What happened in the Galwan Valley on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh on 15 June between the Indian Army and the PLA may, in military parlance, be an issue of ‘persistent security dilemma’ existing between the two countries. On deeper analysis, however, it is the symptom of the disease and not the disease itself. The disease is the democratic deficit of China, a regimented and totalitarian state as contrasted with India’s vibrant democracy.

Born contemporaneously, India in August 1947 and China in October 1949, the two became competitive models of state craft and development in the Asian firmament. While China, emerging from the internecine civil war, was again caught up in the fight against the USA in the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s and in the domestic strife of Rural People’s Commune and later in the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” from 1966 to 1969 which convulsed China’s polity and economy, India embarked on its democratic experimentation and consolidation.

It was only after the end of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ that China established diplomatic relations with the USA in 1972 and after Deng Xioping’s ‘four modernisations’ and economic reforms and liberalisation of 1978 that the Chinese economy took off in its trajectory of growth and development benefiting from ‘Foreign Direct Investment’ particularly from the USA and integrating with the world market. India’s boisterous democracy and compulsions of electoral politics on the contrary stymied its economic prowess and potential.

India’s democracy nonetheless has a self-healing capacity to absorb and withstand a myriad of challenges. In per capita income (PP), it is worthwhile to note that India was ahead of China in 1870s and as late as the early 1970s. Even today and until recently the two were in neck-toneck competition for the tag of world’s fastest growing economy. In 2018 India was the fastest growing economy of the world. If India can achieve the same rate of growth as compared with China by following a democratic path with all its potholes,

China has a problem when there is a democratic yearning among its own people. This is precisely the reason why Beijing has enforced the draconian national security law in Hong Kong which jettisons the ‘one country, two systems’ as envisaged in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. This is also the reason why China is critical of Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese President and the leader of Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan.

The contestation between two competitive models of India and China is getting exacerbated with India’s economic rise which has of course suffered due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but has all the potential to bounce back sooner rather than later with the government’s dynamic initiatives and resolve to recalibrate the economic parameters. China has prided itself on its economic achievements being the second largest economy of the world following a totalitarian and repressive regime. Having suffered indignity at the hands of the West particularly during the ‘opium war’, China is showing belligerence with a veneer of arrogance.

At times it has also ridiculed and trivialised India’s democracy. The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China has derided and mocked at India’s democracy from time to time. True, China is a multi-trillion economy and much bigger economically than India. China, however, suffers from a congenital complexity of democratic deficit in relations with India and this is more so when there is a suppressed desire among a substantial chunk of the Chinese population for democracy and freedom.

The Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 was only the tip of the iceberg. There is a pent-up aspiration for freedom. True, China has uplifted a substantial chunk of its population out of poverty and has afforded them a better quality of life; but then man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fulfilment of basic necessities of life is fine, but once these are met and even if they are not met, every individual is a freedom loving person. The India-China relationship has always been complex and a ‘contrived’ one. The kind of bizarre incident that happened on 15 June was only waiting to happen.

It was the outburst and outpouring of China’s animus against India. India’s rise as a democratic country is something that China cannot digest. The chances of India picking up the momentum of its earlier growth rate may not be possible in the immediate future, but is certainly a possibility in the medium term future.

Howsoever China may try to paper over the injury and the wound inflicted on India in which China also suffered casualties, the fact remains that India-China relations cannot be the same again. As neighbours the two countries need to realistically reassess and recalibrate the relationship between themselves shorn of rhetoric and clichés. India has realised that China only respects raw military power and strategic heft.

(The writer, a Delhi based China scholar, is currently a senior fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi. The views are personal)