Sikkim standoff: India should be ready for long haul as impasse may go beyond Wangdung incident

Perceiving the growing India-US ties as anti-China, Beijing's aggressive stance at Doka La could have been to test the waters after Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently remarked in Russia that not a single bullet has been fired at India-China border in the last 40 years.

India-China border. Reuters

India-China border. Reuters

The current standoff ostensibly commenced on 16 June. Following the standoff, the Ministry of External Affairs released a press statement on 29 June saying, “On 16th June 2017, the Chinese Army started constructing a motorable road from Dokola in the Doklam area towards the Bhutan Army camp at Zompelri. Boundary talks are ongoing between Bhutan and China and we have written agreements of 1988 and 1998 stating that the two sides agree to maintain peace and tranquility in their border areas pending a final settlement on the boundary question, and to maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959. The agreements also state that the two sides will refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo of the boundary. Bhutan has conveyed to the Chinese side, both on the ground and through the diplomatic channel, that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between our two countries. Bhutan hopes that the status quo in the Doklam area will be maintained as before 16 June 2017."

But the current standoff is certainly not the longest after the 1962 India-China War. To cope with what later became famous as the Wangdung incident, India then airlifted and occupied the ridges surrounding the Sumdorong Chu. It was then that the Deng Xiaoping declared it was time to "teach India a lesson” – in similar fashion when he directed the People's Liberation Army to invade Vietnam but received the lesson of his life. In a show of massive force, Deng Xiaoping moved forward 20,000 PLA troops of the 53rd Group Army and 13 Group Army along with guns and helicopters. India reacted by moving three divisions into the positions around Wangdung, maintaining them by air. In addition, some ten divisions were mobilised to the eastern sector with almost 50,000 troops in Arunachal Pradesh along with beefing up of air assets of the IAF. India also conducted massive move forward exercise called Chequerboard along the LAC that commencing October 1986 that continued till March 1987. This was, in addition, to exercise Brass Tacks conducted along the western borders facing Pakistan. Seeing the Indian resolve, the diplomatic moves by India started making headway. In August 1987, field commanders of the opposing forces at Wangdung met and agreed to move their posts apart. In November 1987, the eighth round of border talks was held calling for the end to confrontation, leading to its execution eventually. Finally, it was China that extended an invitation to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to visit China in a bid to normalise relations

So, the current standoff is nowhere close to the Wangdung incident that lasted through a year and a half. In fact, it would not be surprising if it prolongs beyond the length of the Wangdung incident. This is because Chinese president Xi Jinping having accumulated all power unto him has built an aura of invincibility to the Chinese public, he cannot afford to debase. Whether the 16 June intrusion by China, anchored on the slimy cartographic move by claiming the T-Junction couple of kilometres to the south, was an experiment by design or default leaves Xi in a fix.

Moreover, at the ‘plenary’ session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held in March 2017, delegates were repeatedly told in no uncertain terms that their top priority is to “Follow the leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core.” National Congress of the Communist Party of China is a ‘twice a decade’ that was last held in 2012. It sees through far-reaching changes in the makeup of the top leadership of the CPC; leadership transition. Also, a majority of the Politburo Standing Committee were expected to retire at this congress. Up for grabs are the memberships of the 25-member Politburo and the 200-plus member Central Committee, about 70 percent of whose members are due to retire.

Therefore, at such juncture, Xi, having taken on the mantle of “core” leader last year edging him closer to the cult personality of Mao Zedong, he can’t afford to show any sign of ‘weakness’. In fact, he would like to showcase himself as a cross between Hitler, Hercules and Superman given the fact that China claims territories of 23 countries while sharing borders with only 14. On balance, we may witness a long haul, even enlarging beyond the current standoff in Sikkim. China can be expected to mount pressure on all fronts, indicative by her ships and submarines prowling the India Ocean. The rhetoric may go up beyond the Chinese media declaring that India “needs to be taught the rules”. Modi has already clarified that we are a peace-loving nation but if our resolve is put to test we are ready. The fact is that during the Wangdung incident also we were ready for any misadventure by China and Pakistan. There is no reason why we should not be ready today. Xi should realise that firmness by India is part of wisdom.

The author is a retired lieutenant-general of the Indian Army

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2017 09:30 AM

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