India’s Himalayan folly

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Situationer

M. Ziauddin

India’s fatal wish to fight a ‘two-and-a-half front’ war seems to be coming true as it is getting itself sucked into one. Right when the Indian troops are busy provoking Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) and killing Kashmiri freedom fighters at will inside the Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) its troops have crossed into China’s Donglang region and, according to Chinese officials obstructed work on a road on the plateau. The two sides’ troops then confronted each other close to a valley controlled by China that separates India from its close ally, Bhutan, and gives China access to the so-called Chicken’s Neck, a thin strip of land connecting India and its remote north-eastern regions.
India has said it warned China that construction of the road near their common border would have serious security implications.
Accusing China of ‘instigating’ the military stand-off in the Himalayas Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley had bragged late June this year that India today was very different from what it was in 1962.
Next, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat in the same context had boasted that India could take on a “two-and-a-half front war”, referring to the possibility of hostilities breaking out all at the same time between its defence forces and that of China on the one hand, Pakistan on the other and meeting an uprising the in IOK.
China has demanded India to immediately remove troops from the border amid an increasingly tense stand-off in the remote frontier region beside the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
India’s diplomatic efforts to end the seven-week military standoff with China have hit a roadblock as China has insisted that India unilaterally withdraw its troops from the remote Doklam plateau claimed by both Beijing and Indian ally Bhutan.
The stand-off ratchets up tension between the neighbours, who share a 2,175 mile (3,500km) frontier, large parts of which are disputed.
“It has already been more than a month since the incident and India is still not only illegally remaining on Chinese territory, it is also repairing roads in the rear, stocking up supplies, massing a large number of armed personnel,” said a foreign ministry statement from Beijing.
Indian officials claim about 300 soldiers from either side are facing each other about 150 meters (yards) apart on the plateau. They further claim that both sides’ diplomats have quietly engaged to try to keep the stand-off from escalating, and that India’s ambassador to Beijing is leading the effort to find a way for both sides to back down without loss of face.
Chinese state media have warned India of a fate worse than the defeat it suffered in a brief border war in 1962. China’s military has held live fire drills close to the disputed area. On August 4, 2017 the official China Daily said in an editorial that China was not in the mood for a fight, noting how the stand-off had been “unusually restrained”.
“However, if good manners do not work, in the end it may be necessary to rethink our approach. Sometimes a head-on blow may work better than a thousand pleas in waking up a dreamer,” the English-language paper added. The standoff, on a plateau that lies at the junction between China, India, and Bhutan, is one of the worst border disputes between the nuclear-armed rivals in more than 30 years.
In a statement to parliament on August 3, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj urged dialogue based on a written common understanding regarding the border intersection reached in 2012.
“India always believes that peace and tranquility in the India-China border is an important pre-requisite for smooth development of our bilateral relations,” Swaraj said, according to a transcript of her remarks released by her office.
“We will continue to engage with the Chinese side through diplomatic channels to find a mutually acceptable solution.”
However, it seems China is not interested in talks before the withdrawal of Indian troops from territory Beijing claims to be its own backing which it has produced historical documentary proof. China seems to have decided not to shoot but to stare India down into walking back across the Line of Actual Control. As soon as the confrontation began in mid-June accusing China of ‘instigating’ the recent military stand-off in the high Himalayas Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley had bragged that India today was very different from what it was in 1962.
Next, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat in the same context boasted that India could take on a “two-and-a-half front war”, possibly referring to China, Pakistan and Kashmiri freedom struggle.
In October 1962 the world’s largest boundary dispute involving more than 120,000 square miles of territory led to a war in high Himalayas. Within no time Chinese troops cleared all Indian posts on what was their side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
On November 20, 1962 China declared a unilateral cease-fire and withdrawal to 20 kilometers behind what China described as LAC. During the course of the conflict two Indian divisions were completely routed.
This Sino-Indian border had remained hot until 1993 when India in order to focus more on its economy and on Pakistan conceded the Chinese designated LAC signing an agreement under which about 16 or so alignments on the boundary-line were to be settled through negotiations. In effect, the two countries promised not to seek to impose or enforce their versions of the boundary except at the negotiating table.
So, China and the world at large were taken aback when just a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in June this year, the Indian troops violating the 1993 border agreement tried to forcibly stop the construction of a road within the Chinese territory, thus seemingly provoking Beijing to retaliate militarily.
India today, indeed, is not what it was in 1962. But China too is not what it was then. So, militarily India even today is not in a position to force China to agree to New Delhi’s version of LAC.
Moreover, India needs China’s vote to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Groups (NSG) as well as to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Bilaterally, China is now India’s largest trading partner in goods. India is also a member of Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) and sits with China in an alliance called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). It is also the second largest contributor to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and is a member of New Development Bank (NDB) floated by BRICS.
But perhaps India continues to suffer from its self-perceived threat of a non-existent Chinese encirclement strategy. India perhaps sees an endorsement of its encirclement concerns in China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative as well as in the Chinese built Pakistani port of Gwadar, overlooking the Indian Ocean which is an essential part of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. That is perhaps why it is opposed to the CPEC and the main reason why it boycotted the OBOR inaugural in mid-May in Beijing.
So, perhaps before leaving for the US ,PM Modi had wanted to send a message to President Trump reassuring him of India’s willingness to take on China as Washington’s proxy in return for the hardware and other material and moral support required to pin China down in a wasteful combat so that it does not challenge the US global hegemony and at the same time US also helps save India from Chinese encirclement threat. Therefore, the deliberate provocation on the Himalayas.
Modi’s immediate dash to Israel following his return from the US even at the cost of losing Iran (no more in the good books of US administration) also seems like a desperate attempt by India to win over the US across the political spectrum—both the ruling Republicans and the out of power Democrats—to ensure guaranteed help in encircling China to neutralize its OBOR initiative and snuff out the CPEC project. Iran has reacted promptly by talking about human rights’ violations in Indian Occupied Kashmir for the first time in many years. The fate of Indian funded Iranian Chahabhar sea port also appears in jeopardy. The fact of the matter is both China and India are too big to be encircled, no matter how you go about trying to do it.
China has very rightly accused India of using Bhutan as a “cover- up” for the “illegal entry” into Doklam area that belongs to China.
The serious nature of the current crisis, if not carefully handled by India, could lead to a major confrontation in the Himalayas.
The tri-junction in the Sikkim sector is also of strategic significance for New Delhi. The area is not far from the narrow strip of land called the “chicken neck” which connects the Northeast to the rest of India. This narrow strip is the lifeline for the region and the Indian Army in the Northeast gets its suppliers through this region. In case of a border war, China can quickly cut off the main supply route to the Northeast and ensure that Indian Army’s supplies are stopped. So this does impinge greatly on New Delhi’s own security considerations.
Analyzing the comparative hard and soft power strengths of the two the Chinese national media has concluded that India cannot afford a showdown with China on border issues, citing data such as India’s economic output, which is one-quarter of China’s, and its annual defence budget, which is just one-third of China’s.