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    IndiaLadakh stand-off a watershed moment for India-China ties

    Ladakh stand-off a watershed moment for India-China ties


    Despite the then-External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj telling her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in 2014 that just as accepted the One China Policy, India expected China to go by a One India Policy, the Modi government accommodated Chinese concerns for years.

    Until 2020, Modi invested heavily in managing ties with China. India did not overtly engage with Taiwan or Tibetans. Modi's meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2014 was very low-profile and Tibetans' events were shifted from New Delhi to Dharamshala in 2018-19 as Modi reached out to Xi repeatedly. Two summits were held in China's Wuhan and Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu — ‘Wuhan Spirit' was the buzzword.

    Even as India continued to try to accommodate China, there was no reciprocity. When Chinese President Xi Jinping first visited India in 2014, the visit overlapped with a Chinese military incursion in . Then, in 2017, China waged a stand-off in Doklam at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction. China also opened a fresh flashpoint at the Sikkim border that was otherwise considered settled.

    Even that did not make India turn too hawkish. The shift only came in 2020 when China mounted incursions after incursions in Ladakh and Sikkim. The paradigm shift was cemented on June 15, 2020, when the Chinese killed at least 20 Indian soldiers in a clash in Galwan Valley in Ladakh's east.

    Following the Ladakh stand-off, the Modi government blocked Chinese telecommunication firms like Huawei from the roll-out of the 5G network in the country. It blocked Chinese investments, mergers, and acquisitions, and clamped down on the Chinese companies operating in the country — Chinese apps were banned, loan apps were brought under the scanner, and companies like Vivo and Oppo were pushed to sell majority stakes of India units to Indian companies.

    For the first time, India acknowledged the existence of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), one of the shadowiest Indian special forces rooted in the India-China conflict and staffed by Tibetans in exile in large numbers. The official engagement with the Tibetans also increased following the Ladakh stand-off.

    In 2021, Modi publicly wished the Dalai Lama for the first time in many years and has continued to do so every year since. In the years since, the Indian military has facilitated the Dalai Lama's visit to Ladakh and flown him into the region —claimed by China bordering his homeland of Tibet— in military helicopters. Top officials like governors and chief ministers have met him and the Indian leaders have increasingly referred to the border with China as the India-Tibet border —which it actually is— instead of the India-China border.

    During the Ladakh stand-off, were also released of Tibetans tying the ‘khata' —the sacred white Tibetan sash— on vehicles of Indian Army and SFF that were carrying troops for deployment to the frontlines.

    While the engagement with the Tibetans picked up pace, India also ramped up cautious engagement with Taiwan as China also became aggressive by the day regarding the self-ruled island and increased military provocations there.

    Since 2020, there has been a recognition of the reality that India does have some levers that it can pull regarding China to signal that respect for sensibilities cannot be a one-way street, says Manoj Kewalramani, a China scholar at the Takshashila Institution and author of the book Smokeless War: China's Quest for Global Primacy.

    “Since 2020, India has been telling China that we can indeed pull some levers on issues that concern you. The idea is that if you do not accept our concerns, we will not accept yours. The US delegation's meeting with the Dalai Lama is also part of the signalling to China that if you worsen the relationship by ratcheting up disputes, we can also rake up stuff that you may otherwise consider settled. This may include giving foreign governments a platform to engage with the Tibetan ‘separatist' movement,” says Kewalramani.

    While the post-2020 approach to China is indeed a paradigm shift, there is also an element of continuity. Even though India formally accepts the One China Policy, India has not iterated that since 2009. The idea is that One China will be only iterated if the other side iterates One India, as Swaraj told Yi in 2014.

    The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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