The operational details of what happened in Arunachal Pradesh will become clearer in days to come. But what is obvious is this. China stepped into territory India considers its own. It sought to remove an Indian post. There was an intense clash. There were injuries. And the Indian forces were able to push back the Chinese aggression. While it is important for the government to undertake a thorough fact-finding exercise, review what happened, plug the loopholes and boost defences in the area — and this process is, in all likelihood, underway already — it is even more critical to look at the bigger picture.
And the big picture is simple. In the past decade, Beijing has turned back on the simple but powerful understanding that enabled stability and growth in India-China relations — both sides would maintain peace at the border, follow agreed protocols, and while striving to arrive at an understanding, deepen cooperation in other areas. The most flagrant violation by the Chinese was, of course, in 2020 when they entered eastern Ladakh, mobilised troops, set up infrastructure, and then engaged in aggression in Galwan, leading to the bloodiest clash between the two countries in over four decades. This fits into Chinese behaviour of belligerence across the Indo-Pacific under Xi Jinping.
India has dealt with this challenge smartly, given the asymmetries of power. It has strengthened its defences on the border. It has laid out a red line on no normalisation until status quo ante in restored at the border. It has deepened its collaboration with the US both bilaterally and under the Quad umbrella to expand its geopolitical options and send a signal to China, which, through its own actions, lost any public goodwill it may have had. While it has been careful in its public remarks and chosen not to be unnecessarily confrontational, India has played a critical role in opinion-building across the world on the nature of the Chinese threat. And it has decided to build its own economic and military capabilities, bide time, manage tensions for now, and take steps towards bridging the asymmetry with China so that it becomes more costly for Beijing to engage in such actions. But all of this is a work in progress, even as the Chinese challenge — as Arunachal showed — is a live everyday threat. This threat will only grow, as China uses the border dispute as an instrument of nationalist mobilisation and frames it in terms of its own sovereignty. India has to be better prepared militarily. It has to get stronger and richer. And it has to continue inflicting costs on China, on every platform, across domains, while sticking to its red lines and building its capabilities.
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