The Galwan valley clash of June 15 led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and many more Chinese troopers. A recently released annual report of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) stated, ‘Some evidence suggested the Chinese government had planned the incident (Galwan), potentially including the possibility for fatalities.’ The report added that’exact motivations behind the Chinese Government’s provocative behaviour’ on the LAC ‘remain unclear’, adding that the ‘proximate cause’ of the intrusion appeared to be construction of a ‘strategic access roads.’
Officially the Chinese have never declared their reasons for the intrusion. The causes could have been multiple including warning India from moving closer to the USand/ or securing their investments in the CPEC.
The USCC report also stated that a fresh battalion was moved into Galwan, armed with hand held weapons, prepared for violence, though below the use of firearms, still adhering to the existing conventions. With confirmed reports that most casualties were caused by stone injuries, the report added, that the Chinese had stocked large quantities of stones in preparation for striking Indian soldiers. It also quoted The Global Times, a Chinese government mouthpiece, two weeks prior to the clash, which warned India of suffering a devastating blow in trade and economic ties if it became involved in US-China rivalry. The Chinese Defence Minister had also suggested that violence may have to be adopted to ensure stability.
The Indian government had been blaming China for the incident. The foreign ministry spokesperson stated, ‘the Chinese side took pre-meditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties.’ The original Chinese plan was evidently to cause casualties to Indian forces, thus lowering their image and morale. It is also likely that the clash was planned to push India for talks on Chinese terms.
However, the Chinese plans failed as the Indian army retaliation was severe and hard, causing heavy casualties to Chinese troops. Chinese has yet to officially announce and honour its casualties. There were reports that Indian soldiers, unmindful of Chinese hand held weapons, attacked them with bare hands and bayonets and were ruthless in retaliation. This shocked the Chinese who retreated from the post. The impact on the Chinese forces was such that the battalion involved in Galwan was immediately withdrawn and returned to its base location. There were reports that the withdrawal was because their soldiers had been demoralized by Indian retaliation and resultant large casualties.
The Galwan incident pushed India onto the offensive. Having suffered high casualties, China immediately sought a meeting of Lt Generals to disengage at Galwan and other friction points. Temporary disengagement did take place along most of the friction points, though these slowly lost relevance with passage of time and Indian occupation of dominating features.
China was aware that anger within the Indian forces was building and another similar incident could result in greater fatalities. It also led India into realising that the Chinese have no intention of resolving the standoff and hence it should seek to regain tactical and strategic advantage. Further, the Chinese, by this action, had broken all existing agreements, thus the Indian army gave orders to its forces to use their weapons at the discretion of local commanders. This message was also officially conveyed to China.
Post Galwan it was China which stalled disengagement and de-escalation talks, seeking to ensure India accepted the changed LAC as perceived by them.India responded by a quid pro quo operation and occupied dominating heights on both banks of the Pangong Tso. Post this, it was India which displayed no desire to rush into talks. It also realised that it would need to remain deployed for a prolonged period. For China, this was a new stage in the conflict as its conscript PLA had never spent harsh winters in Ladakh. There are reports of Chinese regularly evacuating casualties due to weather conditions.
India retaliated to Chinese actions by banning their apps and placing restrictions on their investments. Infrastructure projects given to Chinese concerns were stopped. It also adopted an anti-China stance by enhancing its strategic alliance with the US, a possible reason for the Chinese intrusion and pushed for upgradationof the QUAD.
India displayed, after decades of conciliatory moves, that it would now stand tall against China and its actions. The incident opened Indian eyes and made the national leadership realise that China and its leaders, despite all attempts at bonhomie, can never be trusted, and China will remain not just a competitor but also an adversary.
Indian defence spending, which was kept suppressed, based on the faith that the LAC is secure, was increased. The Indian government announced that while it desires peace, it is ready for hostilities and would not accede to any Chinese demands for change in the alignment of the LAC. China is currently checkmated and has no choice but to remain deployed in the areas where it currently is. It can neither move forward nor retreat as that would be projected as a defeat. Its intention to push India to accept its perception has been stalemated. Neither would India withdraw the economic measures it has imposed on China.
The report issued by USCC only confirmed what India had been stating all this time that Galwan was pre-planned, but at the end of the day, a failure. The incident pushed trust between the two nations to an all-time low. Currently, neither nation is willing to take the first step in pulling back as it doubts the intention of the other. Talks may continue but it is unlikely to yield any worthwhile results.
The current deployment, the closest to a conflict in decades, is likely to continue for a prolonged duration, with no end in sight. Galwan also ensured that Wuhan’s and Mahabalipuram’s are unlikely to take place in the future. It opened the eyes of the Indian Government that China will remain a serious adversary and it must plan for the future.
The author is Major General (Retd)