Mao Zedong once said, “When faced with an opponent, one should push till one meets resistance”, and that could perhaps be what the Chinese are doing at the moment. For over four weeks, India and China have been involved in a standoff along part of their 3500 km shared border. The two nations fought a war over border in 1962 and disputes remain unresolved in several areas, causing tensions to rise from time to time. This time it erupted when India opposed China’s attempt to extend a border road through a plateau known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China. The plateau, which lies at a junction between China, the north-eastern Indian State of Sikkim and Bhutan, is currently disputed between Beijing and Thimpu. India supports Bhutan’s claim over it. India, as a third party closely allied with Bhutan sent its troops to a foreign land, which is disputed, to prevent Chinese from extending a road on land that China claims as its own. Thus India is not a formally party to.
India is concerned, that if the road is completed, it will give China greater access to India’s strategically vulnerable “chicken’s neck”, a 20 km wide corridor that links the seven north-eastern states to the Indian mainland. “We did not open fire; our boys just created a human wall and stopped the Chinese from any further intrusion” – a brigadier said on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorised to speak to press. Chinese officials say that in opposing the road construction, Indian border guards obstructed “normal activities” on the Chinese side and called on India to immediately withdraw. The Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohul has said, “India has to ‘unconditionally’ pull back troops for peace to prevail”, seen by many as a diplomatic escalation by China. India’s Defence Minister Arun Jaitley responded by a warning that the “India of 2017 was not that India of 1962”.
What are the reasons for China to force a boundary dispute with India at this point of time? There are many, both domestically and globally. The 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is expected to anoint President Xi Jinping for a second term. The internal Chinese foreign policy debate between the pragmatists, who emphasised a low profile and the muscular nationalist who want the “Fen Fa You Wei” (striving for achievement) approach is being won by the latter and Bhutan adventure may be an example by President Xi. The Chinese were apoplectic when the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh. India’s proximity to the US is deemed suspect. While supporting India’s stand, CPM leader, Sitaram Yachury asked the Government to introspect whether its policies of joint naval exercises with the US and Japan, in South China Sea, permission to Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh and hoisting of the Tibetan Flag in India had irked the Chinese. Is Doklam China’s way of telling India to behave or face the war?
“The list of hostile acts by the Chinese against India is a long one starting with making Pakistan into a bigger nuisance by augmenting its nuclear and missile capabilities, by running the Chine-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through the territory claimed by India”, says Seema Sirohi, a US-based columnist. Moreover, India’s disappointment with China’s role in India’s entry into the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) and more so in the efforts to get Pakistani terrorists on the UN sanction list, may also be added.
PM Narendra Modi naively tried to establish a personal relationship first with Chinese President Xi and then with Premier Li with the words, “It is selfie time” and failed. In international relations “hugging” and “selfies” have no role, it is the national interest which counts and prevails. The government lately realised, for all talks of cooperation, China and India remain fierce rivals as far as vying for regional influence is concerned, which could lead to fresh round of tensions. And the economy is one area they can agree upon.
China is demanding that India withdraws its troop and let Bhutan and China sort out their boundary dispute. In other words, China should have the freedom to coerce a tiny country. It will have dangerous implications for India, undoing its strategic gains. India is committed to look after the interest of Bhutan under a treaty. If our neighbours begin to harbour concerns about India’s ability to protect a smaller neighbour, they will lose faith. India’s stance at Doklam will have an influence on Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives. For some observers, China’s military stand off on Doklam is aimed at testing India’s political will to sustain military elements of relationships with Bhutan. The Chinese might also have assessed that India will not step into this situation. It is to be noted that the stand-off is not between India and China. Firstly, it is a dispute between China and Bhutan, Doklam is in Bhutan and Indian troops are in Bhutan. It is perhaps for the first time after Rajiv Gandhi sent IPKF to Sri Lanka that Indian troops have gone to a foreign country. China’s demand of India to withdraw troops from Bhutan on the ground that it is a disputed territory, claimed by China cannot be justified under international law.
Ryszard Czarnecki, Vice President of European Parliament has expressed concern over China’s growing tendency to encroach referring to its actions along Sikkim. He said, “Belying China’s claims of ‘peaceful rise’ Chinese foreign policy is turning into an infringement of internationally accepted norms.
No one can predict how or when the current standoff will end. Beijing’s recent statements have been most belligerent on record since the 1960s and certainly since the Sumdorong Chu crisis of 1986-87. In fact the situation today is extremely reminiscent of the build up to the 1962 war. Despite provocative statements from China, the tone and contents of Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) have been very measured and balanced. The Government of India is seeking amicable resolution of the present standoff situation. India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s, response to China’s demand that India withdraw its troops, that China also simultaneously withdraws its troops, can be a “face-saver” solution for the two Asian powers. “Look at Depsag in 2013 and Chumar and Demchok in 2014, we did manage to sort out tricky situations. It took some three-four months, but a solution was found” says Ashok Kantha, former Indian Ambassador to China, hinting to earlier settlement.
Both India and China have rushed more troops to the border region and according to BBC the two sides are in an “eyeball to eyeball” standoff. Indian military experts say Sikkim is the only area through which India could make an offensive response to a Chinese incursion and the only stretch of the Himalayan frontier where Indian troops have a terrain and tactful advantage. They have a higher ground and the Chinese positions here are squeezed between India and Bhutan. “The Chinese know this and so they are always trying to undo our advantage there, says retired Major General Gaganjit Singh, who commanded troops on the border.
China has reiterated its sovereignty over the area, saying that the road is in its territory and accuses Indian troops of “trespassing”. Chinese foreign ministry claims that the border in Sikkim has been settled in an 1890 agreement with the British that previously Indian Government had pledged to uphold. In this context, it is to be noted that long back in 2012 the then NSA Shiv Shankar Menon had said, “Special representatives from both sides had a broad understanding that tri-junction will be finalised in consultation with the third country concerned”, China is now unilaterally trying to get away from that. Interestingly, there has not been any statement on Chinese standoff from any senior US Government Officials. President Trump in his China policy seems to be guided by two objectives; first ending North Korea’s missile programme and second ensuring greater openness to American goods in Chinese markets.
Incidentally, Chinese are not raising tensions on the whole border but specifically on the Sikkim-Bhutan stretch, but India cannot afford to be complacent. New Delhi must carefully consider its options. Both countries need a face saver to avoid a further deterioration in relations. Diplomacy works but only if it is backed up with strength on the ground. Modi’s China policy seems to be failing.
*The writer is Chairman, West Bengal Federation of United Nations Association and of Asia in Global Affairs, Kolkata as well as Vice President (Strategy) of Centre for Eastern and North Eastern Regional Studies, Kolkata (CENERS-K), a think-tank.