Sikkim standoff: India must brace for more Chinese rhetoric but observe patience

The latest stand-off in Sikkim and the venomous discourse reflects China’s desire to break the age-old bonhomie between Bhutan and India

analysis Updated: Jul 06, 2017 13:03 IST
Indian and Chinese army personnel at a Ceremonial Border Personnel Meetings, Chushul in Eastern Ladakh. (PTI)

China’s Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui expressed his belligerent stance that there can be “no compromise” and that the “ball is in India’s court” in resolving the nearly three-week-old standoff at the Sikkim-Tibet- Bhutan borders. In the light of the G20 summit meeting at Hamburg this week and where Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping are expected to meet, his comments appear to be part of a diplomatic hard-ball being played by China.

Since Chinese efforts to construct a road unilaterally in the Bhutanese-claimed area closer to Sikkim began, the situation is snowballing into a war of words, if not a war in reality. Both sides reportedly mobilised forces, since the incident on June 16, and represent quantitatively higher numbers than compared to those deployed in the stand-offs at Depsang Plains in 2013 and at Chumar in September/October 2014 and 2015. Yet, despite ratcheting up by the Chinese side, we can only expect some flashes in the pan.

First, while a British Indian-Qing Dynasty Convention of March 1890 outlines a border treaty between Sikkim and Tibet along the watershed principle, no demarcation of territories — writes GS Bajpai in a 1999 book on Sikkim — was made subsequently, given the British focus on trade and Sino-Tibetan differences and intransigence. The areas of the current stand-off in Sikkim-Bhutan areas were never formalised into treaties between Bhutan and China. Besides, as the area is at the tri-junction of three countries, Indian consent is necessary for finalising a border treaty in future.

The Chinese argument that Indian Army had “intruded” into its territory was contested by the Bhutanese government on June 20. The Bhutanese also countered that Beijing was violating the 1988 and 1998 understanding on status quo. China has also been selective by citing the 1890 treaty while terming the 1914 McMohan Line as “unequal”. More recently, Beijng termed the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague verdict on South China Sea dispute as “illegal”! Such selective arguments are bound to weaken Chinese positions in the short term.

Second, invoking the special relations between India and Bhutan since 1910 that were reiterated in 1947 and as recently as 2007, Indian troops stopped the Chinese from building the road in the contested territories of Bhutan and China. For India, the building of a Chinese road with military back-up in Chumbi valley has security consequences for the vulnerable Siliguri Corridor. Thus, the Chinese military construction activity in Bhutanese-claimed territory violates not only the Bhutanese sovereignty but also aggravates Indian national security concerns.

Such brazen actions by China are matched by the Indian resolve to protect its interests. Still, it is only expected that the current stand-off then will fizzle out with stiff Indian resistance.

Third, citing the stand-off, China had cancelled the Mansarovar Yatra of Indian pilgrims through Nathu La and an Indian media delegation visit to Beijing.

Significantly, the rhetoric on the Chinese side has taken a sharp turn towards escalation. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson’s comments on July 3rd suggested that Indian troops are “trespassing” into China’s territory. The editorial in Global Times on July 4 went further by stating that India “will suffer worse losses than 1962” and that China’s military should “expel Indian troops out of Chinese territory” and be “kicked out”!

China’s recent statements on Singapore (after its Starlight exercises with Taiwan), Vietnam and Philippines (on South China Sea) and Japan (on Senkaku Islands) followed a similar pattern of psychological war and coercive diplomacy. In this backdrop, India needs to brace for more such rhetoric but to observe patience and perseverance.

Fourth, given the recent isolationist policies practised by the United States, as reflected in the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, climate change and the pivot, China’s game plan in its drive to acquire a leadership position in Asia is to make inroads in all parts of the region including South Asia. While it tried to create fissures in Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives, the latest stand-off in Sikkim and the Chinese discourse officially and in the media, reflects its desire to break the age-old bonhomie between Bhutan and India.

At the multilateral level, Beijing intends to replicate the Southeast Asian formula to South Asia that is SAARC + China. Both at the bilateral and multilateral levels China wants to make further inroads in the region, displacing India

Not only does India need to further strengthen its ties with South Asian countries but also respond, not tactically as has been the case so far but strategically, in the larger region of Asia at the diplomatic, economic and military levels.

Srikanth Kondapalli is professor in Chinese Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 06, 2017 12:55 IST