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The road that led to a rift: Dynamics of the Indo-Chinese standoff

The road that led to a rift: Dynamics of the Indo-Chinese standoff

By Apoorva Mandhani

Serious tensions have been brewing between China and India on the Sikkim border. The standoff began early in June this year in the strategically sensitive Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. This is the 89 square kilometre pasture called the Doklam plateau.

The conflict so far

The bilateral relations between the two countries deteriorated after India raised objections over China constructing a road in the disputed territory. The Royal Bhutanese Army also raised an objection to this. Citing the 1890 China-Britain treaty, China claimed Doklam as its own. However, Bhutan disputes the fact, averring that the convention applies to the India-Bhutan border, and not the Bhutan-China border.

India intervened in the crisis and urged China to halt its construction work in the pasture. The pasture falls close to the Chumbi Valley, which is at the corner of the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction. A standoff soon followed between the troops of both the countries, with the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army sending immediate reinforcements to the region.  

Since then, China’s Communist Party-run Global Times has stepped up the war of words saying, This time we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson. (Defence Minister Arun) Jaitley is right that the India of 2017 is different from 1962 — India will suffer greater losses if it incites military conflicts”.

The geostrategic manoeuvres

The nuclear neighbours have been relatively successful at maintaining peace along their 3,500 km border. However, the warmongering has escalated the spat. Matters have been made worse by the closing of the Nathu La pass for the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims by the Chinese government.

The Chumbi Valley holds strategic significance for the three countries and is the bone of contention. India regards it as a dagger pointed towards its so-called “chicken’s neck” sector—the narrow strip of territory that links the country to the Northeast. According to experts, India’s brigade-sized military presence stationed at Ha in Bhutan allows it to attack the Chumbi Valley from two sides. This will potentially cut off the Chinese troops facing Sikkim.

Making alliances

The scuffle has been viewed as China’s attempt to send various political messages. Beijing had resented India’s boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative in Shanghai in May. Through this initiative, China plans to connect nearly 70 countries through a series of global trade pacts inspired by the ancient Silk Road trading route. India has primarily objected to the project’s inclusion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is located in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’s Gilgit-Baltistan.  

Besides, China appears to be vexed by India’s growing tilt towards the US. This tilt is viewed by Beijing as an anti-China alliance that includes Japan and Australia. In facing such a scenario, India has been cautious to display the utmost finesse in handling the situation, striking a balance between maintaining ties and reinforcing its past stances.

Troubles for China

In the midst of the Indo-Sino standoff, Chinese President Xi Jinping was recently confronted by demonstrators in Hong Kong. They accused Beijing of offering “fake democracy” to Hong Kong’s 7.3 million residents. Around the same time, US announced a $1.42 billion dollar arms deal with Taiwan. However, China regards Taiwan as a wayward province and has never renounced the use of force to bring it under control. Recently, the US Government also imposed sanctions on the Chinese Bank of Dandong after the US Treasury Department accused it of being “a conduit for illicit North Korean activity”. Alleging that the Chinese bank was engaged in “money laundering”, the US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that the bank had been blacklisted.

India’s plan of action

China could feel increasing diplomatic isolation with the US, the European Union, and much of Asia ranged against it. Therefore, for India, the diplomatic and financial rebuffs to China couldn’t have come at a better time. Nevertheless, it has been opined that New Delhi should address the border standoff at a political level. In fact, the former Army Chief Gen. V.P. Malik maintains that the media on both sides have given the matter undue prominence. Chinese analyst Lt. Gen. S.L. Narasimhan (retd.) pointed out that both countries should inform the other about any impending construction activity through border personnel meetings, flag meetings, or a hotline, as has been the practice. In the meantime, India should amp up its surveillance capabilities, build infrastructure in the border areas, and further hone the ability to tackle any such incidents in the future.

Featured Image Credits: Flickr

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