There is a simple solution to India-China Sikkim standoff, but it’s not easy

It is possibly the only answer to save egos and restore peace.

 |  5-minute read |   07-07-2017
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The standoff in the Doklam plateau between Indian and Chinese troops has been witnessing an increase in media rhetoric by the day.

Chinese state-controlled or state-dominated media has been increasing hype by threatening India with war over the incident. It has regularly been warning India to withdraw or face the consequences.

Earlier, comments by the Air Force and Army Chief asking the forces to be prepared for a two-and-a-half front war have also been considered as India enhancing war hysteria.

There are issues in this standoff which are at variance from similar standoffs which have occurred in recent times, hence possibly the hype.

The jostling and pushing between the two armies was possibly among the first in this region in decades. Secondly, and the one which has most impacted the Chinese, is that the Indian Army has come out in support of their Bhutanese counterparts on this occasion.

The area under dispute is between China and Bhutan and not India and China. Hence, the Chinese carry the impression that India is flexing its muscles more than expected by entering deep into territory where it has no role.

The standoff commenced during the visit of PM Narendra Modi to the US, where Donald Trump made adverse comments on China with Modi by his side. Trump, in the joint press statement, openly supported the Indian, US and Japan joint naval exercise, nicknamed “Malabar”, while criticising China over North Korea.

This gave the Chinese an impression that the US was exploiting India to counter growing Chinese power in the region. Editorials in Chinese papers mentioned that India has begun displaying arrogance against them solely due to US support, hence requires to be taught a lesson.

China is historically used to bullying its way with its smaller neighbours, either with money power or military threats. It prevented ASEAN members from passing any resolution on the South China Sea, despite nudging by former US president Barack Obama, who was in attendance, employing its military and economic power.

Weaker neighbours like Vietnam and Cambodia are bulldozed by sheer military threats. The Philippines, the nation which lodged the case against China on the South China Sea and won the ruling from the tribunal, was bought over by Chinese money power.

It would have achieved the same with Bhutan, had India not stepped in. Thus, what China considered as a foregone conclusion has become a battle of wits between two Asian giants.

Neither side is showing any signs of backing down, Chinese rhetoric notwithstanding. The fact is that China wants India to withdraw, since it is India which has violated the border, on behalf of Bhutan.

India is unwilling for a few reasons. Firstly, the area has strategic value and enhances Indian security threats. Secondly, India cannot be seen to be weak and bowing to Chinese pressures, as it remains the only nation in the continent to stand up to China, militarily and economically.

sikkim1_070717075845.jpgBoth nations are presently concentrating on economic cooperation and development. Photo: Reuters

Thirdly, if it succumbs to Chinese pressures, it would place Nepal, Bhutan and possibly even Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar firmly in the Chinese fold, completing Indian encirclement.

Fourthly, if India withdraws unilaterally, without an understanding with China, irrespective of Bhutanese objections and demarche to China, the Doklam plateau would be under Chinese control as a fait accompli and enhance India’s vulnerabilities.

Finally, if India backs down once, it would be compelled to do so in the case of all other Chinese demands and incursions.

Many writers, including Chinese media, have been mentioning the possibility of armed conflict, which is still miles and ages away. The two chiefs mentioning a two-front war is their method of conveying a message to their forces that they should always be ready for operations, peace conditions notwithstanding.

All chiefs convey this message many times during their tenure, hence it is not sabre-rattling. China knows it, but seeks to play on it, since it suits its pressure tactics.

Both nations are presently concentrating on economic cooperation and development. Neither side would desire a confrontation which would offset economic growth by decades (as any war could and would).

China faces greater threat from nations seeking to challenge its hegemony in the South China Sea, as also the US which is seeking to arm Taiwan; hence to enter into a conflict for a small standoff is unlikely, egos notwithstanding.

China is investing immensely into its dream project of One Belt One Road across the region. It cannot afford to divert funds into a war scenario from where it may not gain much, except possibly only pride.

Both nations are nuclear-armed, therefore the conflict may end up beyond the conventional and damage both, impacting economies severely.

Hence, while an all-out war on such an issue may not be expected, there are possibilities of a local skirmish. This again has disadvantages to both sides.

It has the possibility of exploding into a full blown one, which neither nation desires. Secondly, if China does end up on the wrong side, its standing and power in the international community may get impacted (akin to its failure in Vietnam in 1979 and India in 1967), thus compelling it to escalate.

India seeks to deescalate hence would respond with lesser force, thus facing the brunt, while aiming to keep it localised. Thus, for both nations, the sole answer is peaceful de-escalation.

It is China which commenced creating the hype, while India remained silent and guarded. Thus, it would have to be China which would need to slowly lower media tempo, creating conditions for a settlement of the issue.

It rushed in, seeking to coerce India to bend, which never happened. The Indian government has remained mature, irrespective of media hype, unwilling to increase tempo, downplaying the incident.

The final solution is talks aiming to defuse the crises, while moving ahead in other fields. All eyes are now on the G-20 summit and the BRICS meeting during it, where the Chinese president and the Indian PM are scheduled to meet. Chinese media claims the scenario is not ripe for a meeting, however, in all probability they would.

A possible solution is that India may be the first to back down, followed by China and the status quo restored, with no transgressions including constructions on either side, till a final resolution of the border dispute is arrived at.

This is possibly the only answer to save egos, arrive at a workable solution and restore peace and tranquillity. It may sound simple, but to arrive at the simplest of solutions involves immense back channel diplomacy, give and take, reducing tensions and maintaining strategic interests of each other.

Also read: G20 summit: Tense times with Modi, Xi, Trump, Putin on edge


Harsha Kakar Harsha Kakar @kakar_harsha

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army and author of the book, Harsha Kakar writes.

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