Although the Sikkim border between China and India has often been a source of diplomatic and military tensions in bilateral relations, the Sino-Indian frontier has been largely quiet since 1967 when the two armies fought a short but brutal local war. But it would be incorrect to infer that with such large concentrations and spread of troops, often eyeball to eyeball, that there is no tension. Why did the latest military standoff break out? Both sides have resorted to a blame game, accusing each other of crossing the boundary. But what has really happened? Is it a coincidence that it occurred just days ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s summit meeting with Donald Trump? An Ian Fleming character had once rightly said: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence and third time is an enemy action.” Such flare-ups at a time when the Indian leadership is meeting with leaders like Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are now running out of coincidences. A clear pattern is now emerging. Whether it is our or their side that is provoking it doesn’t matter much. The Indian public believes it is China that is ratcheting up the tensions. The Chinese public thinks it is India. In the new world of mass and instant communications, perceptions are the truth.
However, some light is peeping out from under the shut doors of the two militaries. At the farthest tip of the Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan, the Chinese are building a road to an area called the Dokalam Plains. Our military believes that the artillery positioned here will seriously threaten Indian concentrations and communications. It doesn’t help very much that the Chumbi Valley appears on the map like a dagger poised not only to render asunder Sikkim and Bhutan, but also Assam and the Northeast from the rest of India. So the Indian Army wants to position itself to challenge the PLA’s dominance from the Doka La pass in Bhutan. There is nothing wrong about this, considering India and Bhutan have a treaty-ratified military relationship. Clearly the two biggest armies in the world are jockeying for positions of advantage. This is natural when there are huge concentrations of troops, literally cheek by jowl, and trust is low between the two governments. Over 40 years after India formally annexed Sikkim after a referendum, China has still not unequivocally accepted Sikkim as part of India. Despite the assurances by then Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao that Sikkim is no longer an issue in bilateral relations, many Chinese maps persist in showing Sikkim as not part of India.
From here it seems Beijing’s deliberate ambiguity on Sikkim, and even according to some Chinese analysts, is partly due to the belief that it may give China leverage over India in their border talks. From the Indian perspective, whether China accepts or recognises it is moot. The reality now is that the state of Sikkim is a part of the Indian republic. While this accession was ratified by a referendum, that cannot be said of Tibet, but India has accepted the reality. China too has to accept the reality. It has no choice. What it shows or doesn’t show in its maps doesn’t matter. If China thinks it gives it leverage, all the best to it. In these days, with both countries capable of an unacceptable level of violence, it would be wise to forget such old notions and deal with realities. Other misperceptions further confound our perceptions about each other. Some Chinese experts claimed the latest standoff showed India has yet to recover from the embarrassing defeat of the 1962 border war against the backdrop of the growing competition for influence and hostility between India and China. Despite their growing economic and trade relations, both sides are deeply distrustful of each other. From a Beijing perspective, India is playing an active role in forging an anti-Chinese coalition with the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam to counter Beijing’s diplomatic, economic and military assertiveness. India’s conspicuous absence from the Belt and Road Summit in Beijing last month is cited by the Chinese media as further evidence of strained relations between China and India.
I think we are in need of some realism here too. 1962 was 55 years ago. It is now a long time ago. Just like when the Tibetans drove out the Chinese from their country in 1911-12 was a long time ago. At that time, Chinese troops escaped to India via the Nathu La Pass. So, was 1962 to avenge that humiliation? These are ridiculous notions now. Much water has flowed under the bridge since 1962. That India and this India are very different. In this India, innocence and hope and been replaced by a new realism. Chinese experts who hark back to 1962 are somewhat short of understanding. The fates of India and China in a world of rapid economic, technological and social change are inextricably linked. The GDPs of India and China within the next two decades will exceed that of the G-7. A major global power shift is underway. India and China must wake up to this reality and be prepared to play a historical role instead of living out the childish fantasies of their half-baked and under educated “strategic experts”.
India has played no role in forging any alliance with the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. It is just a Western wish. We know what is in our interests and what is not. The US, Japan and Australia are separated from China by vast oceans and enjoy a sense of security that India (and Vietnam) cannot. Both have large land borders with China and they will feel the immediate consequences of an armed conflict. The US and Japan are too closely economically integrated with China to be taken as credible allies by India. If anything India knows, it knows it stands alone. India didn’t take part in OBOR because there was nothing of interest to it in it. When China makes a proposal that will incorporate India into its worldview, India will respond suitably. Otherwise, India has no intention of paying court to the “Emperor Far Away”. I think there is a belated realisation of this in China now. The greater economic integration of India and China is the best hope for China and India’s sustained long-term growth. Let’s hope better sense prevails....