Nickeled & Dimed

Penny for your thoughts?

We are accepting articles on our new email:

The Impact of the Galwan Clashes on the character and nature of Sino-Indian relations

by Rayomand Bhacka

Much of mainstream research on the recent clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers at Galwan has exerted an undue focus on assessing the incident as a bigger version of previous clashes, without paying attention to what actually marks it as a landmark event in defining how both nations approach bilateral ties. This is a dilemma my paper seeks to answer by highlighting the way in which these clashes completely changed the nature of India-China relations. Drawing upon excerpts from the works of China experts like Ambassador Vijay Gokhale, Tanvi Madan and Ambassador Shivshankar Menon, my paper begins by exploring the evolution of India-China relations ever since ties were normalized during the Detente period, marking the United States and Soviet Union’s external roles before displaying how the Galwan clashes disrupted this chain. Defining the history of bilateral relations and placing the present dilemma in it really boosts the potential of this research in placing the current upturn of bilateral ties in the broader conundrums of Asian Geopolitics. 


On 15th June 2020, India and China engaged in an intense brawl along a portion of the LAC situated on the Galwan river valley and the southern bank of Pangong Tso. This border clash was part of an ongoing border standoff between the Indian and Chinese forces, ever since the PLA amassed thousands of troops and artillery and hiked border transgressions in early May. This was followed by an eventual brawl wherein the Chinese and Indian forces engaged in an unconventional skirmish with stones, iron-fenced rods and pellets, resulting in 20 deaths on each side. The ensuing conflict led to 11 rounds of military talks, a vibrant anti-China sentiment in India and weapon deliveries from India’s strategic partners as a show of solidarity against Chinese aggression. Experts on both sides have described this incident as a crucial inflexion point in bilateral ties by integrating it into the larger geopolitical struggles in Asia. Analysts like Brahma Challaney have described the incident as a “tipping point” in bilateral ties. Additionally, China’s aggression across the LAC has crumbled the border tranquility mechanism (1993) as well as the basis of cooperation in Rajiv Gandhi’s visits to Beijing (1988), raising severe questions on the relevance of previous agreements. As the conflict expands southwards, long-standing misperceptions and a mutual lack of trust continue to rot ties and tag the situation as a Great Power conflict. As a result, it is imperative for us to know the impact of the clash and what led both sides to this situation, thereby recharting the road to Galwan

The changes that came to head in June 2020 were nothing but the result of an evolving Asian landscape set into motion in 1976. Under Nixon, the U.S. had successfully normalized ties with China post the Sino-Soviet split, which effectively made India fall out of favor. In sum, Washington no longer saw India through the China prism, thereby making India slide down their list of priorities. This clearly restrained India’s choices at a time when it was enduring an economic crisis, regional isolation, internal crises and an overdependence on Moscow which diminished its non-aligned character. Still, the situation was not as grim as it seemed. Nixon realized that, however unimportant, bad Indo-U.S. ties were counterproductive to a good Sino-U.S. relationship, instead it would unnecessarily leave the South Asian landscape open to Soviet influence. Even the Chinese, despite their sensitivities towards an Indo-U.S. realignment, were wary of the Soviets using India as a crucial weapon against China. Over the years, as India showed a consistent resolve to diversify away from the Soviets, China was convinced to drop its earlier belief of India being a “Soviet Stooge”. The Indians too, for their part, didn’t leave any stone unturned in getting the U.S. to persuade China to normalize ties, mostly for economic benefits. This was compounded by the U.S. working closely with both parties and using the India-Soviet relationship to convince them that normalization is in their best interest. Normalization began materializing in 1975 as China sent more signals of cooperation with India. These included sending a table tennis team to India under Ping Pong diplomacy, the Chinese vice premier’s openness to a Sino-Indian dialogue and an unusual restraint from denouncing India at the UN.

As the 70s drew to their end, political developments in India, China and the U.S. affected progress in the Sino-Indian rapprochement. Deng had become the supreme force in China, a Morarji Desai-led Janata Party took over India, and Jimmy Carter emerged as the new U.S. President. In Washington, Brezinsky and Carter held India and various other regions in good regard in order to secure regions waning in Soviet influence. However, the peace initiatives that ensued lacked proper initiative from all sides involved. Public declarations from 1977 show that both India and China had a mutual interest in normalization but China wasn’t lending too much and India was being skeptical about its overtures. So much so that Carter had to send the secretary of state Vance to reaffirm Sino-Indian and Sino-U.S partnerships. 

As a result, a period of highs and lows dominated the relationship until Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit to Beijing in 1988. Its open gesture, in turn, led to foundational policy shifts which flipped a chapter in the Sino-Indian ties. First off, as gestured by Vajpayee, India and China agreed on normalization which wouldn’t be conditional upon the boundary question. Secondly, both sides agreed on the maintenance of peace along the LAC enshrined upon a final resolution to the border question. Lastly, both sides agreed to recognize each other’s efforts toward global peace and stability. Thus, these points formed a loosely knit concept known as the Rajiv-Deng modus vivendi. Nevertheless, this progress was not without its pitfalls, a general trend since the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, India was already involved in a border broil with China in the Sumdorong Chu valley (1986-87) and a verbal spat over the Chinese conferment of statehood to Arunachal Pradesh. Plus, the twin swords of Sino-Soviet normalization and Sino-U.S. normalization hung over New Delhi. Still, India believed in the responsible leadership of Deng Xiaoping and his friendly approach during Indira Gandhi’s government was seen as a sign of a Chinese review of the border situation on a realistic basis. Similarly, India also hoped that Deng would promote further confidence-building measures and moderation in the China-Pakistan alliance. Thus, in the hope of increasing such overtures, India proceeded by reducing rhetoric, reopening trade exchanges, resumption of summits, military normalization and so on, which elicited favorable outcomes to some extent in the following years. 

