Insights into Editorial: Step Back
China has ratcheted up pressure on India by officially publicising a military standoff at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. Though the standoff between both the armies is quite common, events this time have raised concerns. This time the matter is more contentious. To begin with, it is the first occasion that the Chinese have blocked access to the holy Mount Kailash through the Nathu-La route since it was opened in 2006 to facilitate both trade and pilgrimage.
Know about the dispute:
Indian troops have blocked a road under construction by China in a part of territory under dispute. It’s called the Donglang region by China, Bhutan calls it Doklam Plateau and India refers to it as Doka La.
- The standoff with China is in Bhutan’s territory and in a disputed area which is controlled by Thimphu but coveted by Beijing.
- The 89-square-km patch of territory in the Chumbi valley — sitting between Sikkim and Bhutan — is an unresolved boundary dispute Beijing has with Thimphu. The two countries have failed to resolve it despite 24 rounds of negotiations since 1984.
- The same plateau extends to the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction at the southern tip of Chumbi valley. The border with China is accepted by India along Sikkim, so there is no dispute between the two.
Importance of Doklam Region:
The region holds immense strategic importance for India and China. Lying east of Sikkim, it has a commanding view of the Chumbi valley and overlooks the narrow Siliguri Corridor that links the North-East to the rest of India. If the Chinese gain control of Donglang, they gain the ability to essentially cut off India’s access to the North-eastern states in case of a conflict. In 1996, Beijing indicated it was ready to swap territorial claims in northern Bhutan in lieu of Donglang.
Border disputes between India and China:
India and China share about 3,488-km long border, which is yet to be fully delineated. The border is classified under 14 divisions. There is a Line of Actual Control in Aksai Chin of Ladakh region that China captured during 1962 war.
- Till 2003, China claimed Sikkim was an independent country whose monarch had in the past accepted Beijing’s suzerainty. This make-believe assertion was finally dropped by China during then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 2003. It was also agreed during that visit that the two countries would progress rapidly to formally delineate unmarked portions of the Line of Actual Control as the first step towards settling the long-standing border dispute.
- India and China appointed two Special Representatives to take the negotiations forward. Informally, the two countries agreed to demarcate a permanent border “without unsettling settled populations”. Shorn of diplomatic verbiage, this was interpreted to mean China giving up its claim on 90,000 sq. kms of Arunachal Pradesh, particularly the district of Tawang (which was well-populated), in exchange for India officially recognizing China’s occupation of the unpopulated cold desert of Akasi Chin, most of which has been under Chine occupation.
- This still left the issue of the slice of Indian territory seized by Pakistan and subsequently “gifted” or ceded to China by Islamabad. It is through this piece of mountainous terrain that the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being built to give China access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea through the Gwadar port.
Intentions behind China’s aggressive moves:
Beijing has always aspired to be the Asian hegemon. It is intensely distrustful of its two economically powerful neighbours – Japan across the sea and India across the mountains. India, however, is a huge market for Chinese consumer goods. And that is an opportunity Beijing does not want to forgo. But India’s growing economic and diplomatic clout ruffles China. The evident camaraderie between two tough-talking leaders, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi disturbs China’s long-term goals.
- India’s unflinching opposition to China’s grandiose One Belt One Road (OBOR) idea marks a setback for Beijing’s strategic economic and political pursuits. Clearly, China wants to keep India engaged in territorial issues with it and its ally Pakistan. Since it has surged way ahead of India in terms of economic development, China wants to zealously guard the advantage, pricking India from time to time to register its military superiority.
- In Beijing’s view, India is a critical ‘swing State’ that increasingly is moving to the US camp, undercutting Xi’s ambition to establish a Sino-centric Asia through an expanded tianxia system of the 15th century. Given India’s vantage geographical location, China needs its participation to plug key gaps in Xi’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. But India not only boycotted Xi’s OBOR summit but has also portrayed OBOR as an opaque, neo-colonial enterprise seeking to ensnare smaller, cash-strapped states in a debt trap.
Why should India be worried?
China is already stepping up its direct and surrogate threats against India. One example is the proliferation of incursions and other border incidents since the 2005 India-US nuclear deal, which laid out a strategic framework for the US to co-opt India. China is also waging a psy-war through media. With Chinese forces aggressively seeking to nibble away at Indian territory, India’s Himalayan challenge has been compounded by a lack of an integrated approach that blends military, economic and diplomatic elements into a coherent strategy.
While the latest hostile action on the Nathu La Pass and the verbal conflagration that followed may not escalate into something bigger, India needs to clearly size up China’s Big Power aspirations. Arguably, India has to both compete and, in many cases, cooperate with China and cannot afford permanent hostility. But there is an in-built economic conflict between the two countries that is bound to spill over into active hostility, spurred mainly by China. Beijing prides itself for settling border disputes with all its neighbours except India. But these settlements have mostly been among unequals (barring Russia). India’s status in the world today nettles China but New Delhi too needs to tread cautiously without escalating tensions. Despite the cosy ties with Washington, India, essentially, is on its own against China. It needs to bolster its border defences and boost its nuclear and missile deterrent capabilities.
India and China are the two ancient civilisations, who have had centuries of cultural exchanges but in modern times, their relationship has been more adversarial than friendly. As big economic and military powers, India and China are key strategic players in the world. Both nations have several similar attributes and problems including large population, huge rural-urban, rising economy and conflict with neighbours.
Disruption of the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra may seem humiliating, but if China insists on flexing its muscles in this manner, we may need to ignore it for the present and await a suitable opportunity to demonstrate our growing clout in the world. But for that, India’s economic growth must catch up with China at least in the medium term. Resolving the border issue cannot be our priority till then.