The 21st century can emerge as the Asian century, only if there is peace and there are supportive and mutually beneficial relations between the major powers of the region.
By Ashok Sajjanhar
Ever since the confrontation on the cold, deserted Doka La or Dokalam plateau on the India, Bhutan, China tri-junction came to light in end June, China has launched a blitzkrieg of sharp invectives against India for going against the 1890 Treaty that was signed between Britain and China demarcating the border between Sikkim and Tibet. They have stated, quite inaccurately, that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had acknowledged the applicability of this Treaty to the boundary between Sikkim and China.
Contrary to China’s claim that the letter was an overwhelming endorsement of the 1890 treaty on the Sikkim-Tibet border, Nehru had taken objection to Chou-en-Lai’s statement that the boundaries of Sikkim and Bhutan did not fall within the scope of the discussion. Nehru had conveyed categorically that the Treaty did not define the southern borders between Sikkim and Tibet which had yet to be demarcated. Nehru’s letter of 26 September 1959, in response to Chou-en-Lai’s missive of 8 September 1959, clearly stated that the 1890 treaty defined only the northern part of the Sikkim-Tibet border and not the tri-junction area that brings Bhutan into play.
Over the last several decades, relations between India and China have been less than warm and cordial. Even at the best of times, there have been undercurrents of tension and resentment, if not hostility, between the two countries.
But what is happening on the Doka La plateau for the last more than a month is unprecedented. It is incomparable to anything that occurred earlier. Foreign Secretary Jaishankar might try to suggest, as he did in his recent lecture in Singapore, that this standoff is like other earlier border incidents between the two countries and would also be handled amicably by the two sides as has been done in the past. But this does not reflect an accurate assessment of the situation. India’s Foreign Office and indeed Jaishankar know this. That is why External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj categorically asserted in the Parliament on July 20 that India is capable of defending itself against any onslaught by China.
The problem between India and China has been brewing for a long time. It has come to a head with this incident. The root of the problem is that China is in a hurry to quickly assert its Middle Kingdom status that it feels it is entitled to and which it lost because of the ”century of national humiliation” and imposition of unequal treaties. As Chinese President Xi Jinping declared soon after assuming power, he would strive to “achieve the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” The Doka La standoff designed to denigrate and diminish India is an important step in that direction.
China looks upon India as the only power that can challenge its unbridled march to supremacy in Asia. While China was demanding a multipolar world sometime ago (this refrain seems to have decreased considerably in recent times) it is not willing to countenance a multi-polar Asia. While it might speak of peace, goodwill and global good, what it seeks to achieve is hegemony and acknowledgement of its pre-eminent status by all countries in the neighbourhood.
It is for this reason that it has been trying to box India in South Asia so that it will not be able to play a role appropriate to its size in territory, population, talent, human resources and economy in the region or globally.
Some analysts tend to suggest that China’s unflinching support of Pakistan is a backlash of India’s increasing closeness with the United States. While expanding and warming relations between India and the US, particularly over the last three years during the era of Prime Minister Modi, might have made China nervous, it is not the reason for China’s growing proximity with Pakistan. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that stronger India-US ties have prompted China to adopt unhelpful anti-India stance by opposing India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), obstructing designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations etc. China considers India’s rise to be against its interest and at its expense. For China, the significance of 21st century being the Asian Century is that China will exercise unchallenged and unquestioned dominance over Asia and the world.
The harsh and shrill tenor and rhetoric emanating from China is because it did not expect that India would move in quickly and take a strong, unrelenting stand to defend the rights and interest of a small country like Bhutan. China had mistakenly though that it would be able to move in and swiftly construct the road on the Dokalam plateau which would bring it strikingly close to the Siliguri Corridor. This would also put its forces in a commanding position to cut off all contact between India’s mainland and Arunachal Pradesh which it claims as its own and has increasingly started calling it South Tibet in recent days.
Two aspects are clear. One that from the word go, China has been portraying India as the “aggressor” which has occupied territory which is inalienably Chinese. It has not even vaguely suggested that China is trying to usurp territory that belongs to Bhutan; that there has been a dispute between the two countries in this region and that both of them decided as per their Agreements of 1988 and 1998 to arrive at a final decision through discussions and not through force. More than 20 rounds of talks have been held between Bhutan and China but no solution is in sight. China has been nibbling away at Bhutanese territory over many years without any effective opposition from Bhutan or from India. China must have thought that this time also it would be able to build the road southwards on the Dokalam plateau which would significantly expand its strategic advantage over India.
