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An assertive India riles China into border aggression at Galwan Valley

Clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers

For some time now, Indians have become used to looking at sharp smiley photographs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders have been meeting often—bilaterally and in multilateral fora. They have met on the banks of the Sabarmati from where Gandhi the pacifist drove one of the largest freedom struggles in the world; followed by Wuhan—the now infamous coronavirus city which unleashed disaster across the world; and last year at Mamallapuram—the port town that traded with China 2,000 years back.

With growing trade and bonhomie in the 70th year of diplomatic relations, it seemed that the two powerful nations had put fractious history behind them. All that posing and smiling that became part of our lives for six long years turned into a grim question mark in just six weeks. Why did the Chinese soldiers attack Indians in such a barbaric manner? The medieval-looking pre-planned aggression by the Chinese has shocked not just India but the world. How does one make sense of India-China relations? How does India understand China? Or, is it a throwback to 1962 when Indians were busy shouting Hindi-Chini bhai bhai, the Chinese were busy sharpening knives? Does one move on with the simplistic explanation that the Chinese cannot be taken on their word? We look at contemporary politics that governs relations between the two countries and understand their larger-than life leaders.

Dr. Jabin T Jacob, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, says: "There is a problem with this assumption that Modi and Xi enjoy good chemistry. Both have come to power on nationalistic ideologies and that constrains space in diplomacy. With strong leaders at the helm of foreign policy, we have a weakening of institutions.

When we have a personalized foreign policy, there is a conflation of the personal or of short-term interests with national interests and the consequences cannot be good." "These informal summits have harmed us. There have been no joint statements, no signed agreements, so you can't hold anybody to account. Things have been changing at the India-China Line of Actual Control (LAC) over several years because of better infrastructure on the ground and also because of advancements in technology as well as changing internal political dynamics in each country.

Our protocols have failed to keep up with these changed realities." Jacob adds that to understand why the barbaric assault took place, one cannot blame local commanders alone. "The Chinese army is an army of the Communist Party and so driven also by political direction and considerations. Since Xi's arrival there has been increasing stress on nationalism and China's territorial claims – military commanders have been encouraged to take forward, proactive positions on China's borders. This has, no doubt, contributed to the present tragedy." It is not just muscle-flexing by a strong leader of a strong nation.

China is nursing multiple grudges with India, and it has been carefully collecting and compiling those grudges for decades. Deeply ingrained into the Chinese political psyche is the medieval element of expanding boundaries through territorial conquest and intimidating neighbors, to which India is no exception almost since the time the two nations came into being in the late forties. Aditi Bhaduri, editor of International Affairs Review says Chinese leaders are prone to double-speak.

"Xi needs to keep his hold on the Chinese Communist Party and the party has to keep hold on the people. Inside China, Xi is facing a crisis as the coronavirus is busting the economy. Good relations between Xi and Modi have not translated on ground. Remember that the last three incursions by the PLA happened when the two were in a meeting. Xi wants to assert his position in the party and also the country." "China is holding many grudges against India.

China is unhappy as India has played spoiler over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is unhinged over Amit Shah's statements on Aksai Chin after the abrogation of Article 370, as that region is vital for China's connectivity. China is also peeved with India over agreements like the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which the US signs with countries for better military bonding. More recently India signed a Mutual Logistics Support Agreement with Australia which could not have been lost on China.

It is also irritated with the fact India is developing border infrastructure, which it has every right to on it's side of the border and that India is inching closer to Taiwan," says Bhaduri. She feels that with so much happening around India, strongman Xi had to show to the CCP that I am in command and to put India in its place. China is also trying to see how far can India go. A military expert says that India's capacity to move men and materials on the border has rattled China.

"The Chinese are mighty angry because the Indian Army has progressed considerably on border infrastructure. They are irked with parallel roads that connect DSDBO with other parts of the region. Many roads that the Border Roads Organization built give us military advantage in the region," says the expert. An immediate reason for the brutal attack is that the PLA does not want Indian troops accessing every part of the remote region—one it has been eyeing for decades but which has always remained under Indian control.

With this attack, the Chinese have deftly buried years of friendly negotiations and proven once again that the Communist country cannot be taken at face value. Jawaharlal Nehru faced Chinese duplicity in 1962 and Narendra Modi in 2020.

More than two generations later, we stare at the same reality – Chinese deceit and Indian gullibility. In the Year of the Coronavirus, as countries mourn a staggering 4,50,000 deaths and nursing broken economies, for China it is just another day – wolf warriors howl lies, PLA navy rams fishing boats</strong> </a>and club-wielding PLA soldiers nibble at territories. India has learnt its lesson. The nature and content of photographs will change.