Tom McGregor, a CCTV.com commentator and editor who is based in Beijing, noted in the 29 June edition of Sputniknews that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are charismatic leaders who use patriotism and nationalism to lead their nations. Beijing and New Delhi see themselves as giants in Asia, but the nationalist self-confidence emanating from both sides could ignite a heated rivalry in which bilateral relations deteriorate.
The recent faceoff in the strategically-important India-China-Bhutan border triangle near the Doklam Plateau between Chinese and Indian troops shows no sign of letting up. Chinese road construction in territory that Bhutan claims, their obstruction by Indian troops and the destruction of two Indian bunkers, has been analysed. Efforts are now being made to find a way out of the impasse.
While Chinese and Indian diplomats have claimed that talks to reach an agreement on their disputed border have progressed smoothly, the reality is that, unlike the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan, which is clearly demarcated, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China is neither finalised nor demarcated. The troops of both sides continue to patrol the areas in accordance with their own perceptions of where the border is, which often clashes with the other side’s perception, leading to claims and counter-claims of transgression. The media in both countries highlight these transgressions, keeping them in the forefront of their viewers’ minds.
The current faceoff has different strategic dimensions. Despite Bhutan issuing a demarche to China to stop further road building into its territory, China continues to do so aggressively. It violates the understanding of 2012, which stipulates that there would be no unilateral change in the status quo at the tri-junction of the three countries. India has a compulsion to react, because, besides honouring its arrangement to provide security to Bhutan, it has to prevent this attempt by China to expand its military deployment space in the Chumbi Valley by encroaching into Bhutanese territory, which presently is a vulnerability for China due to inadequate deployment space. If India does not react, China will expand its territory into the Chumbi Valley, induct more troops, reduce its vulnerability and increase the threat to India’s own Siliguri Corridor, which is also known as its “chickens neck”.
Another factor which makes the current standoff different from normal transgression incidents is the sequence of events and the timing of the incident. India boycotted China’s recent Belt and Road Forum because, as it said, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a network of energy pipelines and industries that extends from the Port of Gwadar in Pakistan to Xinjiang Province in China, passes through territory that India claims. Despite China’s warning that New Delhi could be isolated, India believes that it cannot be pressured into conforming with China’s views on the CPEC, that it follows its strategically autonomous foreign policy, thus negating Beijing’s statements regarding Mr Modi’s perceived dependence on Washington, and that it could stand up to any pressure Beijing may try to place on it. There have been several recent instances in which the views of the two countries have diverged, including India’s application for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the blacklisting of the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, the South China Sea, etc., but their commercial engagements have seen a continued relationship.
The current standoff flared immediately after a successful meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump and their joint statement that followed, which indicated a strengthening of the strategic partnership between India and the US, and their joint views on terrorists being harboured in Pakistan, the forthcoming naval exercises between the two countries and Japan, and the threat posed by North Korea. This outcome of the meeting appears to have made China uncomfortable. This not only added to the biggest problem in the India-China relationship, which is the trust deficit between them, but seems to have added to China’s insecurity.
This insecurity could have triggered the spate of unwarranted statements from China like “Indian Army could learn from historical lessons” and “New Delhi must be taught the rules”, which started a war of words. A PLA spokesperson later commented that the Indian Army Chief’s remark that ‘India is ready for a two-and-a-half front war’, was extremely irresponsible.
That perception aside, the Indian military of 2017 is not as ill-prepared for war as it was in 1962, when Chinese forces fairly easily overran India’s defences. Since that war, India has not lost another, albeit that it was fought to a standstill in 1965, whereas Chinese forces were given a bloody nose by Vietnamese forces in 1979. The Indian military is today a more confident and better equipped and trained force than it was in 1962. China would do well to take that understanding into consideration.
China and India cannot ignore each other’s economic growth and markets. The recent statement by Lu Kang, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, that ‘The diplomatic channel for communication remains unimpeded. We urged the Indian side to withdraw troops back to the Indian side of the boundary immediately. This is the precondition for the settlement of this incident and also the basis for us to conduct any meaningful dialogue’ can only be seen as being detrimental to the Sino-Indian relationship. Rather than make such statements, it would be more constructive if China refrained from its territorial aggression in Bhutan and recognised the changed regional realities. India believes it could stand up to China and it will. China could salvage the situation by, for instance, stopping its road construction in disputed territory and initiating dialogue with concerned parties. Any less could see the situation escalate into one that neither New Delhi nor Beijing wants.