Sikkim standoff: Possibility of another India-China war is dim because Beijing has bigger fish to fry

The ennui didn't last for long. After a brief stasis following Ajit Doval's visit to Beijing, screaming headlines appeared on both sides of the mighty Himalayas. The difference this time is that while China's state-controlled media kept up its incendiary rhetoric, Indian media has started discussing the possibility of a military conflict and the possible deterrents to such a scenario. (See here, here and here).

Though the possibility of war, at least a limited military conflict, had never been off the table ever since the day Indian troops moved in to physically block a PLA-backed Chinese road-opening party from constructing a motorable road on Doka La plateau near the tri-junction, it was always seen as a last resort between two very large and powerful nations.

India's official position remains polite, non-reactive yet firm and its public discourse marked by reticence, shorn of the stubborn war-mongering emanating from Beijing.

 Sikkim standoff: Possibility of another India-China war is dim because Beijing has bigger fish to fry

Representational image. AFP

For those apprehensive about the longevity of the impasse leading to war, the Sumdorong Chu precedent exists that took more than eight years to fully resolve. Not a bullet was fired. Why, then, are we now discussing the possibility of military conflict? The chance of a war can only be conclusively ruled out when a valve emerges that offers an honorable exit for both nations. Are we closer to that option even 45 days into the standoff? The answer is no.

Temporal factors have intensified the crisis while mutual domestic and geopolitical compulsions have prevented the possibility of an early resolution. Some are not in India's hands. PLA's attempt to unilaterally change the status quo at a sensitive military zone coincides with huge political and security flux in Asia forced by China's assertive rise, and made worse by a retreating America that no longer sees any merit in acting as Asia's security guarantor.

For instance, China recently told Vietnam that it will face military action if it tries to drill for oil in South China Sea — a right lawfully reserved for Hanoi under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) agreement. Vietnam looked to the United States, but with Trump administration looking away, it had no option but to submit to China.

As Bill Hayton writes in Foreign Policy, "the winning argument (in Hanoi's politburo discussions ) was that the Trump administration could not be relied upon to come to Hanoi's assistance in the event of a confrontation with China."

This is not a small victory for China, who now gets the right to set the rules in a disputed area in violation of all international rulings and agreements and declare it as the 'new normal'. It is precisely this template that it wants to employ on the Himalayan border to maintain the levers of its relationship with India. That said, are we closer to war in August than we were in the last two months? This is where we must take into consideration domestic compulsions.

It would have been hard for Xi Jinping to pick a more appropriate time for showing China's military muscle than now, at a time when China is trying to replace the global rules-based order with a mercantilist, transactional philosophy.

For instance, whereas US stresses on a moralist mechanism — curbing Pakistan's aid until it takes action against terrorists — China has no such problems as long as those terrorists do not harm Chinese interests. To effect such a tectonic change in global order, China needs to first establish its primacy, and nearly all its recent actions under Xi have been tailored accordingly.

Conflict with India, therefore, is well-timed but incidental because China has set eyes on the US as its ultimate competitor. It follows that the Sikkim standoff is a small step — just like its bullying of Vietnam or Philippines — in establishing that primacy. The message is simple. Forget UNCLOS, Hague Tribunal or 2012 agreements. There are no rules, only Chinese interpretation of those rules.

Though a distance will always exist, foreign policies cannot remain independent of domestic politics. For instance, will it be possible for Narendra Modi to resolve Kashmir dispute with Pakistan without taking into consideration the will of the electorate?

Therefore, India must not unduly worry about China's showcasing of military muscle on Sunday at its training base in Zhurihe, 400 kilometres north-west of Beijing in Inner Mongolia. As a Guardian report notes, the show of might combining "12,000 troops, more than 100 types of aircraft and 600 pieces of military hardware" at the 1000-square kilometre desert camp was designed more as "China's answer to the US' Fort Irwin national training centre in the Mojave desert."

China brandished its latest weaponry during the spectacle: J-15 fighter jets, the J-20 stealth fighter, "type 99" battle tanks, Red Arrow anti-tank missiles and H-6K bombers and a new-generation ICBM – the Dongfeng-31AG – which, according to the report has a range of around 11,000km, making it capable of striking most parts of the US.

India would be flattering itself to think that the point of that entire exercise was to scare New Delhi in the ongoing standoff. The aim was to impress the world — and also the US — and to serve a political purpose for Xi ahead of the 19th Party Congress — a twice-a-decade assembly of all-powerful Communist Party where the traditional long knives will remain sheathed this time because Xi has grown too big in stature for potential rivals. Xi is expected to further centralise his power and a second term appears a formality.

Xi's rhetoric, too, was tailored more to the effect of impressing his party rivals rather than sending a message to India. He made two speeches in quick succession. One on Sunday in battle fatigues before the bellowing troops in Mongolia, and on Tuesday, at the seat of China's legislative power — the Great Hall of the People in Beijing before PLA members, party officials and government members.

On Sunday, he had said: "I firmly believe that our heroic PLA has the confidence and capability to defeat any intruder… The world is far from tranquil and peace needs to be safeguarded… Today, we are closer than ever to the goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. And more than any time in history we need to build strong armed forces of the people".

On Tuesday, he stressed on China's 'peaceful rise'. "The Chinese people treasure peace and we absolutely do not engage in invasion and expansion. However, we have the confidence to conquer all forms of invasion… We absolutely will not permit any person, any organization, any political party at any time, in any form to separate any piece of Chinese territory from China…"

There will be a temptation to interpret these dialogues in an Indian context but given China's spatial and temporal position, such a conclusion might be erratic. The most important thing while negotiating with China, according to someone who knows a little about these things, is to understand that China doesn't do ambiguity. Former NSA and India's Mandarin-speaking old China hand Shivshankar Menon has severally made this point that it is always better to go by what China says, rather than trying to read its mind.

In a recent interview to The Hindu's Suhasini Haidar, on the message that China is sending to India, he said: "…On the message, you need to ask the Chinese. They are very clear about what they mean to say. And I think you should take what they say at face value. Certainly, what their Foreign Office spokesman says must be taken seriously.

And what has China said, "officially", so far? Its foreign minister has reiterated the precondition that India must unilaterally withdraw to give 'meaningful dialogues' a chance while on the ground, as India Today's Ananth Krishnan and Sandeep Unnithan write: "The PLA's war rhetoric has so far not translated into additional boots on the ground. Even a month after the standoff, there has been no mobilisation on the Tibetan plateau, a prerequisite for carrying out its threats. Footage of recent 'live firing drills' released on Chinese media were from a PLA exercise last month."

NSA Doval's meeting with Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, yielded a conciliatory tone and media reports indicate that Indian and Bhutanese representatives attended the ceremony in New Delhi's Chinese embassy to mark the PLA's 90th anniversary. While it is true that China has launched a ferocious psychological battle against India, the biggest military strategy is to win a war without firing a single bullet. That remains the key.

Updated Date: Aug 02, 2017 07:10:33 IST