China’s Threat to Review Its Stance on Sikkim Could Backfire

7 July 2017 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • The current standoff between Chinese and Indian troops at the tri-junction of the borders with Bhutan could have wide ramifications.
  • China is, seemingly, assailed by a combination of factors that are detrimental to its economy and international standing.
  • India could potentially retaliate against China using economic and diplomatic pressure.
  • Doing so could result, however, in military conflict between the two countries, which is not something either one wants or can afford.

Summary

A recent editorial in China’s Global Times remarked that Beijing could easily review its current official stance on the Indian state of Sikkim and work with those people in Sikkim who are dissatisfied with the state being administered by New Delhi by fomenting nationalism and demands for complete independence from India. Since the newspaper is often viewed as being the official mouthpiece for China’s authoritarian government, this announcement ought to be taken seriously. The editorial and Beijing’s reaction to the standoff between its troops and their Indian counterparts at the tri-junction of the Bhutanese, Chinese and Indian borders, it would appear, is a reaction born of the frustration caused by several factors.

These range from growing Chinese nationalism under President Xi, to the perceived insult dealt to Beijing and Xi by the legal negation of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea by an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in mid-2016, the uncertainty generated by President Trump in Beijing, India’s refusal to join Xi’s legacy “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, New Delhi’s increasing self-confidence in standing up to Beijing, its growing ties to Washington and, most recently, Washington’s assertion at the United Nations that, while it wishes to have a diplomatic solution, it would also consider a military solution to the North Korean “menace” and Mr Trump’s very thinly-veiled warning to China that he would impose economic sanctions on any country that trades with Pyongyang.

These are all factors that could easily bring matters to a head and see the region tip into a war that no country wishes to have and which all can ill afford. The standoff in the Himalayas could just as easily be the trigger that brings about that situation.

Analysis

President Xi has consolidated his personal power since taking office in 2012. He has followed the model, established by Mao Zedong, of containing power within the Chinese Communist Party rather than diluting its centrality to every aspect of China’s functioning by transferring even a modicum of that power to government departments and functionaries. Effectively, Xi has made himself the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao and Deng Xiaoping and there is every reason to suspect that he could extend his stay in office beyond the stipulated ten-year period. It was in recognition of this fact that the Communist Party also bestowed on him the title of “core” leader in October 2016.

President Xi recognises, however, that he needs to live up to this adulation and the essential confidence invested in him by the party. He recognises that he needs to bring about the China Dream of rejuvenation – to return China to its rightful place as the Middle Kingdom, albeit in a modern form, between Heaven and Earth, obviously with him at the helm, and to more or less make China central to world trade thereby increasing its strategic power. It is this thinking that lies behind Xi’s drive to make the OBOR initiative a resounding success and to continue the ascendance of Han nationalism.

Any threat, even a perceived one, to this construct, therefore, invites a strong response. The current standoff between the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army is only the most recent such instance of that perception. The standoff is not perceived in Beijing as a threat to Chinese sovereignty as much as it is the perception that another country is standing up to China and, thus, possibly diminishing it in the view of the Han people and the other countries in the region.

Xi Jinping's Titles

Beijing’s frustration at seeing many of its plans going awry does not stem from the situation with Indian troops or solely with it. Xi’s international prestige suffered a setback when China’s claims to territory in the South China Sea were judged to be without substance by the Court of Permanent Arbitration at The Hague. While Beijing rejected that decision, it was placed in the embarrassing position of being seen to be a country that complied with the rule of law only when it found the law suited its agenda, a situation hardly becoming of an aspiring world leader. The ruling, therefore, constituted a loss of face.

