Sikkim standoff: China's desperate sabre-rattling shows firm reticence is working for India

'True power speaks softly, it has no reason to shout', goes the Gandhian principle. China's recent rhetorical belligerence against India, however, sits at odds with the oft-repeated dictum of statecraft. It raises tantalising possibilities about Beijing's motives as its border standoff with India in the Sikkim sector rolls towards a month.

Strained ties. AFP

Strained ties. AFP

The outlines of the standoff are well known by now. In a series of well-calibrated and intriguingly timed steps, Beijing has created a situation near India's most vulnerable military strategic location. The point of dispute is around the building of a Chinese highway at Doka La plateau near the China, Bhutan and India tri-junction. The plateau is recognised as Bhutanese territory by Bhutan and India but China has long claimed it as its own and has conducted 24 rounds of discussion with Bhutan to demark the border and has been engaged in at least one tense standoff with Indian Army (in 2006) over its control.

Under the veneer of discussions, China has repeatedly sought to change the ground realities by frequently employing PLA troops into the area. PLA soldiers steal into the plateau and draw back when challenged but not before incrementally gaining inches in the territory. Any confrontation results in China unleashing a torrent of ancient maps which are extremely flexible with truth and facts. It has employed this tactic almost as a rule while trying to undertake its neocolonialist adventures along the Himalayan frontiers and around South China Sea littoral.

The first key question is, why is this plateau so important? Doka La holds immense strategic significance for China, India and Bhutan. China controls the Chumbi valley which takes the shape of a dagger between Sikkim and Bhutan and in maps, appear to be aimed at the 'chicken's neck' — India's biggest strategic vulnerability which separates Indian mainland from the North East. However, by virtue of its positional superiority in Sikkim and Bhutan, India is well placed to stave off any military threat to the 'chicken's neck' arising from China-controlled Chumbi valley.

This is precisely why China seeks to add strategic depth to Chumbi Valley by widening it along the Doka La plateau and is busy building highways for operational convenience. Conversely, India cannot afford to let this happen because it risks losing positional advantage in the tri-junction and may find it difficult to defend the 'chicken's neck' from Chinese aggression.

Geostrategist and author Brahma Chellaney explains in Japan Times, "In recent years, China has been upgrading its military infrastructure and deployments in this highly strategic region so that, in the event of a war, its military blitzkrieg can cut off India from its northeast. Such an invasion would also leave Bhutan completely surrounded and at China’s mercy."

India feels justifiably worried with Chinese construction activities and has sought to come to an understanding with China while urging Bhutan to delineate the border. A final settlement is awaited but in 2012, Indian and Chinese special representatives reached a written understanding through a meeting that "the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries.
Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding", as detailed through a Ministry of External Affairs press note in response to the impasse.

The MEA release, issued on 30 June, also adds: "The Foreign Ministry of Bhutan has also issued a statement underlining that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the 1988 and 1998 agreements between Bhutan and China and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between these two countries. They have urged a return to the status quo as before 16 June 2017."

A second question now arises. Since there is an understanding in place, it is clear that China has tried to alter the status quo. If that is so, India and Bhutan should be the aggrieved parties. Why is China claiming victimhood and indulging in pantomime outrage instead?

China's strategy rests on two key points. One, the Sino-Bhutanese border is disputed in places and it is easy for China to ingress and claim large chunks of areas as its own based on convenient maps. Two, if Bhutan raises an issue (as it did this time by handing a demarche to Beijing via New Delhi) over instances of ingress, China can twist it to its advantage.

Centre for Policy Research senior fellow Srinath Raghavan explains this in Hindustan Times: "Bhutan does not directly negotiate with China and its stance on the disputed boundary has developed in close consultation with India. The Chinese can claim with a straight face that this is a bilateral problem between them and Bhutan. Similarly, when Indian troops support Bhutanese opposition to road construction in the disputed area, it is easy for Beijing to accuse New Delhi of violating an established international border."

This is clear. What isn't is the Chinese sabre-rattling. What explains its daily scaremongering against India around the construction of a road? It has appeared thoroughly impatient of India's stance and is behaving like a classic bully — escalating the conflict radar on a daily basis and lessening maneuvering space for diplomatic solutions. It is also showing a complete disregard for mechanisms that have been laid painstakingly over the years for maintaining peace and tranquility along the border region.

A look at Chinese escalation strategy reveals a pattern. When the standoff first erupted, Beijing reacted by blocking Indian pilgrims from visiting Kailash Mansarovar through Nathu La. Since then, it has been raising the temperature rather quickly through military show off, daily press briefings via foreign office, incendiary rhetoric from state-controlled media and thinly disguised warning from its embassy in India. It has brandished its "most advanced battle tank" during a military drill in Tibet, sent more than a dozen warships, submarines and destroyers prowling in Indian Ocean, warned India through its media mouthpiece that it will be subjected to a fate worse than 1962, vowed to openly instigate trouble in Sikkim and Bhutan to release them from "Indian oppression", claimed that India has violated "Panchsheel principles" and in a quite extraordinary move, uploaded a video in YouTube (banned in China) where Political Counsellor of the Chinese Embassy in India, Li Ya, tells New Delhi to "immediately and unconditionally withdraw all troops from Doklam plateau".

And in a fresh development on Thursday, it has indicated that President Xi Jinping will give Prime Minister Narendra Modi the 'royal snub' at Hamburg during the G20 meet.

So far, the Indian Army has maintained a studied silence, the Ministry of External Affairs has not gone beyond the communiqué, ministers and political leaders have held their fire and even the ever excitable Indian media has been admirably circumspect in their coverage.

Indian reticence has probably infuriated the Chinese even more. Scaling up of threats is a clear indication that China isn't getting the response it is looking for and our strategy is working.

India needs to be clear about two things. One, it must avoid getting provoked at all costs and resolutely ignore the daily insults. These abuses might become sharper with each passing day because China would want to rattle us into taking a brash step that they use to justify aggression.

Two, regardless of the amount of pressure, the daily dose of propaganda and psychological warfare, India must not budge from its position at Doka La plateau because any withdrawal will set a damaging precedent which might be used by China as a future template.

At the same time, India must be ready for the long haul — since this impasse may continue for months as China tests our red lines and resolve — and keep open all channels of diplomacy and communication. There is a possibility, as Raghavan writes in his piece, China might be using Doka La road construction as a bargaining chip to stop India from scaling up its infrastructure building around the Himalayan frontier.

It is interesting that despite blocking the pilgrims, China has kept the trade lines open through Nathu La. Therein lies the answer.

Updated Date: Jul 06, 2017 19:35 PM

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