Indian Border Security Force soldiers guard a highway leading toward Leh, bordering China, in Gagangir on June 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tauseef Mustafa

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi today (June 17) warned China after the People’s Liberation Army killed 20 soldiers in Ladakh in what could be a defining moment in Sino-Indian relations.

News of the killings sent shockwaves across India with public opinion building for action against China. Some want India’s revenge to begin with canceling projects for Chinese companies and cutting the extensive imports that give China a bilateral trade surplus of about US$53 billion.

“We want peace but if provoked we are capable of giving a befitting reply,” Modi said in a brief televised message. “The sacrifice of our soldiers will not go in vain,” he said.

Indian sources say a colonel and 19 members of other ranks were sent unarmed to make sure the PLA was not violating the agreed line of control. They were reportedly ambushed by Chinese soldiers brandishing iron rods, spiked clubs and rocks. At least 16 had injuries from blunt weapons and four were thrown from a cliff into the Galwan river.

Following Monday night’s attack, China claimed sovereignty over the Galwan valley for the first time, PLA spokesman Col Zhang Shiuli was quoted as saying in media reports. The Chinese map of 1962 shows that its border up to the Shyok river and Galwan valley was not disputed.

“The risk of greater conflict is underlined by the fact that Galwan valley was also the scene of PLA intrusions in July 1962,’’ according to security expert Brahma Chellany. “Those intrusions were a prelude to China’s military invasion of India here months later.’’

Experts see detailed planning with a long-term objective in China’s move that takes advantage of India facing a multiplicity of challenges, including a growing Covid-19 outbreak and severe economic slowdown.

The area the Chinese have occupied is of critical importance. Along the mountain opposite the occupied area is a key road that India built over years to provide military personnel and materiel to its inhospitable northern areas near the Siachen Glacier. 

A Chinese presence would weaken India’s defense in the region, making it tough to defend against its traditional rival Pakistan on the west and now a hostile China closing in from the eastern border.

While the immediate choice for India is tough – it has a 3,500-kilometer border with China and enough capacity to make inroads in other sectors – where India occupies higher mountains and has vantage position, say experts. Following Monday’s attack, China accused Indian troops of crossing the border and attacking Chinese soldiers. 

Both Asian giants are nuclear-armed with long-range missiles and maintain armies which are among the biggest in the world.

According to the Indian version of events, Chinese troops encroached on the un-demarcated, sparsely guarded and contentious mountainous area that has been under Indian control since 1962. Since an incursion about two months ago, the Chinese maintained an inflexible and unrelenting stand on the issue.

Indian army soldiers on top a military vehicle move along the Srinagar-Leh National highway on June 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Andalou Agency/Faisal Khan

The Chinese challenge comes at a tough juncture for India but less so for Beijing, some experts suggest.

With 355,000 Covid-19 cases, India is the fourth-worst affected country after the United States, Brazil and Russia. China has largely managed to contain the spread of the virus with fewer than 85,000 cases. India’s economic growth has slowed after a 75-day lockdown.

The lockdown left millions jobless and companies struggling to get back on their feet. The pandemic has sapped India of resources for its 1.38 billion population, let alone for a full-scale war against the might of the Chinese military.

In an attempt to get a national consensus, Modi called a meeting of all political parties for June 19. Indian governments have typically taken all political leaders along when deciding on issues such as external aggression.

The response to Pakistan’s occupation of higher mountains at Kargil in Ladakh in 1999 was also decided by a consensus of all parties.

Calls for the canceling of contracts with Chinese companies come just after China’s Great Wall Motors signed up with the Maharashtra government to invest half a billion US dollars in the western Indian state for a project that will be valued at almost a billion dollars.  

Meanwhile, Chinese firms Oppo and Xiaomi supply more than half of the smartphones in India. Chinese companies have invested about $5.77 billion in Indian technology start-ups over the past five years.  Any action, military or economic, would inevitably and deeply hurt both countries