The leadership in Beijing faced a further setback when, contrary to expectations, the presidential candidate who they thought would win the US election lost and an unconventional non-politician was elected to office. Mr Trump had castigated China because of what he alleged were its unfair trading practices that put US citizens out of work. They were further taken aback when the President-Elect brusquely tweeted that China could keep an underwater drone after a Chinese navy ship took it from the water in the South China Sea despite being informed by a US scientific vessel that they were taking US property. China had previously tested George W. Bush with the so-called EP-3 incident in 2001, leading Bush to apologise to the Chinese leadership, and Barack Obama with the USS Impeccable incident in 2009. While Bush and Obama were at pains to assuage the Chinese, Trump’s reaction came as a shock, leading to the facile Chinese explanation that he was ‘hyping up the incident. China, which had been treated as a common thief, returned the drone, nevertheless. Mr Trump’s phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, coupled with his assertion that Washington’s “One China” policy was open to negotiation also shook Beijing, leading it to protest to Washington.

China has become increasingly concerned about India’s rapidly-growing relationship with the US despite its warnings to New Delhi that the relationship is superficial. It was also concerned that New Delhi, along with Washington, chose not to attend the recent Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, citing unsustainable debt levels and a lack of transparency, just as some Western countries did. China’s frustration with India became apparent when, after the current standoff began and Chinese media warned that India ought to learn from its loss to China in their 1962 war, Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley retorted that the India of 2017 is different from what it was in 1962. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was forced to respond with, ‘China too is different and will take all necessary measures to safeguard its territorial sovereignty.’ It is likely galling for Beijing that a potential competitor, albeit one whose economy is only one-fifth of China’s, is treating it with disdain.

The situation took a turn for the worse when the Indian Chief of Army Staff, General Rawat, stated that India was prepared to fight a war on two-and-a-half fronts, referring to a war with China on one front and Pakistan on another, while fighting internal battles, likely in places like Kashmir, with dissidents who could potentially be mobilised by Pakistan. That led Chinese leaders to remark that he was being ‘extremely irresponsible’ and ought to stop ‘clamouring for war’. It deteriorated further when the Chinese Government’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, stated in an editorial that China’s stance on the Indian state of Sikkim could be reconsidered.

Sikkim Borders Map

This issue demands some explication. India rejected an application from Sikkim, a monarchy, to join the Indian Union when the latter became independent in 1947. In 1950, however, under the terms of the India-Sikkim Treaty, Sikkim became an Indian protectorate; New Delhi managed Sikkim’s defence, foreign policy and communications but Gangtok managed its own administration. In 1975, following an appeal by the Sikkimese Prime Minister to the Indian Parliament to make Sikkim a part of the Indian Union, a referendum was held in Sikkim, in which the vast majority of voters rejected the monarchy, effectively voting for statehood in India. China, however, claimed that India had coerced Sikkim into becoming a state of India. Sikkim became India’s twenty-second state in May 1975.

In the current situation, the Global Times editorial referred to earlier said that, ‘… Beijing should reconsider its stance over the Sikkim issue. Although China recognised India’s annexation of Sikkim in 2003, it can readjust its stance on the matter. There are those in Sikkim that cherish its history as a separate state, and they are sensitive to how the outside world views the Sikkim issue. As long as there are voices in Chinese society supporting Sikkim’s independence, the voices will spread and fuel pro-independence appeals in Sikkim.’ It also stated that, ‘India imposed a similar coercive policy on Sikkim before. The small neighbour’s revolts over sovereignty in the 1960s and 1970s were brutally cracked down on by the Indian military. New Delhi deposed the king of Sikkim in 1975 and manipulated the country’s parliament into a referendum to make Sikkim a state of India. The annexation of Sikkim is like a nightmare haunting Bhutan, and the small kingdom is forced to be submissive to India’s bullying.’ China also, for good measure, added that India had ‘trampled’ all over the Panchsheel principles (the five principles of peaceful co-existence), the basis of their relationship, and asked New Delhi to ‘correct its mistakes’ by pulling the troops it rushed to the area to reinforce those already there in light of China’s decision to position more of its own troops in the area. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Gen Shuang, said, ‘I want to point that the relevant actions by the Indian side violated the purposes and principles of the UN Charter in defiance of the international law and international norms. As we all know, in the 1950s, China, India and Myanmar proposed the five principles of co-existence.’

