Sikkim standoff: China should consider its own role in PoK before lecturing India over Bhutan

China has pursued an aggressive policy in the region and beyond over the past few years especially since Xi Jinping took over as president. It has flexed its financial muscle and assumed assertive military postures. The continuing problems in Doka La are thus not only a part of the series of issues that come up between India and China along the border from time to time but are part of China’s general power projection.

Deepening India-China crisis. Reuters

Deepening India-China crisis. Reuters

India has to show a quiet but firm resolve to stand its ground even though the Chinese are putting great pressure. This is obvious from the comments made by their spokespersons. On Tuesday the Chinese ambassador to India demonstrated this in an extraordinary way when he virtually rejected India’s sober statement in which it pointed out that the Chinese action in Doka La impaired India’s security interests.

The ambassador distinguished the current situation from those that had occurred earlier along the border. He also rejected that India had any role in the Bhutan-China boundary talks thereby signalling that India had no role in any area that is being contested between China and Bhutan. In saying so he forgot that Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir is under Pakistan’s illegal occupation and yet China leased territory from it in 1962. Today it is deeply involved in this area including through constructing the CPEC. Finally, he asked for the unconditional withdrawal of Indian troops before any talks can take place on this incident. All this is part of enhanced Chinese aggressiveness and underlines the need for greater national cohesion and commitment.

While ongoing Doka La incident calls into question the notion of China’s peaceful rise, for India it once again opens up fundamental questions of how it should handle China and the challenge of the Sino-Pak nexus. It is obvious that China has deliberately augmented Pakistani capabilities against India for almost six decades as an integral part of its India policy. China's negativity towards India on the NSG and Masood Azhar’s designation as a terrorist by the UN is a manifestation of the nexus. Significantly China’s assistance to Pakistan has extended to the strategic field of nuclear weapons technology and missile systems. As India’s strength grows this nexus has intensified and now with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a major positive pillar is being added to Sino-Pak bilateral ties. Hitherto their foundation was a shared negativity towards India.

The threat of the Sino-Pak nexus or its acknowledgment is not new. Writing to president Bill Clinton soon after the May 1998 nuclear tests prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee noted, “We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our border, a state which committed armed aggression against us in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem. To add to the distrust that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear state." The Americans angered at the Indian tests broke diplomatic trust and released Vajpayee’s letter. Consequently, the Chinese were most upset and India was embarrassed and that took the focus away from the entirely valid argument advanced in the letter.

Almost 20 years have passed since the nuclear tests. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are out in the open. China has become stronger and so is its all-weather friendship with Pakistan. Given the newer dimensions of the nexus and the continuing border problems, India must seriously consider if it needs to pay greater attention and spend greater resources to its strategic programme both in weapons as well as delivery systems. In particular, the sea leg of the triad needs special focus. At no stage should China feel that it can seek to coerce or pressure India. Strategic programmes are meant to deter threatening behaviour.

The basic tenets of India’s China policy were laid down during prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. It was then decided that India would not wait for a solution of the border to begin a cooperative process with China in other areas. This approach and has led to a vast economic and commercial relationship. Trade with China stands at around $70 billion and Chinese investments in India are around $4 billion. Some Indian leaders have tended to emphasise the cooperative relationship and push back the competitive aspects of the ties. Prime minister Manmohan Singh said that there was enough space for both countries to grow. While this may be useful for tactical reasons it does not erode the validity what Vajpayee had conveyed to Clinton. In fact, while cooperating with China it would be prudent to never lose sight of the threats that emanate from it and its arrogant disregard for India’s interests.

Three specific points merit consideration in the context of the facing up to China and the Sino-Pak nexus.

India has to rapidly and comprehensively build its ties with East and South-East Asia and the Pacific countries. This will be part of Prime Minister Modi’s Act East policy. It will signal to China that as it seeks to ingress into South Asia India will sit idle.

In combating the Sino-Pak nexus Pakistan is clearly the weaker link. It is unrealistic to think that the Pakistan which has a deep hostility towards India will change its approach especially as Chinese investments are growing in Pakistan. It is essential to have a clear approach and not be swayed by hopes of normalising relations so that Pakistan looks less towards China. A consistency of policy should be a priority.

Personal relations between leaders sometimes play an important role in defusing crisis situations. However, their significance should never be exaggerated. Leaders have to manage domestic systems and look beyond personal ties with their peers to their countries interests. Thus even though Modi and Xi Jinping had a good meeting at Astana last month the Doka La situation has deteriorated afterward. There is a chance that both leaders may meet on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Germany in another two days. Perhaps that meeting may help to reduce present tensions but the long term trends are clear: India will have to deal with a China determined to show that it is in a superior class.

Updated Date: Jul 05, 2017 16:02 PM

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