Why is the In­dia-China stand­off es­ca­lat­ing?

De­spite the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tion­ship, a war is un­likely to break out

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

If you browse through the lat­est head­lines about the now month­long bor­der stand-off be­tween In­dia and China, you might think the Asian ri­vals are tee­ter­ing on the brink of an armed con­flict.

The rhetoric is full of fore­bod­ing and men­ace. A Delhi news­pa­per says China is warn­ing that the stand­off ‘could es­ca­late into fullscale con­flict’. An­other echoes a sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment, say­ing ‘China stiff­ens face-off pos­ture’.

In Bei­jing, the state-run media has be­gun re­mind­ing In­dia of its de­feat in the 1962 war over the bor­der, dig­ging out old re­ports and pic­tures of the con­flict.

Global Times has been par­tic­u­larly bel­li­cose, first ac­cus­ing In­dia of un­der­min­ing Bhutan’s sovereignty by in­ter­fer­ing in the road pro­ject, and then declar­ing that if In­dia ‘stirs up con­flicts in sev­eral spots, it must face the con­se­quences of all-out con­fronta­tion with China’.

The lat­est row erupted in midJune when In­dia op­posed China’s at­tempt to ex­tend a bor­der road through a plateau known as Dok­lam in In­dia and Donglang in China.

The plateau, which lies at a junc­tion be­tween China, the north­east­ern In­dian state of Sikkim and the Hi­malayan king­dom of Bhutan, is cur­rently dis­puted be­tween Bei­jing and Bhutan. In­dia sup­ports Bhutan’s claim over it.

In­dia is con­cerned that if the road is com­pleted, it will give China greater ac­cess to In­dia's strate­gi­cally vul­ner­a­ble ‘chicken’s neck’, a 20km wide cor­ri­dor that links the seven north-east­ern states to the In­dian main­land. And since this stand­off be­gan, each side has re­in­forced its troops and called on the other to back down.

There is a dread­ful sense of deja vu about the way the stand­off ap­pears to be es­ca­lat­ing.

This is not the first time the two neigh­bours who share a rocky re­la­tion­ship have faced off on the ill-de­fined bor­der, where mi­nor in­cur­sions by troops have been com­mon. The re­gion saw armed clashes be­tween China and In­dia in 1967, and a pro­longed stand-off and build-up of troops along the bor­der in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986-87.

Delhi be­lieves that Bei­jing is test­ing In­dia’s com­mit­ment to Bhutan in the lat­est stand­off, writes an­a­lyst Ajai Shukla. “China has al­ways been galled by this close re­la­tion­ship, which has with­stood sus­tained Chi­nese pres­sure to di­vide it,” he says.

This time China has upped the ante against In­dia. For­eign Min­istry spokesman Lu Kang told re­porters in Bei­jing on Tues­day that In­dian forces should leave the area to avoid an ‘es­ca­la­tion of the sit­u­a­tion’.

‘Not a bluff’

In­dian an­a­lysts be­lieve China’s warn­ings can­not be ig­nored. “In gen­eral, the Chi­nese pat­tern of use of force has been to pre­pare the ground with ad­e­quate state­ments and warn­ings. Hence, I think we should not take them lightly or see it as a bluff,” a China ex­pert told me.

In 1962, the state-run news agency Xin­hua warned well in ad­vance that In­dia should ‘pull back from the brink of war’. Dur­ing the Korean War in 1950 which pit­ted the US and its al­lies against the USSR, North Korea and com­mu­nist China, the Chi­nese warned the US through In­dia that if they crossed the Yalu River the Chi­nese would be forced to en­ter the war.

To be true, this doesn’t mean that China is gird­ing up for war. As things stand, both sides can share some blame for the stand­off in what is a strate­gi­cally im­por­tant area.

In 2012, In­dia and China agreed that the tri-junc­tion bound­aries with Bhutan and Myan­mar (also called Burma) would be fi­nally de­cided in con­sul­ta­tion with these coun­tries. Un­til then, the sta­tus quo would pre­vail.

In­dia be­lieves China vi­o­lated the sta­tus quo by build­ing the road. In­dian troops were sent to re­sist their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts in the area only af­ter Bhutan, which has close ties with In­dia, re­quested In­dia to help.

China in­sists In­dian troops in­vaded Dok­lam/Donglang to help Bhutan, and it was a vi­o­la­tion of international law. Lu says In­dia should not ‘take tres­pass as a pol­icy tool to reach or re­alise their po­lit­i­cal tar­gets’.

Some an­a­lysts say In­dia pos­si­bly made a mis­take by openly con­flat­ing the build­ing of the road with talk of po­ten­tial ‘se­ri­ous se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions for In­dia’.

“I agree that there were se­cu­rity con­cerns, but it was wrong for In­dia to voice them strongly. We could have just said that China had breached the sta­tus quo. By over­play­ing the se­cu­rity an­gle, we may have scored an own goal, and the Chi­nese are ex­ploit­ing it,” an an­a­lyst told me.

Tricky sit­u­a­tion

He has a point. Long Xingchun, an an­a­lyst at a Chi­nese think­tank, says ‘a third coun­try’s’ army could en­ter the dis­puted re­gion of Kash­mir at Pak­istan’s re­quest, us­ing the ‘same logic’ the In­dian army has used to stop the Chi­nese troops from build­ing the road in Dok­lam/Donglang. “Even if In­dia were re­quested to de­fend Bhutan’s ter­ri­tory, this could only be lim­ited to its es­tab­lished ter­ri­tory, not the dis­puted area.”

Clearly, for the stand­off to end, all three sides need an agree­able so­lu­tion with­out los­ing face. As China hard­ens its po­si­tion, many be­lieve that find­ing a ‘three-way, face sav­ing so­lu­tion’ would be tricky and time con­sum­ing. Re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries are also at their low­est ebb in many years.

Both sides pos­si­bly passed up an op­por­tu­nity to re­solve the cri­sis ear­lier this month when a po­ten­tial meet­ing be­tween Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi on the side­lines of the G20 sum­mit in Ham­burg did not hap­pen. In­dia said a meet­ing with Xi had never been on Modi’s agenda; and China’s For­eign Min­istry had said the at­mos­phere was not right for a meet­ing.

There’s an­other win­dow of op­por­tu­nity com­ing up. In­dia’s in­flu­en­tial Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Ajit Do­val is to visit Bei­jing for a meet­ing of BRICS na­tions later this month. Do­val, who is also the spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the In­dia-China bor­der, is likely to meet his Chi­nese coun­ter­part Yang Jiechi.

“Both sides have made it a pres­tige is­sue. But diplo­macy is all about keep­ing things go­ing in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances,” a for­mer diplo­mat says. De­spite the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tion­ship, a war is un­likely to break out.


This 2008 photo shows Chi­nese and In­dian bor­der troops on the Nathu La bor­der cross­ing be­tween In­dia and China


An In­dian army ma­jor at the In­dian post on a 4725m high Bum La pass, about 47km from Tawang in In­dia’s Arunachal Pradesh

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