Sino-Indian relations, it would appear, have suffered a major set-back, which is a further irritant to China.

There is one other factor in the current situation that must be examined: North Korea’s missile tests. North Korea claimed on 4 July that it had successfully launched an inter-continental ballistic missile that could reach ‘anywhere in the world’ according to state TV. While that claim may not be entirely factual, it is believed that the missile brings parts of the US state of Alaska within its range. That claim was reportedly verified by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who described the test as a ‘new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region and the world.’ It was reported that North Korean state media lauded what the country’s leader Kim Jong Un called a ‘package of gifts’ for ‘American bastards’ on their Independence Day holiday. Another report stated that the United States toughened its military pressure and invective against Pyongyang in the wake of the test by conducting a missile manoeuvre with South Korea, hinting of a possible return to war with North Korea and, arguably more importantly in the context of the current discussion, proposing wider United Nations sanctions against ‘any country that does business with this outlaw regime.’

The report added that the proposal for broader economic sanctions appeared aimed especially at China, North Korea’s most important trading partner. It was part of a vocal public effort by the Trump Administration to push President Xi Jinping of China by linking improved American-Chinese trade relations to solving the North Korea problem – and threatening worse trade relations if China does not help more. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Hayley, said to the Security Council at an emergency meeting, ‘There are countries that are allowing, even encouraging, trade with North Korea.’ She added that, if those countries wanted to trade with the US, it would not happen. ‘We will not look exclusively at North Korea. We will look at any country that does business with this outlaw regime.’ While she did not threaten China, the Ambassador emphasised that ninety per cent of North Korea’s trade is with that country and that ‘much of the burden of enforcing UN sanctions rests with China.’ President Trump, tweeting his disappointment, said, ‘Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!’

If this is any indication, it would appear that the US is, at the very least, attempting to put President Xi on the back foot by placing the onus of repairing its relationship with the US squarely on his shoulders and potentially enabling the US President to fulfil another of his campaign promises: re-negotiating trade terms with China. He could also claim the high moral ground by suggesting that he gave Beijing every opportunity to dissuade Pyongyang from carrying out its tests, only to see Beijing encourage Pyongyang further by increasing trade with it. President Xi could be made to look incompetent or as a deceiver and untrustworthy hypocrite. This can only add to his worries and irritations at a time when he seeks to concentrate upon and push his OBOR agenda.

Given these circumstances, China could find itself in a very difficult situation. If it now backs down in regard to its demands of India, there could be little doubt that India could claim a moral victory, denting China’s vision of being the Middle Kingdom. On the other hand, if China does not defuse the situation, India could use its trade deficit with China to add to Beijing’s worries. Bilateral trade between the two countries decreased to US$70.73 billion in 2015-16 from US$72.34 billion in 2014-2015. Despite that decrease, India’s trade deficit rose to US$52.68 billion in 2015-16 from US$48.48 billion in 2014-15. If India were to call for a review of its trade with China, that review, coupled with the threatened US economic sanctions, could prove to be a major headache for Beijing.

Trade and commerce aside, if China continues to push for Sikkimese independence from India, New Delhi could retaliate by announcing a review of its own stance on China’s occupation of Tibet. If that does not give India the result it seeks, it could announce that it plans to establish diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Doing so would effectively disrupt China’s claim that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.

The danger in pursuing such a course of action is that China could be pushed to initiate military action against India, ostensibly to right a current wrong, but, in reality, to destroy any hopes India may have of rapidly developing its economy. Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, must be very sure that, if needed, he can call upon, say, the United States to assist India in any conflict against China or that the Indian Army truly is capable of fighting a war on two-and-a-half fronts.

In either case, there would be major damage to both sides, sufficient to set their economies back years. Such a conflict would be one that neither side wants nor can afford.

 

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