Another factor that seems to have contributed to China’s blustering and self righteous behaviour is the week-kneed and inadequate opposition by the US and ASEAN countries to its confiscation and militarisation of 3.5 million sq Kms of South China Sea notwithstanding the comprehensive and sweeping verdict against its claims by the UN body.
China has been spouting venom against India not only through its party publication, the Global Times, but also through its foreign office machinery. The Chinese foreign office has been employing most intemperate, undiplomatic and threatening language which appears to be getting increasingly menacing and sinister by the day. Foreign Secretary Jaishankar also acknowledged this while briefing members of the Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee that China has been “unusually aggressive”. Jaishankar continued to maintain in front of the parliamentary panel that India and China were engaged with each other diplomatically to resolve the issue through dialogue. China on the other hand has stated unequivocally that no talks with India are possible till India withdraws its forces from the Dokalam plateau.
Both the countries appear to be at an impasse the like of which has not been seen since the Sumdorong Chu incident in the then NEFA (currently Arunachal Pradesh) in 1987. From the increasingly belligerent and hostile rhetoric emanating from Beijing, it does not appear that it is ready to agree to a diplomatically negotiated solution. It has painted itself in a corner and would not like to be seen losing face to India when it imagines itself to be the next unchallenged superpower of the world.
India on the other hand has been extremely measured and restrained in its pronouncements. Response of the government through the official statement by the Ministry of External Affairs on 30 June has been balanced and non-provocative. It stated that construction of the road by China represents a change in status quo and entails serious implications for India’s security. India has tried to down play the seriousness of the cascading confrontation. This has been evident in India’s official pronouncements which have been discreet, reasonable and responsible while at the same time not sounding diffident or weak.
It has made up for its reticence in words by being decisive in its actions through the visit of Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat to the Sikkim sector and bolstering its troop enforcements in a non-combative mode in that area. India has clearly sent out the message that it does not want a military confrontation but if one was imposed upon it, it would be prepared to defend its interests with determination and vigour.
Today the rapidly billowing dispute is at a very different stage. It is necessary for the government to do a deep rethink and engage in a hardnosed public messaging offensive giving out its own position on the issue. The danger, if this is not done, is that the world and some sections of the domestic Indian “intelligentsia” might start believing that India does not have a counter-narrative to what China is saying. India, either directly or indirectly needs to tear the falsehoods being dished out by China. While India may continue to try and prod China to behave with “strategic maturity,” it should not lose the battle of public perception by adopting a muted and reticent approach.
India also needs to look at other avenues and leverages available to it against China. Even if it does not spell them out in the open, it should be ready to bring them into play as and when the situation demands. Several of these like bilateral trade, Tibet, One China Policy etc have been mentioned. Chinese media, think tanks as well as its foreign office have been acting in a most irresponsible and incendiary manner by challenging the accession of Sikkim to India, by suggesting that China could intervene militarily in Kashmir at Pakistan’s request, by offering to negotiate between India and Pakistan, etc.
Most importantly, India needs to be fully prepared and ready to respond to any adventurous and reckless incident or confrontation that China might decide to impose upon it. India can also be reasonably certain that if a showdown between India and China were to take place, even in a limited manner, Pakistan would be ready to jump in on China’s side to take full advantage of the situation. India would not be able to depend upon any of its partners, neither America, nor Japan, nor Russia to come to its aid in any material or substantive manner. India will have to depend solely on its own resources and assets both in terms of equipment and, even more importantly, in terms of its soldiers and manpower. India can be certain that with its strong and inspiring leadership at the national level, the clash will be anything but a repeat of 1962. Chinese troops have not seen any action since the last many decades while Indian forces are in full readiness having not received any spite over these years as they have been engaged in dealing with the incessant low intensity conflict imposed on it on its western border.
The 21st century can emerge as the Asian Century only if there is peace and there are supportive and mutually beneficial relations between major powers of the region including China, India, Japan, ROK, ASEAN, and others. Tranquility and non-adversarial situation on borders and mutually advantageous ties between India and China are a sine qua non for harnessing the commensurate gains and dividends from this opportunity that beckons the region and the world.
The ongoing Dokalam crisis and China’s increasingly combative pronouncements have far-reaching consequences for the future of India-China relations. It has brought into sharp profile the thinking among China’s decision and policy making party and government functionaries about what they think of India. It will take considerable time, if at all, for the threats issued by China’s foreign office spokespersons, think tanks and official media to recede from public memory. India’s foreign and security establishments will have taken note of all the venom poured by the Chinese state-owned media in recent weeks.
Events and developments over the last few weeks have put the future of the Asian Century in serious doubt and jeopardy. The ball is in China’s court to moderate its rhetoric and come to the negotiating table to resolve the issue. In the absence of an early peaceful resolution, China will be the biggest loser.