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The crafty Chinese gambit: Stand-off is perhaps not worth escalating into a major conflict

By Professor  

India has enhanced its military heft, but this ‘standoff’ is perhaps not worth escalating into a major conflict

It was drizzling all morning of July 6, 2006 as India and China agreed to reopen the fabled Old Silk Route through Nathu La in Sikkim. Indian and Chinese soldiers posed for photos together and the event, seen as one of the most significant in Sino-Indian relations was broadcast live from an altitude of 14,000 feet. Eleven years later, China has blocked off Nathu La to Indian pilgrims travelling to Kailash Mansarovar citing Indian aggression inside its territory.

But what exactly is happening along the Sino-Indian border? China has been talking war and India is not in any mood to back off.

Nobody seems to know in great detail the trigger for this current impasse that has been going on for the last four weeks. What, however, we know is the contentious location is a 100 square kilometre pasture called Doklam, which is also the tri-junction of Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan. Indian forces have opposed China’s attempt to construct a border road. While China claims Doklam as their territory, India asserts the Chinese territory from the Tibetan plateau ends north of Doklam. Bhutan disputes China’s stand and New Delhi is backing Thimpu. The tiny Himalayan kingdom has protested China’s strategic highway construction and given Bhutan and India have security arrangements, the Indian army is reportedly in a confrontation with the Chinese counterparts.

There are 14 disputes along the Indian and Chinese Line of Actual Control and almost all of them are about ridgelines and grazing grounds. The 1962 war was a result of a disagreement over the Thagla Ridge. The 1986 situation around Sumdorong Chu was over a grazing ground near Tawang. But these are only pressure points for the bigger territorial claims China makes over Arunachal Pradesh and India over Aksai Chin plateau.

The current ‘standoff’ as one understands is because of misplaced strategic concerns of both countries. India imagines, allowing China to construct this highway would make Siliguri, India’s chicken neck to the northeast vulnerable and perhaps cut away the northeast. This is a far-fetched scenario and implausible with India’s military strength and the geography. China, on the other hand, is actually more vulnerable to Indian defences in the Chumbi valley from where Doklam extends and it makes no strategic sense to extend and expand their weakest link.

China’s war cry is backed by a signed colonial agreement, the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention relating to Sikkim that has Mount Gipmochi as the tri-junction for Bhutan-India-China, but the irony is they usually reject other such colonial agreements like the McMahon Line. They even went back to Tibet Archives to show how Bhutan paid a ‘grass tax’ to Yadong for grazing in Doklam, implying the land belonged to China. The Chinese foreign office pointed out, “The 1890 convention said that the Sikkim section of the boundary commences from East mountain and the incident (of road building) took place about 2,000 metres away from Mount Gipmochi.” It invoked Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s approval of the 1890 Sino-British Treaty as the determinant of the boundaries of Sikkim and Tibet.

But India is standing its ground and wouldn’t be intimidated by China. Over the years it has enhanced its military capabilities but this ‘standoff’ is perhaps not worth escalating into a major conflict.

Meanwhile, China has been releasing statements almost by the hour; the Chinese state media on Thursday warned New Delhi to stop ‘bullying’ Bhutan and that if it doesn’t, it may reconsider its stance on Sikkim and even start supporting Sikkim’s ‘pro-independence appeals’. At the same time, the good news is China has actually allowed 56 Hindu pilgrims, who entered the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, to visit Mansarovar.

In 1962, China wanted India to know that it is a ‘new China’ that could no longer be bullied. India was complacent thinking China would never strike and that asymmetry between Indian and Chinese worldviews on the role of military power in politics is visible even today. The Chinese leadership saw in Nehru the continuation of the colonial policies of expansionism and an attempt to dominate neighbouring countries. Nehru did consistently try to make Tibet a buffer zone between India and China. Incidentally, the current ‘standoff’ comes just weeks after the visit of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian state China claims as its own.

The writer teaches Journalism in OP Jindal Global University and is the author of Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters