The Doklam standoff between Indian and Chinese troops near Sikkim is a clear departure from earlier Sino-Indian disagreements about their long standing boundary dispute from what we have known in the past. For the first time, the dispute is about a third country’s territory, since Bhutan claims the Doklam Plateau and has an agreement with the Chinese recognising the same. India has however, got embroiled in this Sino-Bhutanese issue for its own strategic reasons, even thoughIndian officials have beenciting the Indo Bhutanese treaty of friendship as a reason for India to offer military support to Bhutan, if it were attacked or threatened.
But India’s reasons for taking on the Chinese are primarily driven by the Indian Army’s assessment that any further encroachment by the Chinese through road building and other military activities on the Doklam Plateau would allow the Chinese to come closer to the Siliguri corridor which connects mainland India to India’s north eastern states. If the Chinese were to be allowed to proceed any further towards Sikkim with their road building efforts, Siliguri and its adjoining areas in particular would come under long range Chinese artillery fire in the event of a Sino- Indian conflict. Therefore, India’s military commanders have, over the years, watched the Chinese very carefully specially as China continues to build a vast layout of roads and rail networks on the Sino-Indian frontline across the Himalayas.
And China has a long history of walking into others’ lands, claiming territory by changing the ground position and then citing ancient historical claims. China’s approach to maps is different from everyone else’s because they are all about Beijing’s intentions. Therefore, Chinese diplomacy is about pressure and coercion, threats and intimidation, as we have witnessed recently again, even though India is at a military advantage in the current area of the stand off along the Sikkim frontline with the Chinese, and India’s military commanders have in the past conveyed this message to Beijing through their proactive actions in Nathu La in 1967 and Sumdorong Chu in 1987. In this area, the Chinese have quietly looked for an opportunity to enhance and strengthen their military positions in this part of the frontline, even though, they have an agreement of 2012, not to alter the territorial status quo with India.
However, military issues apart, India has to increasingly prepare to contend with China’s rising ambitions and military power; more so as the US under President Trump has indicated a dis-inclination to play America’s traditional role as the key power of consequence in world affairs. And in addition, with India having decided to confront the Chinese ‘One Belt One Road’ agenda since its flagship project ‘The China Pakistan Economic Corridor’, which passes through the northern region of Jammu & Kashmir, Beijing has not taken to this Indian rebuff kindly. But this came on the back of China’s support for Pakistan’s terror and nuclear agenda internationally. The question now is, can Mr. Modi revive the chemistry that marked his earlier engagement with Chinese President Xi Jingping or are the battle lines clear drawn between the two Asian giants?
More importantly, the current stand off has conveyed messages at various levels that it is working more to India’s favour than China’s advantage. For one, it has conveyed to India’s neighbours that India is unwilling to be browbeaten by China and will stand up for its friends if push comes to shove. Secondly, this stand off has not only questioned the limits of China’s military power but also sent a message to Pakistan, its closest ally in the region, that China can be challenged and still has some limitations. But let’s be prepared as China will instigate Pakistan to ramp up its terror game, and show itself more aggressively in J&K and the Indian Ocean Region. It will challenge India in the International forums like the UN, to squeeze us in every possible way. But none of this is new. What is new is India has physically stood up to China to protect a friend, for better or for worse.
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