These were the same efforts which, well into the 1990s, materialized into India’s hard-fought Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement (1993) with China. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing had created necessary optimism but was also marred by Chinese rigidity. While ways to legally bind the border issue were visible, by mid-1992, it was also clear that China was stalling on the border negotiations. By that time, China’s position on a boundary agreement significantly hardened, perhaps due to the sensitivity of the border issue towards nationalism. In December 1960, while visiting Delhi, Premier Zhou suggested that China would accept the McMahon line in return for India accepting the Chinese claim line in the west, which gave it strategic depth along the Aksai Chin Road. This was a pertinent Chinese solution reiterated by Deng in 1982 with the Indian ambassador but was suddenly disregarded during Gandhi’s visit. Instead, the Chinese maintained that China would budge only if India gave primary concessions in the east, precisely that of the Tawang valley, Arunachal Pradesh. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of India also claimed, during the Berubari Case (1956), that Indian territory could not be ceded unless a constitutional amendment was passed. Even the official Indian map in 1950 showed the western sector, annotated as “boundary undefined”, as a settled international boundary. Therefore, in December 1988, Gandhi told Deng that under the set policy, adjustments were possible, not territorial concessions, directing negotiations to a stalemate. Meanwhile, the international context was changing in dynamic ways, as the U.S. flexed its military muscle in the Gulf, the Soviet state system began crumbling and a steadfast China began monitoring it to avoid repeating Soviet mistakes in Tiananmen Square (1989). After the Soviet collapse, Deng urged the Chinese Communist Party leadership to extensively learn the causes of the Soviet debacle. Accordingly, the CCP came out with the Soviet overextending in an arms race and internal economic fragility as causes for the Soviet collapse. Therefore, China understood that it should not provoke the United States into inducing the same regime change that had been furthered in Moscow.

This was forged in what is called Deng’s twenty-four-character strategy, 1992 (observe calmly, hide capacities and bide time). India too, for its part, was grappling with the new U.S.-led unipolar world order and required a period of extended peace. This factor contributed to the smooth procession of negotiations despite major disagreements on the alignment of the LAC. As a result, by June 1993, a final text was conceptualized and an agreement was signed during PV Narsimha Rao’s visit to Beijing on September 7, known as the Border Peace and Tranquillity agreement. 

Today, this successfully negotiated agreement is a legacy of Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit and has been an agent of peace for 15 years of relations before Galwan. What India has done since the visit is to let peace prevail whilst also strengthening itself, collecting allies and engaging China. This endeavor has so far produced results, despite China’s peripheral assertion post-2008, as revealed in the Depsang Incident (2013). Now, unlike the Sumdorong Chu Incident (1986), India discovered Chinese troop presence immediately, employed a counter strategy, moved in with immediate force and urged that the status quo must be restored before any matters are discussed. Besides, in Depsang in 2013, unlike in 1986 when the conflict was prolonged, Indian forces were able to force the PLA soldiers to leave the area within 3 weeks. This dramatic success to a considerable level was made possible because of India’s rising capabilities. However, it also lays its roots in the standard border procedures put in place by India and China as a part of the Border Peace and Tranquility agreement. Meanwhile, the international situation of the time helped India succeed to a great extent. The Chinese knew that India was drawing support from several countries which reflected in their decision-making during crucial crises. The key strategy, therefore, was to keep public opinion at a low, display immense strength and give the enemy a hatch to escape from, not threaten war or display nuclear weapons. This strategic thinking continued and showed itself on the big scale when the opportunity arose during the Galwan clashes (2020).

Consequently, by considering bilateral relations in different phases we see a pattern leading us to Galwan. It points at a general adaptation to bilateral events by referring to the prevailing global context. China, on its part, was conceding its claims or biding time only when the global scenario vis-a-vis the United States deemed it necessary to do so. Even Deng mentions that China never regarded India as a major foreign policy threat, in fact, in Chinese foreign policy papers marking a new strategy called “Striving for Achievement”, India gets no reference beyond its status as a multilateral partner and a peripheral state. On the other hand, India believed that China wasn’t behaving sensitively to India’s claims and was always trying to encircle it, breeding large-scale paranoia in the Indian strategic community. This caused the existence of deep-seated mistrust towards each other, leading each side to dismiss the other’s claims during negotiations. While India saw every Chinese action as a way to discredit India’s position, China saw the former’s actions as an attempt to hedge against it and add fuel to its strategic competition with the U.S. while Beijing held a benign attitude. This might also lead to each side getting trapped in a self-constructed perception of the internal dynamics of the other side. Another view says that China was ready for a new major power relationship with India after 2013 but was discredited with the tougher stance taken after Modi asserted a strong India against China. However, the lack of initiative on the Chinese side is also to blame. The mistrust and misperception, through the years, have only swollen in size, thereby creating a big bubble that burst in the Galwan valley in 2020. Moving forward there is a need for a fresh perception of bilateral relations so that no action or step is taken out of context to evolve into various such clashes in the future. 

 Rayomand Bhacka is a 3rd year undergraduate student studying History & International Relations at Ashoka University. His primary research areas include war & conflict, geopolitics, great power relations, diplomacy and multilateral institutions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: