S Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister, claims that China’s activities at the 2020 boundary were unjustifiable, and that India warned Beijing of possible issues before the Galwan confrontation.
He said China’s activities had interrupted relationships and contacts, leaving the relationship in an anomalous condition with “a high level of military tension,” and had an impact on public sentiment in India, warning that tensions between Asia’s two largest countries will have global ramifications.
Recognizing the increased Chinese Navy presence and activities in the Indian Ocean, Jaishankar stated that previous governments may have misjudged the impact of Chinese port expansion. He went on to say that India will be ready for more Chinese naval operations in the region, and that the relative decline in US presence in the region has created space for “problem actors” who were more technologically capable.
Speaking to Kenneth Juster, the US ambassador to India at the time of the Galwan clash in 2020, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Jaishankar provided perhaps the most detailed explanation in recent times of India’s border crisis with China, including how things went wrong due to China’s opaqueness and actions, the nature of the current stalemate, which acknowledges high levels of tension, and the scale and implications of China’s actions in the maritime space.
We cautioned the Chinese”: The 2020 story
When asked if there was any explanation for China’s activities in 2020 and the future of India-China relations, Jaishankar replied, “One of the pleasures of dealing with China is that they never quite tell you why they do things.” As a result, you frequently find up attempting to figure things out. There’s some ambiguity up there.”
Recalling his time as ambassador to China between 2009 (“immediately after the global financial crisis”) and 2013, and witnessing the “change of guard” — Xi Jinping took over in that period, an elevation that led to China’s aggressive foreign policy and security behavior in the subsequent decade — Jaishankar admitted that the relationship had not been easy, with the 1962 war and other military incidents. However, no combat fatalities had occurred at the border since 1975, according to the minister.
Tracing the history of ties, Jaishankar said that with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, relations were normalised. “In 1993 and 1996, we did two agreements with China to stabilise the boundary. Boundary, by the way, is disputed and negotiations are going on. In the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it was agreed that neither of us would mass troops but if we brought more than a certain number of troops, we would inform the other side,” the minister said.
There were subsequent agreements between 2005 and 2012, according to Jaishankar. “It was a one-of-a-kind situation in many ways.” In the border areas, troops from both sides would leave military bases – they had designated bases – do their patrolling, and then return to their bases. If they happened to cross paths, there were strict restrictions about how they would behave, and the use of firearms was prohibited.”
This was the case until 2020. But later, while India was in the midst of a Covid lockdown and China had managed to get the first wave of Covid behind it, India noticed “Chinese troops, in very large numbers” rushing to LAC, according to Jaishankar. In the face of a total lockdown, India had to “mobilize and counter-deploy,” which it did.
“We were reasonably concerned that forces were approaching too closely. We warned the Chinese that a situation like this could lead to complications. And, sure enough, it did in the middle of June 2020. We had a battle in which 20 of our soldiers were killed. They claim four of their men were killed, but we will never know,” Jaishankar added.
The minister said that “before that, during that, and after that”, he had been in regular touch with his counterpart and other colleagues had spoken to their counterparts. “At various points, the Chinese have given different explanations. None of them are really tenable.”
“Abnormal, high level of tension”: Post-2020 stalemate
Since then, they have been attempting to disengage, according to Jaishankar, because both countries have forward deployment forward of their regular bases. “We were only partially successful.” We would have resolved seven or eight of those forward deployments out of, say, ten locations. “There are still some we’re talking about,” he continued, possibly referring to the ongoing deadlock over Demchok and Depsang.
The basic problem, however, Jaishankar said, was that a large number of troops remained amassed at the border “in violation of agreements”.
He said that this had “completely impacted” the relationship. “Because it is extremely difficult to maintain normalcy with a country that has broken agreements and done what it has done.” If you look at the last three years, you will notice that relations have been disrupted, visits have not occurred, and there is, of course, this high degree of military tension. It has also influenced India’s opinion of China. Because of the conflict in 1962, it was not positive in the 1960s and 1970s. But, when this happened, we had begun to put that behind us,” Jaishankar explained.
He added there was an immediate issue, a medium-term issue, and possibly, longer than medium-term issues. “If you have really the two biggest countries of Asia, of the world, with that degree of tension between them, it has consequences for everybody else.”
“Prepare for more presence”: China in the Indian Ocean
Later in the conversation, when asked about Chinese motivations in the Indian Ocean — with the questioner suggesting that the term “string of pearls” was perhaps too benign — and what Quad should be doing in that regard, Jaishankar began by saying, “Pearls look benign unless you ask the oysters,” as the audience laughed, picking up on the code that China’s actions in the waters have been anything but benign.
“Yes, if one were to look at the last 20-25 years, there has been a steady increase in Chinese naval presence and activity in the Indian Ocean,” the minister said, pointing to the larger size of the Chinese fleet. The Chinese navy, on the other hand, has grown dramatically in size. When you have a much larger navy, that navy will surely be evident someplace in terms of deployment. When you leave China’s east coast, you either proceed into the Pacific or westward to the Indian Ocean.”
In India’s case, Jaishankar said, it had seen port activity, port-building activity, referring to Hambantota and Gwadar among others.
“In retrospect, governments and policymakers of the time may have underestimated the importance of this and how these ports could function in the future.” Each one is a little different. We definitely keep a close eye on several of them for any security implications they may have for us. From an Indian perspective, I believe it is entirely realistic for us to try to prepare, if not truly prepare, for a lot higher Chinese presence than we have seen in the past.”
However, Jaishankar stated that maritime concerns were not just between two countries, but were challenges for all countries to deal with, referring to issues like as piracy, smuggling, and terrorism. “If there is no authority, no monitoring, no force out there to actually enforce rule of law, it’s a problem.” Jaishankar went on to say that, historically, the US presence today is significantly lower than in the past. “What it has done is it has left gaps when threats have increased because problem forces, problem people are much more technologically adept than they were before” .
However, he stated that he did not consider the Quad to be a grouping aimed at another country, calling this “old fashioned,” and emphasized that there were global commons to be protected and concerns to be addressed if Quad countries worked together. He then used humanitarian aid and disaster relief as examples.
“When we had the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, the US had the largest and most rapid naval presence.” If something occurs today, I’m not sure if, God forbid, we’ll see a repeat of it. The world has changed. The capabilities have evolved. The amounts of force have shifted. China is one of the countries that has risen.” “But there are countries with which we work,” Jaishankar continued emphatically. Others we do not work with or work with only infrequently. And you can tell.”