The skirmish involving Indian soldiers on the Sikkim-China border last week is just another event in a decades-long chain featuring Chinese expansionism. It may seem incongruous that while Commander level talks have been going on that an incursion should take place. Place the event against a historical perspective and the reality hits home that more things change the more China remains the same. The skirmish may indeed be a minor face-off as the Indian Army described it but if it true that the casualties in terms of injuries was on a scale of five to one on the Chinese side, it might just have served the purpose in sending the message across to the territorially ambitious northern neighbour. India is prepared to hold its positions, at least wherever it is placed advantageously in terms of terrain and is capable of giving it back.
The gap between perceptions and reality is huge when it comes to India-China relations. While the political class might want 1.35 billion Indians to believe that not a square mile of territory has been surrendered to the Chinese since the 1962 war, the truth is huge swathes of disputed land, which in India’s eyes is its, has been progressively taken over. It would not be far from the truth to suggest that the Chinese have come in as much as 25 to 30 km in places along the LAC and at least 5 to 8 km in the Finger area north of Pangong Lake in Ladakh. Historically speaking, this can be blamed on the unbridgeable gap in perceptions of LAC rather than weaknesses in the regimes in New Delhi, which, since the times of Vajpayee’s prime ministership, have taken a harder stance on India-China border issues.
The reality of China’s expansionism is being reflected too often for comfort in most recent times, whether in Doklam in 2017, Galwan Valley in 2020 or in Naku La in Sikkim a week ago. The complaints of our people in Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh about Chinese soldiers and civilians using Indian roads to expand their presence across the LAC and taking over land they would normally use for grazing their yaks are real, so too whispers of villages coming up on what we perceive to be our side. There is no denying China’s propensity to keep up the pressure on the 4,000 km border, ranging from Ladakh in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east and including on land bordering Bhutan and Sikkim.
Nothing could be more ideal than seeking peace through diplomacy and pursuing disengagement and de-escalation even if it means having to deal with a truculent neighbour whose deeds betray their words. Since recurring bouts of skirmishes cannot be ruled out, the way forward for India would be to keep continuously building and buttressing border infrastructure, particularly for the IAF whose capabilities are formidable, safeguarding areas around roads India has built and moving armour and men into strategic areas. All of this must serve eternal vigil about China while being prepared to shove if it comes to a push. Let us not for even a moment believe that China has changed.