Sikkim standoff: If China wants to play Kashmir card, a confident India is more than ready

The current deadlock with China at the Doka La area in the Sikkim sector is one fight India cannot afford to lose. It isn't just about the strategic vulnerability of the Siliguri Corridor (which is no doubt of serious concern), it is equally about India's standing as a major power which underwrites insurance to smaller nations within its sphere of influence to balance China's hostile revanchism. And finally, it is also about the writ of liberal democratic order over authoritarianism. China's rise poses a unique threat to the world in terms of value sets that a superpower brings to the table to shape the world around it. The threat to Asia is obviously graver.

The stakes are high and deep. China knows it too, which is why its belligerence is touching new highs (or lows, if you will) every day. While India's response has so far been fairly circumspect, China has been indulging in a game of dangerous brinkmanship. Short of sounding the war bugle, China has opened several fronts to bully India into submission. A military conflict looks unlikely at this stage but that possibility appears directly proportional to the length of this impasse.

File image of Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping. Reuters

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China president Xi Jinping. Reuters

A new front was opened on Sunday when Beijing's state-controlled media hinted at the possibility of Chinese troops entering Jammu and Kashmir through Pakistan and even cross the Line of Control (LoC) into the Indian territory if New Delhi doesn't back off from Doka La and let China continue with its road-building exercise in the disputed area.

This is as naked a threat as it gets and crosses one of India's most sensitive red lines. Though China has been merrily constructing roads and building infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir as part of its China Pakistan Economic Corridor, at least publicly it has referred to Kashmir dispute as a bilateral issue between Islamabad and New Delhi.

But now, the mask is off. Through an intensification of psychological warfare, China is now signaling that it is willing to barter a largely peaceful bilateral tie with India in exchange for strategic gains in the tri-junction which will eventually enable it to: a) make Tibet the economic hub of Himalayan frontier, and b) hold incontrovertible advantage over Indian army in the Sikkim sector.

Writing for Global Times, Chinese think tank fellow Long Xingchun argues that India's logic of entering China's "established territory" through Bhutan exposes New Delhi to a similar risk.

"Even if India were requested to defend Bhutan's territory, this could only be limited to its established territory, not the disputed area. Otherwise, under India's logic, if the Pakistani government requests, a third country's army can enter the area disputed by India and Pakistan, including India-controlled Kashmir", said Long who also serves as the director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University.

He goes on to argue that were such an eventuality to occur, India can expect no help from international community (read the Untied States) because they value their transactional relationship with Beijing more.

"At present, though the US and other Western countries have the intention to contain China through supporting India, they have a wide range of common interests with China. Therefore, Western countries cannot unconditionally stand on the side of India about India's incursion into China's territory," writes the scholar.

This scaling-up follows China's move (once again through its state-controlled media) to fuel insurgency in Sikkim and Bhutan. On Sunday, Global Times carried another article where it claimed to be quoting a 'Bhutanese blogger' who had some very unflattering things to say about India's relationship with Bhutan.

"It is true that within Bhutan, there are Indian military presences as declared by India. And yes, Bhutanese Army is trained by India and even funded by India. But all this is not for defence of Bhutan. It is for the security of India. In the defence strategy plan of India against China, India counts on Bhutan's ability to secure her international borders with China. So Indian military is in Bhutan for defence of India. And likewise Indian Army's recent action at Doklam Plateau has nothing to do with Bhutanese national interest or with Bhutanese Security Force at Doklam," writes Wangcha Sangey, ostensibly "a legal consultant from Bhutan".

China opened another front when it, rather strangely, issued a travel advisory through its embassy in New Delhi on Saturday, asking its citizens to be careful about personal safety in India. A Chinese foreign ministry official told PTI that it was an "advisory", not an "alert" (which is more serious) but even so, it doesn't explain why China is issuing travel advisories for India where its citizens face no threat, and not Pakistan, where two of its nationals were recently abducted and murdered.

And last in the series of threats, no less potent, is Chinese media's warning to New Delhi on Tibet. The Tibetan-government-in-exile's move to unfurl Tibetan 'national flag' in Ladakh has predictably raised China's hackles. Though there has been no evidence of India's involvement, it didn't stop Global Times in one more editorial to write that "although the involvement of New Delhi remains unclear, we hope they did not send any signal of approval," said a report in Times of India.

Kashmir, Tibet, Sikkim-Bhutan are an essential part of China's 'string of threats' strategy against India. If we study the linear progression of the current conflict, some inferences are revealed. One, China has no wish to vacate the territory without at least some concessions on India's part. Two, towards that end, it is ready to indulge in competitive risk-taking secure in the knowledge that it has a deeper ability to absorb strategic shocks than India. Three, China believes India is running out of options.

This brings us to India's response to the standoff. New Delhi has so far not budged from its ground at Doka La, neither has it engaged China in a competitive shouting match. It has signaled to China that it wishes to solve this impasse diplomatically, not militarily. As a de-escalatory measure, India's tactics are apt. But does India possess any policy of compellence? Can it force China to behave in a certain way that suits its end instead of reacting to Chinese moves?

While the army is locked in a standoff, New Delhi has gone ahead and signed a deal with Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea to drill for oil. Reuters reports that this week Vietnam granted ONGC Videsh a two-year extension to explore oil block 128, part of which covers the "nine-dash line which marks the vast area that China claims in the waterway, a route for more than $5 trillion in trade each year." Reuters quoted an ONGC official as saying that the move is more strategic than commercial because there is only "moderate potential" for oil and "Vietnam also wants us to be there because of China's interventions in the South China Sea".

China and Vietnam have been engaged in an intense standoff on competing maritime claims over South China Sea and India has of late been supplying Hanoi with military and strategic equipment including naval patrol boats, surveillance satellites, training services and is slated to transfer more vessels and missiles under a $500 million defence deal that Narendra Modi government signed with Hanoi last year, the report says. In the battle of unequals, Vietnam obviously leans heavily on India.

India has now only woken up to the fact that it can no longer avoid its responsibility as a security guarantor in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) where many countries expect it to play a larger role. Towards that end, India's move to invite the heads of 10 ASEAN nations for Republic Day celebrations (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) is a welcome sign. It indicates a willingness to be creative.

As a Times of Indiareport points out, "Republic Day 2018 will be the first time ever that so many leaders will together be chief guests at the parade which showcases India's military might."

In yet another signal that India, under the Modi government, is taking its 'Act East' policy seriously, New Delhi recently pulled out all stops to "make Myanmar military chief's eight-day visit here a resounding success with top-level meetings, visits to defence establishments and a series of banquets", according to another Times of Indiareport.

This sends out several messages at once. One, India is ready to equip Myanmar with military equipment to neutralise the Chinese threat. Two, New Delhi is ready to lead an 'ASEAN conglomerate' against China's rapid expansionism in IOR. And three, the larger point, is that India feels increasingly confident about facing up to China and is no longer willing to play a diffident role.
It becomes clear, when we see these developments not as isolated incidents but as a concerted effort, why this latest standoff at Doka La was waiting to happen. China feels that the Modi government is too assertive and needs to be taught a lesson. India is signaling that if Beijing wants to play, New Delhi is ready.


Published Date: Jul 10, 2017 04:41 pm | Updated Date: Jul 10, 2017 04:47 pm


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