behaviour towards each other. Of course, in a war everything is fair, but we are living in the 21st century.

Where do we go from here? Well, we could see a recurrence of this incident on a bigger scale. The disengagement process agreed upon has to be there, but that cannot be done in the current atmosphere, with the pent up feelings among the troops being so high. Disengagement can’t be done as we think; extra steps will be needed by the political or the military leadership in announcing unilateral measures of withdrawal or the implementation of a new set of confidence-building measures. If it continues like this, there are chances of a limited conflict.

Trust was always an issue between India and China. It will be more so after the Galwan incident, right?

The confidence-building measures that we had concluded were to prevent conflict—the ones reached in 1993, 1996, 2013—structurally they are not for building trust. The underlying tensions that generates mistrust have not been resolved—which is territorial dispute resolution. But that is not happening. We have had 22 rounds of talks at the level of special representatives since 2003, and many rounds before that at other levels since 1981. For about 40 years we have discussed dispute resolution. So, there is something fundamentally wrong with bilateral relations. These are not normal ties like, say, between France and Germany, or Mexico and Brazil. At Chumar, where there was an incident (in 2014), was not a problem area 10 years ago. Today, both sides make regular patrols there. So, the problem is not only about unresolved disputes, but also about the burden of adding others. Our engagement policy with China has failed to generate trust, that is again because territorial dispute resolution has not happened.

Prime Minister Modi has invested a lot in building ties with China—the Wuhan and Chennai Summits. The Galwan incident has obviously had an impact on this. Will India look at this kind of engagement at the highest levels any more? What about the agreement that differences will not be allowed to degenerate into disputes?

That depends on the disengagement process. If it is smooth and if the troops go back to pre-April positions, then we could have another such informal summit. But it will not have the same bonhomie that we saw in Wuhan or Chennai. It will be circumspect in the background of Galwan.

What happens to the agreements and the understandings reached between India and China in 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013? What happens to the mechanisms established to sort out the border issue? Is there anything one can salvage from them?

We do not know. Even though they could announce in public that we have normalized, behind the scenes, I suspect the competition will continue.

Does India have any means—economic, military, diplomatic—to deal with China? For instance, is the Quad an option? Does India hold any card that it can play here to make it tough for China?

There are several actually—one is to enhance conventional and strategic deterrence levels on the border. For example, India deployed Brahmos regiments in Arunachal Pradesh, so it is relatively quiet there. Possibly we will deploy these in Ladakh as well. Brahmos is considered to be one of the best cruise missiles—that will have deterrence ability. India landing a C-130 transport aircraft in DBO (Daulat Beg Oldie) is deterrence. So, first, if we have robust deterrence level, they will not venture into adventure like Galwan. Second is economy. China is growing at 1.2%, according to IMF (International Monetary Fund), and we are growing at 1.7%. We don’t know if these are accurate figures. But we have seen that the US-China decoupling has led to relative decline in China. Even if (Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe) Biden wins, the tariff wars appear to be a bipartisan consensus. Decoupling is to stay for a long time to come. China is dependent on external trade, and that is not happening, their economy is expected to nosedive. In this context, they want to export and India has 400 million middle class. That is why they are pushing for RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) with the assumption that India will open up to Chinese goods, but that is not happening. My hunch is that against the backdrop of Galwan, 5G will not happen, and if the boycott of Chinese goods gathers momentum, there will be further decline in trade.

At the diplomatic level, India is participating in multilateral institutions. India traditionally has good relations with the US, the EU, Japan, etc., with whom China has problems. This was reflected in the World Health Assembly, where China had to climb down saying that they would agree to impartial investigations into the origins of covid-19.

One question on Prime Minister Modi’s statement on Friday: “Neither anyone has intruded into India", and the subsequent clarifications. What do you make of it?

I think the government is now feeling that there is no way India can take back the lands occupied by China in Aksai Chin, including their intrusions in the 1980s and 1990s, as well—Khurnag (Pangong Lake), when we withdrew troops to meet counter insurgency operations. Today, the government realizes that there is no way you can take back these lands, which is why the prime minister said they did not intrude into our lands.

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