There is a modicum of double standards being displayed by China — it has had little compunction in assisting Pakistan with the CPEC.
Reams have been written and facets discussed threadbare, over the past few weeks, on the ongoing stand-off between the Indian and Chinese forces on the Doklam Plateau to bear repetition. Suffice it to say, the picture that has emerged in the public domain suggests that the Doklam plateau is disputed territory claimed by both China and Bhutan, though China has very little evidence in support of its claims.
The road construction by the Chinese in this area, the stoppage of which with Indian Army assistance by the Bhutanese has led to the present crisis, is in direct contravention of the Sino-Bhutan Agreements of 1988 and 1998 that require China maintain the status quo as on before March 1959, pending a final boundary settlement.
Understandably, China is incensed that India has interfered in the matter, completely disregarding the historically close ties that India has with Bhutan since Independence and which have now been further strengthened by the Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007. This treaty categorically calls for both nations to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.”
The road under construction will undoubtedly impact the strategic interest of both nations, especially ours, given the fact that the narrow “Siliguri Corridor” will then come within Chinese medium artillery range, something that can greatly impact movement of people, goods and services between our North Eastern States and the rest of India.
This apart, there is a modicum of double standards being displayed by China here, because it has had little compunction in assisting Pakistan with the CPEC being constructed through areas which rightfully belong to India.
The Chinese must be well aware that any action that threatens our strategic communication infrastructure would be treated as a deliberate crossing of a red line and wholly unacceptable. It is well known that we had earlier gone to war over just such a transgression, when we fought Pakistan in Kargil because they had illegally occupied heights in the region that would allow them to interdict communication between Srinagar and Ladakh.
Therefore, there should be little doubt that the motive of the Chinese for indulging in such a blatant act of aggression would be viewed with immense concern by our security establishment and it would necessarily lead to some defensive steps being initiated to negate the threat. Those who believe our robust response was unwarranted, that we should not be assisting Bhutan or that the Army is over-stating the threat to our communication infrastructure are either simply living in denial or have a penchant for appeasement politics.
While some may ascribe the present actions of the Chinese leadership to a very well thought out long term strategic vision in keeping with their future ambitions, there is also every likelihood, as well, that it is no more than a simple miscalculation of Indian resolve to defend its strategic interests .
Only the latter in tandem with an uncalled for arrogance and serious underestimation of Indian capabilities can explain the stupidity of indulging in direct confrontation in a sector where they suffer from serious vulnerabilities and handicaps themselves.
Incidentally, this is not the first time that the PLA leadership has been caught flat-footed. Just prior to President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014, the robust Indian response to the PLA intrusion in the Chumar Sector had caught them unaware and left them embarrassed. There too, we were better off and they were forced to revert back to the status quo. This blunder had reportedly led to some changes in the top PLA hierarchy at that time and is said to have allowed the President an opportunity to assert control over the PLA.
In the present instance, any attempt by the PLA to push out Indian forces deployed opposite them on the Doklam Plateau will require additional forces to be inducted into the Chumbi Valley. These forces would be susceptible to Indian interdiction from units deployed in Sikkim that dominate the Valley.
This implies that the PLA would have to escalate the situation in some other sector where the Indian Army is more vulnerable, which in turn must necessarily lead to an unwanted and unnecessary conflict between two nuclear armed neighbours, a wholly unwanted outcome on both sides.
While, as some analysts suggest, the PLA may be more than willing to escalate, probably to cover their own embarrassment, it seems extremely unlikely the political establishment would be willing to go along on a venture that would have adverse fallout, whatever be the end result.
In such circumstances, their newly appointed Commander in Chief, President Xi Jinping, is savvy enough to disassociate himself from a looming disaster and pin the blame on his Generals.
One can sympathise with the PLA hierarchy to some degree because it had, over the years and decades, got used to Indian subservience and sycophancy. Till fairly recently, we have always been excessively cautious in the manner we responded to their gravest of provocations so as not to give any offense. It is indeed difficult for any bully to suddenly find that the worm has turned and be confronted by his victim.
In such circumstances, bullies tend to rave and rant and threaten grave consequences. We are witnessing just such behaviour from the Chinese state controlled media and their foreign office, some verging on the ludicrous. After all what purpose would be served if they were to question Sikkim’s integration into India? This would not impact the status quo in any way and they could then find themselves having to deal with the distinct possibility of us reciprocating by not accepting either the “One China” policy or the occupation of Tibet!
Finally, it is also not in our interest to escalate the situation further given the fact that we have serious problems with the present state of our Armed Forces, which have been greatly impacted thanks to continued neglect by successive governments. We have clearly made our point and now should look for ways in which we can return to the status quo ante without either country suffering any loss of face.
Given the fact that we completely dominate the Chumbi Valley and Mr. Modi has enough political capital to spare we can well agree to withdraw first provided they stop road construction subsequently, with the latter aspect being kept confidential. The fact is if they renege on their commitment, we can once again escalate the situation and then take a tougher stand.
This commentary originally appeared in Times of India.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).