Theme for the Chinese dream

THE crucial meeting between the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and the Chinese leadership has not resolved the Doklam crisis. The two sides discussed "bilateral and major problems", suggesting that diplomatic channels are functioning.

Theme for the Chinese dream

ROCKY ROAD TO PEACE: The highway in north Sikkim needs upkeep. Photo by the writer

Pravin Sawhney

THE crucial meeting between the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and the Chinese leadership has not resolved the Doklam crisis. The two sides discussed "bilateral and major problems", suggesting that diplomatic channels are functioning. While neither side wants war, it is certain that China will not accept a reciprocal withdrawal of forces.

Will this lead to a long haul of armies' face-off? Probably not. Unlike any of his predecessors, Xi Jinping dons four hats — President, Communist Party General Secretary, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and the Commander-in-Chief Joint Operations Command. He has positioned military power as the anchor of his aggressive China dream and will not wait for long before adopting detrimental measures towards India. 

Hence, a valid question: What next? A senior Chinese diplomat had told me on July 5 in his embassy that China had informed the Indian side about their intentions on June 1, two weeks before their road construction party started work in Donglang (Doklam for us) area. Yet, instead of diplomatic outreach, the Indian side chose military. “On June 16, Indian troops entered 183 metres inside Chinese territory (in Donglang) to block our road-building party. India has opened a pandora's box. For the first time since the formation of the People's Republic of China, foreign troops have entered Chinese territory… the foundation of the 19 rounds of border talks (held since 2003) would no longer be there,” he said, adding that, “While we want diplomatic channels to solve problems, we will not wait for very long.” This is a serious issue. Border talks by the Special Representatives are not capable of yielding tangible results because the five Sino-India border agreements have given Beijing enormous political, legal and military advantage with little incentive left to resolve the dispute. Yet, they have helped in upholding the pretence of normalcy allowing the two sides to continue with "development partnership," while chanting the mantra of peace. In the 1993 agreement, the traditional border was renamed as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) — a military line which can be pushed by either side since the border is neither agreed on maps nor on the ground. This allowed the Chinese to transgress the disputed border at will since 1998 when India cited China as the reason for its nuclear tests. Prime Minister Modi had sought to correct this foreign policy blunder by publicly asking President Xi Jinping during his September 2014 visit to mutually define the LAC, which was ignored. 

Similarly, the 1996 agreement has laid down the bare minimum troops and equipment that each side can bring to the LAC without mutual consent. Since China has excellent roads and airlift capability, this agreement has placed the Indian Army at a grave disadvantage. Likewise, in the 2003 joint declaration, India formally accepted the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as a part of China. By doing so, it diluted the Dalai Lama's definition of Tibetan autonomy within China (to include the three provinces of Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang along with TAR). China, in return, refused to endorse Sikkim as a part of India in the joint declaration. It merely changed a few of its maps to accommodate the Indian requirement; these, going by the Chinese diplomat's threat, can be changed again. Meanwhile, the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) has downgraded the Army's border-guarding role to border policing during peacetime. Since the BDCA prohibits "tailing or following" of the other sides' patrol which cross the LAC without being noticed, the Indian Army has been compelled to physically hold the 3,488-km border entailing huge manpower. This is not all. Unlike India which says it has 3,488-km border with China, Beijing has truncated it to a mere 2,000 km by excluding Ladakh. So, if China calls off the border talks, all confidence-building measures available to local commanders and senior diplomats in case of transgressions and intrusions too will become defunct. The consequences are all too evident. 

Let's look at Sikkim, which is militarily divided into north and east Sikkim. While much noise has been made about the Indian Army holding favourable defensive positions in north-east and east Sikkim, which faces the Chumbi Valley funnel, little has been said about north Sikkim, where India is extremely vulnerable because of geography and defunct infrastructure, especially roads. Given the difficult terrain in north Sikkim, it has limited Dropping Zones (DZs), and the single road that connects it to Gangtok has weak military bridges (class 12), and the track itself (class 30 road) is non-existent in parts because of innumerable water-falls, seasonal rivers, and a longish monsoon. Despite the Army's best efforts, the state government has not cleared the building of an alternate highway, citing environmental issues and economic viability as the reasons. Standing at the northern-most part of the Kerang plateau, one can see the flat expanse of the Tibetan plateau with excellent motorable roads on the other side. Chinese troops will have little difficulty in moving mobile forces, equipment and land-based firepower in north Sikkim. They can justify this as the quid pro quo  —if India can move troops into Donglang/ Doklam, why can't they do the same in north Sikkim? Hopefully, China will not use the military option in Sikkim. Unlike India, they are not focussed on a battle but the war — to address their "major problem", perhaps, of Tibet, by diplomacy, failing which by using military power to their advantage.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been unrestrained while talking about China which is economically, politically, technologically and militarily more powerful. He was the first senior political leader to caution China to desist from its "expansionist tendencies" in his election speeches in 2014. It was the first time, Sikyong (Prime Minister of the "Tibetan government-in-exile") Lobsang Sangay attended an Indian Prime Minister's swearing-in ceremony. The next year, Modi became the first Prime Minister to visit Arunachal Pradesh to mark statehood celebrations. It was the first time in seven visits to Arunachal Pradesh that the Dalai Lama was accompanied by a Union Minister. 

The Modi government ignored Chinese displeasure on each occasion. If the previous government opted for appeasement, this government has swung to the other extreme. To quote the Chinese diplomat once again: "You (India) are not a super-power which you regard yourself to be." 

The writer is the Editor FORCE newsmagazine.

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