Three years ago, on the eve of the BJP’s victory in the general elections, India had achieved a status and a degree of security in its international relations, that it had never known before. Its relationship with the US and the European Union was strengthening daily on the back of deepening economic ties; strategic cooperation with China and Russia on a wide variety of issues under the aegis of BRICS had given it a voice in the shaping of the post-Cold War global order that it had not enjoyed before, and tension with Pakistan was at an all-time low. All this was the result of patient, brick by brick, fence mending over two decades by four governments representing the entire gamut of Indian political opinion, those of Narasimha Rao, Inder Kumar Gujral , Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. Today all of their work has been undone and the edifice of security they built lies in ruins. India is a country under serious threat and it has no one to turn to.
As a form of geopolitical chess, the current Sino- Indian military escalations over a piece of territory of Bhutan, is fascinating. Nations do not wage outright war nowadays but they initiate crises that gives them strategic advantage, bolster (or weaken) the standing of political leaders, influence the perceptions of nations around them and test the global balance of power. The situation alongside Sikkim may be one such moment that contains such possibilities, if the current drama continues indefinitely.
The ground situation is unclear but one thing is clear that China has initiated this confrontation by trying to build a road through the. The Bhutanese and Indian military challenged the move in turn, leading to the faceoff. Strategic specialists indicate that the situation has arisen because the three countries have different perceptions as to where the ‘trijunction’ is – with Beijing saying it is 15 kilometres south of where Thimphu believes it is.
This faceoff gives birth to the question why China is taking such an aggressive stance publicly, rather than addressing it through diplomatic channels. There have been more than 10 statements in as many days released by Chinese foreign ministry and the People Liberation Army (PLA). China accused India of “betrayal” and “ignoring international law” while warning India’s army chief Gen. Bipin Rawat to stop clamouring for war. Beijing says withdrawal of Indian troops is a precondition for settling the current dispute; it is releasing pictures and maps that allegedly show Indian incursion. India, on the other hand, has issued a statement spelling out that it is an incursion on Bhutanese land and that a change in status quo would have serious security implications.
It is difficult to discern the reasons behind the China’s aggressive stance. It can either be a ploy to improve its negotiating position or it may be about achieving other political objectives. Strategic experts are of the view that China is indicating its displeasure over India not attending the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in May. The reason it would take it that seriously is because the BRI was not just any summit for Beijing. It was an occasion to celebrate China’s intent to remake Asia’s geography and transform the course of global trade over the next few decades. It was an event about status, a meeting crafted to symbolically affirm its primacy in Asia with the presence of many nations.
For India not to show up at the summit and instead periodically cast doubts on BRI’s viability is presumably an affront that Beijing felt needed to be addressed. India is now becoming the herald of opposition to the One Belt One Road project and now that the summit has been held and the buy-in of other nations secured this may have been seen as the right time to put India in its place and demonstrate to the world the limits of Delhi’s power.
This standoff was waiting to happen. As Prem Shankar Jha writes in The Wire, “In 2009 a request by the Dalai Lama in March, for permission to visit Tawang to open a hospital in November, had set off a flurry of objections by Beijing and assertions of sovereignty by New Delhi that rapidly escalated into a war of words and turned the Dalai Lama’s impending visit into an international test of sovereignty. Another war in the Himalayas had begun to look like a distinct possibility when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao took the unprecedented step of asking Dr. Manmohan Singh for a meeting at Hua Hin, on the sidelines of an APEC conference to sort the matter out.
“The discussions between them revealed that the Chinese wanted India, above all, to let sleeping dogs lie. In their view the border dispute was a legacy of history, and would die a natural death when relations between the two countries deepened. At Hua Hin, therefore, the two sides resolved the conflict by keeping the international, and most of the Indian, media out of Tawang. This turned the Dalai Lama’s visit into a strictly private one, carried out in his religious capacity, and robbed it of political significance.
“But the situation this time is so different that to argue from historical precedent could prove suicidal. For in the past 26 months Narendra Modi has abandoned the policy of equidistance and turned India into a military and diplomatic ally of the USA. In China’s eyes this has transformed India from a like-minded country that shared its opposition to the US’s attempt to create a unipolar world, into an adversary.
“The turnaround, which took place only a week after President Xi Jinping’s state visit to India, was so sudden that it could not but have taken China by surprise. In retrospect it is apparent that it took place during Modi’s first visit to Washington, and was signaled by the abrupt replacement of Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh with S. Jayashankar. Whatever passed between him and Obama brought the latter post-haste to India in January 2015, ostensibly to be the chief guest at our Republic Day parade, but in reality to sign a ‘U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ on January 25, whose only operative clause was designed to prevent the assertion of Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea.
“This did not prevent the Chinese government from laying out a red carpet for Modi during his state visit to China in May 2015, but since then the relationship has soured as India has moved rapidly into America’s strategic embrace. In the past eight months the Modi government has signed all the three military cooperation agreements needed to make it an ally of the US; and issued a second joint statement with President Obama in June last year affirming India’s intention to draw up a roadmap for implementing the joint strategic vision that “will serve as a guide for collaboration in the years to come.”
But then Jha may be overstating China’s case as a known ‘bhakt’ of China in India’s strategic circles. China wants to be the only ‘pole’ in Asia in the broad multipolar world. It wants the world to believe that it is always right, particularly in territorial disputes with other countries, evident everywhere whether it is East Japan Sea or South China Sea or in the Himalayas.
What China want to get through this standoff?
The Sikkim standoff could be an act of dominance, aimed at showing the world who’s in charge in Asia. Picking on Bhutan to make the point is thus no coincidence because the incursion into Doklam suddenly puts India in a position of having to defend its small neighbour. What the current situation does is unsettling the equation between Delhi and Thimphu; the latter will be keen not to get drawn into an open conflict and there will likely be a debate within the kingdom about having diplomatic ties with China and any sign of that will unnerve India.
From hereon whatever happens in the region depends on what China wants to get out of this crisis. If it only wants more diplomatic engagement with Bhutan (which India disapproves of) it can keep maintaining that this is essentially a dispute between China and Bhutan and insist that more contact is imperative for resolving differences with Thimphu. That way Beijing will have communicated to the world that it has prised open India’s exclusive sphere of influence without firing a shot. India will lose face but may consider it a better price than armed hostilities.
But what if it is territory that China really wants in order to eventually move armour to the region to threaten the narrow Siliguri corridor or the ‘chicken’s neck’ that connects Northeast states to the rest of India? That is an objective which Beijing may be keen on but it is not easy to achieve because India will contest a Siachen-like takeover. India has immediately rushed in more troops to fortify an already strong ground position after the standoff. There may be elements in the Chinese military baying for the blood but one cannot be sure of how the next Sino-India war will turn out. Strategic experts anticipate that it will be “limited in scope and short in duration, rather than a protracted, large-scale, force-on-force campaign” because of the nuclear overhang. India can do some damage with “horizontal escalation” and using special forces but it will be up against its own difficult terrain and China’s faster mobility and coordination.
Sceptics do not rule out war but it is not in either country’s interest to start one. Financial markets will react badly and China may not want to be seen as initiating one since it wants to allay apprehensions in the world about its rise and now sees itself as a champion of globalisation. These considerations, however, may not be enough to prevent it from extending the military standoff with India as it generates other effects that may be beneficial to Beijing.
Lesson for Narendra Modi
An extended crisis also works to weaken the political authority of Narendra Modi. A strongman who has undertaken surgical strikes against Pakistan cannot be seen as a weakling unable to tackle a brazen land grab in a country that is effectively under India’s protection. The Chinese know that Modi would not want to be politically damaged as Jawaharlal Nehru was after the 1962 “stab in the back” war. In fact, a China policy that goes horribly wrong may be the only political weakness that Modi has given his current dominance in the Indian political scene – and that is a pressure point that Beijing could look to exploit in the future. What makes it more difficult for Modi is that many of his supporters demand quick action and reprisals from his government. He may have to take steps to discourage this behaviour from his bhakts before getting embarrassed.
The standoff is now a part of the global theatre, eliciting interests of countries in Southeast Asia and others who are keen to see if India can stand up to this aggression, is also damaging India’s image. If the standoff prolongs it is also the kind of crisis that can expose India’s weak leverage in world affairs. With the US, Europe and Africa needing China in different ways, Southeast Asian nations backing OBOR and Muslim countries aggrieved about the situation of Indian Muslims and Kashmiris under BJP rule, it remains unclear as to who will stand up for India when push comes to shove. Overdue aggression by Beijing can certainly accelerate anti-Chinese banding efforts over time but there are short-term reputational and tangible risks for India.
This situation thus has implications for both Modi’s political career and India’s image abroad. The standoff clearly gives the indication that China wants substantive economic ties with all but no symbolic challenge to its dominance in the region. PM Modi wants to focus on his internal priorities and can do without a showdown with a bigger neighbour that has the potential to undercut him domestically. In theory, Modi may be best served by a stalemated short war with China, which he can represent as a victory at home. But that may not be on offer in reality.
By Nilabh Krishna