Rana Mitter is director of Oxford University’s China Centre and professor of the history and politics of modern China. Speaking to TOI’s Srijana Mitra Das, Mitter discussed why China is so interested in Galwan valley, its strength and vulnerability — and why it is unlikely to escalate the clash with India:
How does China view India?
Well, before India’s freedom and China’s revolution, there was considerable regard between their leaders in sharing a nationalist agenda against imperialism.
were close —Nehru apparently visited China in the mid-1930s while Chiang Kai-shek visited Nehru and Gandhi in 1942.
Initially, Nehru and Mao were also quite friendly, with ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’. But the Cold War became problematic. Then, the 1962 confrontation occurred, which caused a deep chill in relations. Full diplomatic relations were reopened only with the Janata government in the late 1970s. Ties remained cool, changing slightly in the 1990s-2000s, driven by China’s large trade surplus with India.
When I speak to Chinese policy makers about India presently, while not being hostile, they associate India with the glories of the past, like architecture or spirituality — they don’t associate India as a contemporary rival. The US is the only country China regards as a rival in geopolitical power.
My reading of the Galwan valley event therefore is that this is localised friction tragically gone out of hand. News of this incident remains low-key in China, suggesting that China is not seeking greater confrontation.
Yet, China keeps returning to this part of the Ladakh terrain – why?
China is concerned about one thing above all — territorial sovereignty. That is the touchstone of what China considers the most important legitimacy of a state. This area poses a historical and strategic question to China. All of China’s western part is regarded as very vulnerable by the Chinese. The Tibetan plateau and beyond are seen as places where forces coming from the western side could invade or occupy land. Also, this speaks to a Chinese sense of identity. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) always claims Chinese territory is indivisible, multiple ethnic groups form the wider Chinese state, etc. So, aggression on what they declare as their western border or the maritime border speaks to this narrative, where China values territorial sovereignty above everything else.
Why then would China want to calm the Galwan situation down?
Early reports suggest there is no real enthusiasm within China to turn this into a bigger incident. China is dealing with a lot right now — there’s the re-emergence of Covid-19 in Beijing. There’s a high-level summit coming up between Mike Pompeo and Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign affairs councillor. And
has recently blown up a South Korean installation. China’s list of priorities is long — I suspect it doesn’t have the energy to raise temperatures on the China-India border. Beyond the rhetoric, there will be an attempt to calm things down.