Sikkim standoff: India cannot afford to allow China to change the status quo | Opinion
The ongoing standoff near Sikkim underlines the deterioration in India-China relations over the past few years. As ever, the Chinese have chosen the place and time carefully. India and China have a delimited and demarcated international border in Sikkim, going back to the Anglo-Chinese convention of 1890. But the boundary between Tibet and Bhutan is disputed and hence the location of the trijunction remains contested. Bhutan does not directly negotiate with China and its stance on the disputed boundary has developed in close consultation with India.
So, 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. Never mind that the two sides have also agreed that the trijunctions with Bhutan and Myanmar will finally be decided in consultation with these countries. That said, we need to understand the Chinese action at three interconnected levels.
At the operational level, there are a couple of considerations in play. The Chinese have long sought to widen their room for manoeuver in this area. The construction of the road could enable them to outflank Indian military deployments in east Sikkim and make straight for the vital Siliguri corridor connecting West Bengal with the northeastern states. More broadly, such attempts at altering the status quo along the IB and the Line of Actual Control are aimed at compelling the Indian Army to stretch itself thin. The Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, has rightly cautioned against succumbing to an LoC syndrome — of deployment in penny packets — along the China border.
At the strategic level, the current standoff serves China’s wider objectives along the border. In recent years, Beijing has sought an agreement with India that would freeze the operational status quo on the border. Having built impressive military infrastructure and capability in Tibet, China seeks to prevent India from catching up. During the incursion in Depsang in 2013, for example, the Chinese wanted India to dismantle its bunkers in Chumar. In the current situation, the Chinese will likely adopt a similar stance. In agreeing to stop military construction in the Doklam area, China may insist that India should extend that principle to the entire border.
At the political level, the Chinese move signals an acceleration of Sino-Indian competition along the South Asian periphery. By picking on Bhutan, Beijing is testing New Delhi’s ties with its closest partner in the region and attempting to loosen them up a bit. The timing of the incident is important too. It comes on the heels of India’s unwillingness to participate in the Belt and Road jamboree in Beijing. We may debate the wisdom of staying out this initiative altogether, but in refusing to participate in the meeting New Delhi sent out a clear signal that it would not accept China’s hierarchical notions of reordering Asian politics. It is no coincidence either that the standoff occurred just ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States. Beijing has orchestrated several highly visible incursions along side diplomatic visits in order to assert its ability to embarrass India.
In attempting to wind down the standoff, India must take into account considerations at each of these levels. Operationally, we cannot afford to allow the Chinese to change the status quo near east Sikkim. Nor can we admit any suggestion that infrastructure development should be put on hold all along the border. Rather we must insist that this is a discrete event and that the Chinese attempt to change the status quo near the trijunction area is unacceptable.
At the same time, New Delhi must make a strong diplomatic effort to arrest the slide in ties with China. We need an agreement on mutual restraint that aims at addressing the core interests and concerns of both sides. The discussions between the Prime Minister and President Xi Jinping in May 2015 provide an ideal platform on which to mount such an effort. But this also requires a conceptual shift in our approach to China.
We must abandon the notion that our grand strategic choices boil down to either balancing against China in concert with the United States or bandwagoning with China. The history of international politics, including India’s own history, suggests that this is too simplistic a reading of the options open to us—especially in the current global conjuncture. It is time we demonstrated strategic creativity and diplomatic agility.
Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal