The killing of 20 Indian soldiers in a violent face-off with Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of the Ladakh region comes as a shocking blow to the ‘Wuhan spirit’, a mood of rapprochement set in motion by the first formal summit between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi nearly two years ago. The repeated incursions by the Chinese army along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and now the brutal showdown make a mockery of commitments made by Beijing to defuse tensions and implement confidence-building measures. China’s new streak of belligerence and its readiness to abandon internationally accepted behaviour to further its geopolitical agenda have become quite worrisome for many countries. The clash in the high Himalayas comes at a time when Beijing is flexing its muscles across the region, be it the confrontation with Malaysia and Vietnam in the South China Sea or its aggression in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Unlike in the past, China now has the military power to alter the territorial status quo in bits and pieces and economic power to wield disproportionate influence on countries like Pakistan and Nepal. The ugly turn of events at the border must be deeply embarrassing for Modi who had sought to turn his informal summits with Xi into media spectacles in the past. The NDA government owes an explanation to the people on the security failure.
Though China has immediately blamed Indian soldiers for ‘provocative actions’, it is clear that the violent clash was a result of a mischievous attempt by China to unilaterally change the status quo there and a strong pushback from India. Since May, the two countries have been embroiled in tensions at several spots along the border. China has been uncomfortable with the way India has gone about neutralising its strategic edge in the region ever since the trifurcation of Jammu & Kashmir, conversion of Ladakh into a Union Territory and strengthening border roads that can help replenish troop supplies and movement. The argument that Beijing was “forced into the Kashmir dispute” after New Delhi abrogated Article 370 holds no water because India’s internal decision has no bearing on the current territorial disposition with China and Pakistan. The ground reality has not been altered by India’s constitutional changes. And, the government’s renewed claim over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China-occupied Aksai Chin is simply a reiteration of a long-standing Indian position. China’s position on the boundary dispute, in general, and the Kashmir question, in particular, tended to harden against India since the late 2000s, when Beijing became more conscious of the widening power differential with all its neighbours, including India. The real challenge for New Delhi now lies in addressing the growing power imbalance with China.
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