Most people in India would welcome that a potential military conflict with China had been averted after China pulled back its troops who had intruded 19 km across the of Line of Actual Control (LAC), into Indian territory in Ladakh. The intrusion in the strategically sensitive area near Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) tested Indian nerves for 20 days. The aftershocks of what many Indians perceive as an ill-timed and seemingly uncalled for Chinese provocation is sure to linger for a long time affecting Indian perceptions in the long term.
The latest intrusion was perhaps the most serious stand-off between the two countries after in Indian troops 'taught a lesson' (to borrow a Chinese description of 1962 war) to the Chinese at Sumdrong Chu in 1986. In a way, the Chinese should be thanked for giving a wake-up call to the people and polity now to look beyond their internal preoccupations to attend strategic priorities of the nation with the urgency they deserve.
Though the Indian leadership might claim the withdrawal of the Chinese troops as a political victory, it should thank Indian diplomats for their marathon effort to achieve results. However, it has come at a great political cost to the smooth progress of India-China relations which had been going well for nearly a decade, despite periodic hiccups.
But unfortunately the DBO incursion has created yet another negative benchmark for Chinese conduct and reliability. From now onwards, invariably at all levels Chinese actions relating to India will be measured against the latest benchmark.Of course, we have also created negative political benchmark in handling the issue without the seriousness it deserved.
More pointedly, DBO benchmark is likely to condition the relationship building exercise between the two countries under the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jingping and their Indian counterparts. As a corollary, in the near term it is likely to hobble Prime Minister Li Keqiang in his interaction in India when he visits New Delhi for the first time since assuming office on May 20.
The incursion does not appear to be without a strategic purpose; Times of India report quoted Indian Air Force drone reports to indicate that the Chinese troops had chosen the spot near DBO to cross the LAC after they had probed three other spots along the line. The strategic imperatives that induced the Chinese to indulge in this bit of brinkmanship on the eve of their prime minister's maiden visit may be endlessly debated. But it is clear that it could not have been taken place without his knowledge.
Whatever are the merits of China's strategic intent or purpose, by prolonging the intrusion for 20 days, China has squandered the abundance goodwill it enjoyed in recent times amidst large sections of Indian people. The Chinese intrusion has come as a harsh rerun of events that led to the 1962 war. It has reminded them that the disconnect between Chinese rhetoric and action is very much alive now, as it was in 1962.
Prime Minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru called it a betrayal in 1962, an epithet that might not be considered apt in the present instance as the Chinese pulled back the troops before a conflict situation arose. However, just as in 1962 it was the Chinese who intruded in DBO and pulled back their troops at a time of their choosing after destabilizing Indian leadership.
Its strategic message was perhaps the same as in 1962: friendship was no trade off when it came to territorial claims. Perhaps the new Chinese leadership intention in DBO incursion was to remind India that the 1962 message still remained valid. It will not be forgotten by Indian policy makers in future when they are tempted to try and play down Chinese transgressions as they keep count of them running into hundreds.
Though the purist or idealist may brand the upsurge of popular feeling kindled by the DBO intrusion as jingoism, such popular feelings, given a lease of life by the Chinese, cannot be wished away. So Prime Minister Li would be starting his Indian visit with a disadvantage because he would be remembered more as a leader of the power that rattled the sabre rather than the one that wanted to strengthen China's relationship with India with a friendly overture.
Even if the Indian government which had assiduously worked for building a meaningful relationship with China would like to forget and forgive the whole DBO incident as bad chemistry between the two nations, Indian people are unlikely to do so for some years to come.
And public opinion is increasingly conditioning Indian politics, including the foreign policy prescriptions. Regardless of the merits of this development, no political leader can afford to ignore this reality as public opinion shapes his journey to portals of power in New Delhi. The Chinese leadership does not appear to have understood the working of these political compulsions in India.
While Chinese may despise the Indian media as irresponsible, it cannot ignore the Indian media that had constantly reminded the people of the Chinese incursion and its ramifications during the last 20 days. Though the Chinese do not seem to have understood it, this is how free media works in a huge unwieldy democracy - like a huge supermarket with a wide choice of opinions including some irresponsible ones.
The elected governments appear to have realized it is difficult to exercise control over electronic with the same ease with which they muscled the print media. So they have tried to leverage the advantage of reaching out to the people on the real time using the visual and electronic media.
The Chinese do not seem to have realized the importance of using it to access the Indian people although the Indian government seemed to have realized it sooner than later, and did so with some success. If China wants to rework its strategy, it would perhaps achieve more success by projecting its ideas through Indian media than castigating it.