Sino-Indian standoff: some serious food for thought
More than two months after the standoff began between India and China - linked to a territorial dispute between China and Bhutan over a Himalayan plateau - flickers of interest on the subject are beginning to surface here in the media. As the key elements of the dispute/ standoff are now well-known to readers, this column will focus on aspects that may be new and/ or otherwise illuminating. But before that, it may be helpful to note that Bhutan - which reportedly invited the Indian military to help stop China's PLA from extending a road into what Thimphu claims is Bhutanese territory – has become largely irrelevant, or inaudible! Was there truly such a Bhutanese invitation to India, one wonders?
In any case, what is enormously telling is that - as Bloomberg Businessweek reports - "This is the first time that Indian troops have challenged China on behalf of a third country." Notable, too, is the journal's unexceptionable comment that the Sino-Indian flare-up is "one of the most serious since China won a border war in 1962" - as also its assessment that "armed conflict would serve neither country's interests. India, with an election in 2019, would risk wounding its economy. As nationalists in both countries stoke tensions, neither side can afford to be seen standing down. Analysts predict a protracted standoff." The popular National Public Radio (NPR), meanwhile, reports that India has "increased a military alert along its eastern border with China, moving troops and weapons into the region", and recalls that Indian defence minister Arun Jaitley told parliament this week that India's armed forces are "fully prepared" in the event of a conflict with China. NPR quotes a Reuters' report that Indian troops in Sikkim have been put on heightened alert, while reminding that "the two countries have long been at odds over India hosting of Tibet's government in exile and their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, considered by China to be subversive." A recent New Delhi-datelined column in the Washington Post by Jackson Diehl, too, is replete with points to ponder. While the thrust of Diehl's piece is that "India's strategy for balancing China depends heavily on the United States" has been thrown out of kilter with a Trump White House in chaos, he unwittingly spills quite a few additional nuggets of political intelligence gathered at an officially sponsored conference on US-India relations where he participated. Among them is this sparkler: "One Indian official pressed the Americans representing the administration - including State Department pros serving in lieu of the as-yet-unnamed American ambassador and regional assistant secretary - to say whether a White House seemingly sunk in disorder was even capable of focusing on geopolitics. "The vague assurances they offered convinced few...Several Indian officials, including one who participated in Modi's visit to the White House in late June, insisted they remain bullish on the relationship. The president and his staff, they say, were well prepared to engage with Modi, and the results were better than anyone in New Delhi had expected. "That drew a smile from a former US official, who pointed out that it only confirmed India's sinking expectation from its would-be strategic partner."
NO AMERICAN BACKING
Personally speaking, this column has periodically tried to explain why the Trump administration will not act as India's cat's paw vis-à-vis her rivalry with China. That includes the humungous stakes involved in expansive, mutually beneficial SinoAmerican cooperative relations, not to mention the crucial, shared problem of North Korea's missile/nuclear challenge, as was recently reflected in an unanimous UN Security Council resolution imposing severe economic sanctions against the Pyongyang regime. In point of fact, much the same perspective was projected by former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar's write-up in Asia Times which he began by referring to two sets of verbal warnings from China's state media (Xinhua/China Daily), including one declaring that the "window for a peaceful solution is closing. The countdown to a clash between the two forces has begun..." Bhadrakumar suggested that those warnings should be taken seriously by India, reminding that "when India stubbornly ignored similar warnings 55 years ago in a border war, it resoundedly lost." That apart, Bhadrakumar did well to point out that "no country has backed India in its seven-week standoff with China." Continuing, he says that it is "particularly galling that the US has not taken any posture favoring India. India's postCold War strategic discourse is heavily laden with the blithe assumption that the US regards India as a ' counterweight' to China... Indians refuse to see the geopolitical realities. It doesn't occur to them that US President Donald Trump will fight wars only if America's interests are directly threatened. Why should he order the Pentagon to send marines to the Himalayas or to dispatch a carrier battle group to hunt down Chinese subs in the Indian Ocean?" Which explains why, at the recent ASEAN-related conference in Manila - and, again, as Bhadrakumar usefully reminds – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi "did not waste time on the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean", concentrating their minds rather on the North Korea and allied hot-button issues.
Plainly, a severe testing time for Nepal lies ahead. Given that Prime Minister Deuba is heading to New Delhi soon, and China's senior vice premier and politburo standing committee member, Wang Yang, is visiting Kathmandu before then, she needs to exhibit exemplary diplomatic skills to safely navigate today's dangerously choppy Sino-Indian waters. If Nepali leaders can emulate King Mahendra's adroitness in foreign policy and the geostrategic vision of Prithivi Narayan Shah, she should be able to maintain an even keel even on such a turbulent sea. Are they up to the test? We shall soon learn. If not, Nepal may lose her most prized possession: her independence and political sovereignty. Any temptation to lean on one side could be suicidal and avoided like the plague.