India showed itself, and others, it could lead on a comprehensive national pushback on China. Now, it is scaling that up internationally by building on existing linkages and creating new ones.
Washington, DC: While New Delhi is preparing for the arrival of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper for their 2+2 meetings in India, we should take a moment to remember Colonel Santosh Babu, his 19 fellow martyrs, and the many others killed or injured near the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
There are moments the world changes. Sometimes you can tell. Ralph Waldo Emerson described one of the first battles of the American Revolution as “the shot heard round the world”. The term has also been used to describe the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which contributed to events that started World War I.
Usually, the political tinder is already there, dry and crisp, just waiting for the strike of the match to set off the conflagration. In India, the tinder had been piling up for a long time. Some would trace it back to 1962, but it spread as CCP support for Pakistan grew, binding the two together via Gwadar, the CPEC, weapons in Kashmir, UNSC resolutions and more. Recently there were CCP influence operations in Nepal, the suspicious winning of big contracts in India by Chinese companies, and the one that touched every single Indian-Covid-19.
The virus and the lockdown acted like a magnifying glass, concentrating the fury of Indians on the tinder of Chinese malign actions. The nation smouldered-on their own Indians started deleting Chinese apps, boycotting Chinese goods and wondering out loud why more wasn’t being “done”. Meanwhile, near the LAC, tensions were growing as well.
And then, on a cold day in June, on a desolate incline, the PLA ambushed, hit and pushed Colonel Santosh Babu-reportedly shoving him off a hillside-and killed him.
That shove was to be the shove felt round the world. The first to feel it were his fellow soldiers, who counterattacked with a burning intensity built up over long stretches of disciplined self-restraint in the face of endless smaller Chinese pushes and shoves.
Then, once the nation found out what had happened, all of India felt it as well-like a punch to the heart. But they didn’t fall over; they leaned in, and demanded to punch back.
That gave an opening to the many people in the Indian defence, strategic and intelligence communities who, for years, had been working on plans and policies to defend from China-plans and policies previously muted by concerns from others over the need for economic engagement, etc.
The sacrifices of Colonel Babu and his companions seared away those objections. Fanned by the Indian people, Indian leadership let the fires of resistance grow. Troops and supplies were shifted, apps were banned, FDI was restricted, Chinese spy networks were rolled up, visas were re-examined, and more, much more.
The shove-back covered all facets of India-China engagement, and was effective comprehensive national defence. It hit the CCP in places it hurts-not their people, which they don’t seem to care about, as they never even acknowledged their fallen-but their finances. With just the app ban alone, the 20 Galwan martyrs likely cost the Chinese markets over a billion dollars each (the TikTok ban alone reportedly knocked 6 billion dollars off the value of ByteDance).
But the even bigger effect is international. On hearing what happened on that hillside, service members from militaries around the world personally felt the injury and injustice—it wasn’t war, it was murder. They knew which side they wanted to be on. And many watched with approval as India showed itself, and others, it could lead on a comprehensive national pushback on China. Now, India is scaling that up internationally by building on existing linkages and creating new ones.
It is moving forward with the Quad, letting Australia into Malabar, working on the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative with Japan and Australia, engaging in deeper partnerships with US, leasing the submarine to Myanmar, and more. India, as a fulcrum in the region, with its many old and deep ties to countries big and small, is essential for an Indo-Pacific pushback. If it stays the course, it will anchor all its partners as they go through political change. The Indo-Pacific goes as India goes. The US knows it. As Secretary Esper said India will “be the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure in this century.”
And through its actions India is starting to shape the future in ways that one would hope would make the Bravehearts proud. A future in which the cost of the sort of aggression China has been indulging in is too high for even Beijing-which seems ready to spend liberally with other people’s lives-to bear. It’s not perfect, or consistent, but it is an epochal change. And it started on that hillside in the Himalayas. From there to all India. From all India to the Indo-Pacific. And now to the world.
In other cases of events heard around the world, they sparked a fire of devastation and war. There is reason to hope that in the case of the fatal shove on the night of 14 June, it sparked a coming together of people and nations who want to avoid war-and who will work to build defences, economies, partnerships and alliances that are strong enough to ensure it doesn’t happen.
As the 2+2 starts, the free world as a whole should acknowledge the sacrifice of Colonel Babu and the men on the LAC. May they inspire the rest of us to work together to ensure they are the last of us to be shoved over a cliff-figuratively and literally-by the CCP and the PLA. We owe them that.
Cleo Paskal is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.