In Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, James Bond famously said: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and third time is enemy action.”
For the first time since 1967, when their armies fought a short but brutal war, there are serious tensions between China and India on the Sikkim border. The stand-off began early in June, days ahead of prime minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping in Astana, and hit the headlines ahead of his US visit. This does not seem to be mere coincidence—a clear pattern is now emerging. Whether it is the Indian side that has provoked the flare-up or the Chinese side 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 communication, perceptions are the truth.
However, some light is peeping out from under the closed doors of the two militaries. At the farthest tip of the Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan, the Chinese are building a road over the Doklam plains, in an area that is supposedly under Bhutan’s control but over which China has laid claim. Our military believes that China’s presence here will seriously threaten Indian concentrations and communications. It doesn’t help much that the Chumbi Valley appears on the map like a dagger poised not only to rend 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 People’s Liberation Army’s dominance from the Doko-La or Doklam pass. There is nothing wrong in this, considering India and Bhutan have military ties. Clearly, the two biggest armies in Asia are jockeying for positions of advantage. This is natural when there are huge concentrations of troops standing cheek by jowl, and trust is low between the two governments.
More than 40 years after Sikkim formally became a part of India in 1975, China has still not unequivocally accepted the state as an integral part of India. The two countries are also in dispute over the territories of Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Despite assurances by former Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao in 2005 that Sikkim was no longer an issue in bilateral relations, many Chinese maps continue to show the Northeastern state as not part of India.
Beijing’s deliberate ambiguity on Sikkim seems to stem from the belief that this could give China leverage over India in border talks. From the Indian perspective, whether China accepts its sovereignty over Sikkim is moot—the state is formally a part of the Indian republic, its accession ratified by a referendum. In this day, with both countries having strong militaries, it would be wise to forget such old notions and deal with realities.
There are also several other misconceptions between the two countries. Some Chinese experts claimed the latest standoff showed that India was yet to recover from its embarrassing defeat in the 1962 war with China, in the backdrop of the growing competition for influence and hostility between the two countries. Despite their growing economic and trade relations, both sides are deeply distrustful of each other. According to Beijing, India is playing an active role in forging an anti-China 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 in May is cited by the Chinese media as further evidence of strained relations between the two countries.
Once again, there is need of a reality check. The 1962 war was 55 long years ago. As was 1911-12, when the Tibetans drove the Chinese out of their country, bringing about the downfall of the Qing Empire. At that time, Chinese troops escaped to India through Nathu La, in present-day Sikkim. So, by that logic, was the 1962 war waged to avenge China’s earlier humiliation? These are ridiculous notions. Much water has flowed under the bridge in the intervening years. As finance minister Arun Jaitley said last week, amid the growing conflict between the two countries in the areas near Sikkim, India today is very different from the India in 1962. This, of course, was met by a retort from Beijing on Monday that China, too, is different from what it was in 1962. In today’s India, innocence and hope have been replaced by a new realism. Chinese experts who hark back to 1962 are somewhat short of understanding.
India has no role to play in forging any alliance of the US, Japan, Australia, and Vietnam. That is just a Western wish. We know what is and is not in our interests—the US, Japan, and Australia are separated from China by vast oceans and enjoy a sense of security that India (and Vietnam) cannot. Both the Asian countries have large land borders with China and 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 India knows anything, it is that it stands alone.
India did not take part in the OBOR summit because there is nothing of interest to it in the project. 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.”
The fates of India and China in a world of rapid economic, technological and social change are inextricably linked. In the next two decades, the two countries’ GDP will exceed that of the G-7 countries. A major global power shift is underway. India and China must wake up to this reality instead of living out the childish fantasies of their half-baked and under-educated “strategic experts”. 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 the long-term growth of both countries. Let’s hope better sense prevails.