Sikkim standoff: China's rapid escalation is limiting India's diplomatic options; can New Delhi hold its nerve?

The Sikkim standoff is turning into a grim battle of nerves. While the trajectory is on expected lines, the escalation timeline is not. China seems to be either fast running out of patience, or wants to convey that impression to India. Either way, the message out of Beijing is that New Delhi's options are limited. It must either accept Chinese supremacy and fall in line, or pay a heavy price.

There is a subtext to the message, and it reflects the larger Chinese annoyance with the Narendra Modi government. Beijing feels that the Modi government is growing bigger than its boots and its assertiveness is not underwritten by soaring economic growth or military supremacy as China's is.

 Sikkim standoff: Chinas rapid escalation is limiting Indias diplomatic options; can New Delhi hold its nerve?

Representational image. Reuters

The impasse at the tri-junction might be an immediate spark but to China, it is an opportune issue at an opportune time to puncture holes in Modi's 'tough guy' image and freeze once and for all the power differential so that New Delhi may be adequately chastised against future 'misadventures'. Such an eventuality will send a larger message to the world that crossing swords against Xi Jinping's China will draw severe consequences. The underlying declaration is that if an aspiring major power like India can be subdued, smaller nations in the South Asian Indian Ocean region should just shut their trap.

Curiously, India's firm refusal to withdraw the troops coupled with its reticence and focus on finding a diplomatic solution seems to have hardened Chinese resolve. There are two ways of looking at this.

One, China was well aware of the consequences of its action in trying to build a road and altering the status quo at the contested Doka La tri-junction, and has mapped its and India's responses down to the last detail. In this scenario, chances of a military conflict are comparatively less because it assumes a degree of premeditation. Viewed from this spectrum, China's muscle flexing is more sound than bite and is part of a psychological warfare designed to intimidate India.

Two, China miscalculated New Delhi's resolve to secure the tri-junction area that leads to India's greatest strategic vulnerability in Siliguri Corridor. Viewed from this spectrum, Chinese policymakers may have underestimated India's growing assertiveness and confidence in facing up to China. The series of actions Beijing has been taking since would then assume a greater degree of lethality, because it wouldn't like to have been surprised.

As MIT professor M Taylor Fravel writes in The Indian Express, "China clearly did not appreciate the sensitivity that India attaches to any Chinese presence on the Jampheri Ridge south of the plateau and the implications for the security of the Siliguri Corridor that connects eastern India with the rest of the country. A decade ago, for example, Indian soldiers training the Royal Bhutanese Army in Bhutan challenged a Chinese foot patrol that was discovered along the ridge."

Amid all the chatter around Doka La, it is easy to overlook the fact that it remains one of the very few locations along the LAC where Indian troops enjoy a strategic dominance. As Praveen Swami writes in The Indian Express, "In the event of war, India’s Brigade-sized military presence inside Bhutan, stationed at Ha, allows it to attack the Chumbi valley from two sides, potentially cutting off Chinese troops stationed facing Sikkim."

To recall, the last military conflict between the two nations was in 1967, when India inflicted heavy damages on China just five years after the 1962 war. The PLA suffered between 300-400 casualties while less than a hundred Indian soldiers attained martyrdom. That incident, as a report in India Today notes, happened near Nathu La in the same Sikkim sector and was marked by Chinese indignation at Indian presence in Sikkim.


It is easy to contextualise Chinese action, aimed at achieving the twin objectives of addressing its own strategic vulnerability by widening Chumbi Valley while targeting India's weakest spot.

Chinese actions at the Sino-Indian border is guided by three clear principles. One, it wants to sustain its power differential with India. Two, it wants to be recognized as the more dominant force. Three (arising out of the first two) it believes that altering the status quo is its exclusive right, and lesser powers must be accommodating. There are many reasons behind China's doctrinal approach to border disputes, not the least among those is its penchant for reinterpreting history to define its present.

It is easy to see why it feels outraged at India's resolve, and is going out of its way to preserve the first two principles. As previously noted, the buttons of escalation are being rapidly pressed. Latest media reports indicate that China conducted a 'live fire-drill' on the Tibet plateau near the Arunchal Pradesh border and the 11-hour exercise involving howitzers, anti-tank grenades, anti-aircraft artillery and mobile communication systems was carried out by one of its two mountain brigades.

A more worrying signal emerged on Tuesday with The Indian Express' Shubhajit Roy reporting that China last week conducted a closed-door meeting with foreign diplomats in Beijing to convey a message that "PLA troops have been waiting patiently at the plateau but will not wait for an indefinite period." According to the report, the envoys have relayed the memo to their Indian and Bhutanese counterparts.

Simultaneously, Chinese state-controlled media has been keeping up the rhetoric with the latest Global Times editorial declaring that China isn’t afraid of war. Under the circumstances, what are India's options?

While New Delhi would like nothing more than to revert to pre-June 2017 status at the zone, the levers of escalation are not in its hands. NSA Ajit Doval's visit to Beijing for BRICS Summit later this month would be crucial and he would look to engage his Chinese counterpart. Other diplomatic channels are still available but it isn't clear whether India possesses the wherewithal to engage with China while not acceding to Beijing's precondition.

India doesn't have a treaty with the US, and a transactional Washington under Donald Trump is unlikely to come to its aid in the event of a war. Moreover, China's considerable geopolitical influence arising out of massive economic investments in nearly every corner of the globe would force many nations to stay neutral in the case of a Sino-Indian military conflict. Foreign policy is not a matter of principle. Therefore, for New Delhi, it will ultimately boil down to a battle of nerves. Will it give in, or manage to persuade China against using force? This question may be answered sooner than many in India are ready to admit.

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Updated Date: Jul 18, 2017 17:34:40 IST