Sikkim standoff: China's 15-page statement is a counter-intuitive treatise; we might be reaching the endgame

The 15-page document released by China on Wednesday is a remarkable statement that is open to layered interpretations. This piece concentrates on a few quick takeaways while examining certain claims for veracity.

At the outset, let us understand the reason behind releasing this paper at this juncture – nearly 50 days into the deadlock at the Doka La area in Sikkim sector. Why did China bother to put out such a lengthy document, painstakingly clarifying its position, when its oft-repeated official stance is that no "meaningful dialogue is possible" unless Indian troops unilaterally and unconditionally withdraw from the tri-junction? What are the motives behind it?

Several possibilities should be considered. The ostensibly tough and uncompromising language, designed to mirror China's rigid stand, masks a flexible subtext which makes the lengthy treatise counter-intuitive in nature. There are clues that China wants a resolution to the dispute and is ready to even consider some compromises to initiate a de-escalation but these are embedded in clever semantics.

India China. Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

China, for instance, states that India has already started withdrawing troops and from a high over 400 at one point, only 40 remain. India insists that there has been no change in the number of 350 soldiers who are camping in the area in a non-threatening posture.

Paragraph two of the Chinese statement reads: "On 16 June, 2017, the Chinese side was building a road in the Dong Lang area. On 18 June, over 270 Indian border troops, carrying weapons and driving two bulldozers, crossed the boundary in the Sikkim sector at the Duo Ka La (Doka La) pass and advanced more than 100 meters into the Chinese territory to obstruct the road building of the Chinese side, causing tension in the area. In addition to the two bulldozers, the trespassing Indian border troops, reaching as many as over 400 people at one point, have put up three tents and advanced over 180 meters into the Chinese territory. As of the end of July, there were still over 40 Indian border troops and one bulldozer illegally staying in the Chinese territory."

India has rejected the claims. The external affairs ministry had a very short response to the elaborate Chinese communiqué. "India’s position on this issue and related facts have been articulated in our press statement of 30 June. India considers that peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas is an important prerequisite for smooth development of our bilateral relations with China."

Incidentally, columnist Ajai Shukla, a retired colonel of the Indian Army, quotes army sources in claiming that major de-escalation of troops has already begun and both sides are now reduced to 40 each.

In his piece for Business Standard, he writes, "The 45-day confrontation in Doka La has begun de-escalating. Top army sources tell Business Standard that the number of Chinese border guards at the contested border tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan is now down to just 40, from a peak of over 300 at the end of June. Meanwhile, many Indian troops have also been pulled back. From a peak of almost 400 at the height of the crisis, there are now just 150 Indian soldiers in the contested Doka La bowl."

So, who is speaking the truth - India or China? The answer is irrelevant.

The aftermath of the cross-border surgical strikes on terrorist assets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) carried a valuable strategic lesson. Having made its move, India gave Pakistan the necessary space for denial to prevent a loss of face at home. Similarly, any solution to the sticky crisis must include an option of honourable exit for both sides, as Firstpost argued in a recent piece.

In an effort to wage a psychological war against India, China has painted itself into a non-negotiable corner. Any de-escalation without any tangible gains will be interpreted as a "surrender" back home — a possibility which no Chinese president can afford, much less a macho nationalist like Xi Jinping who wants to be the 'new' Mao Zedong and is widely expected to seal power for a second term and even beyond in the upcoming Communist Party Convention.

It is entirely possible that both countries have struck a deal and have agreed upon a mutual withdrawal of troops. In such a scenario, it is inconceivable that a return to the status quo before 16 June (when China attempted to build a motorable road in the tri-junction) wouldn't be the fulcrum.

If that is so, it would meet India and Bhutan's strategic needs of containing the crisis and forcing China to thrash out a final settlement on the basis of a trilateral agreement, not a unilateral change of "facts on ground." As Shukla writes, it also serves for India the dual purpose of honouring its special relationship with Bhutan and keeping Chinese troops away from the sensitive Siliguri corridor.

China, it seems, is even ready to renegotiate the terms of the Sikkim sector even while insisting on the sanctity of 1890 convention.

"The Chinese and Indian sides have been in discussion on making the boundary in the Sikkim Sector an 'early harvest' in the settlement of the entire boundary question during the meetings between the Special Representatives on the China-India Boundary Question… The boundary in the Sikkim Sector has long been delimited by the 1890 Convention, which was signed between then China and Great Britain. China and India ought to sign a new boundary convention in their own names to replace the 1890 Convention. This, however, in no way alters the nature of the boundary in the Sikkim Sector as having already been delimited."

This is a far cry from the rigidity of earlier positions. These developments sound suspiciously like a "win" for India. To prevent this narrative, China possibly felt compelled to release a statement which appears rigid and virulent in appearance. Not only is a strategic defeat perilous for 'tough guy' Xi in terms of domestic politics, it would also be disastrous for China's image as an assertive, revanchist superpower that demands total deference from other sovereigns.

As strategic thinker and CPR fellow Brahma Chellaney writes in Times of India, "China, if it is to save face, needs India's help to extricate itself from a mess of its own making. Beijing’s coarse statements and threats, while integral to its psywar, are also part of a negotiating ploy to secure a compromise on largely its terms."

There is yet another reason behind the release of the "tough statement" which is being interpreted by Chinese media as the "final warning".

The world has little appetite for China's claims of "peaceful rise". Its repeated bullying of smaller nations and confrontational stance against powerful ones have caused it a grave reputational damage. In the current standoff, the international community has appeared to be on India's side, a fact that has caused Chinese media much heartburn.

This statement, which goes into minute cartographic details is, therefore, a strident attempt to regain the narrative and position itself as the victim of "Indian aggression". The aim is to claim the moral high ground, a seat China has voluntarily given up as it goes about employing its revanchist policies.

If the statement ends on a note of goodwill, "China and India are the world’s largest developing countries. The Chinese government always values the growth of good-neighborly and friendly relations with India and is committed to maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border area between the two countries," it could be taken as an attempt to address the growing hostility among ordinary Indians on China. As the beneficiary of a major trade imbalance, it is important for China not to take one of the most lucrative markets in the world for granted.

Some of the claims China makes in the statement are easily refuted. Beijing violates all bilateral agreements to base its claim on a Convention that is underwritten by poor survey work. Firstpost has described in elaborate detail why Article 1 and 2 of the Anglo-Chinese convention are mutually incompatible – a result of erroneous 19th-century cartography.

China claims the tri-junction at Mount Gipmochi but the ridge line on Himalayan terrain supports India's claims that it lies on Batang La. In fact, analyst Claude Arpi, who specialises in Tibetan history, writes in his blog that "According to Sikkimese records, Gipmochi is Batang La, 5 km north of Doka La."

There is enough confusion on the ground to merit a trilateral discussion, which is what India and China agreed on in 2012 and which has all along been India's stated position. Chinese claims that Sikkim sector is "delimited", is also a lie.

Instead of tilting at the windmills, we should take note of what's happening on the ground. Those developments suggest that we are possibly closer to the endgame.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2017 18:45 PM

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