India-China Sikkim standoff: China is stepping up aggression against India – both by sending a submarine to the Indian Ocean and getting its media to indulge in warmongering. Should India be worried? Is the threat of an actual war, as claimed by Chinese experts, real? No, say Indian defence and foreign policy analysts. China is creating a lot of noise – but that’s all it is – noise – say experts. India should remain firm on its stand, but at the same time be extra careful of Chinese incursions in other parts, they advocate.
For the uninitiated, India and China have been involved in an almost month-long stand-off in Doklam plateau of Bhutan. The ongoing tensions relate to the construction of a road by China in Bhutan’s Doklam region. Bhutan had reportedly protested China’s action, and sought India’s help. Indian Army then moved to the area of construction, stopping Chinese activity. Experts are of the view that with the construction of this road, China hopes to spy on and isolate the Siliguri corridor, also known as the Chicken’s Neck. China has been hardening its stance on the issue – even going to the extent of asking India to learn from the consequences of the 1962 war. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley on his part has retorted by warning that the India of today is different from that of 1962. Amidst this ongoing war of words, China has also sent a submarine to the Indian Ocean. Today, state-run Global Times has said that China should teach India “a bitter lesson” if the latter “incites” military conflict.
1962-war like situation?
No, says Sreeram Chaulia, the author of Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister. “The threat of an actual war is zero. Right now, all that China is doing is making noises, whether by sending a submarine or with the help of an aggressive media. They (China) may keep reminding us of 1962, but the fact is that the situation is now completely different. Both India and China are nuclear powers and the latter cannot therefore risk a full-fledged war,” says Chaulia. “Also, it’s not as if the Chinese economy is booming, so in that sense the case for a war is weakened further,” he adds.
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Phunchok Stobdan, former Ambassador and a foreign policy expert believes that China is escalating the issue for better bargaining power. “Trump, Modi and Xi Jinping will meet during the G20 summit. A solution to this would be back-channel talks. I don’t see any real threat of a war. India should increasingly look to strengthen its borders, especially make sure that there is no incursion from Siliguri,” Stobdan tells FE Online.
According to Chaulia, there is little doubt that China is irked by the outcome of Modi’s US visit and is also seething from the fact that a small country like Bhutan should oppose the dragon. “India should continue to support Bhutan and simultaneously send China the signal that the history of 1962 can be ‘rewritten’ in today’s world,” he feels.
Who will blink first, China or India?
China, says Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd). “China will back down, they always do. The Indian Army is in Doklam on the request of the Bhutanese government. We will stay there as long as the Bhutanese government wants and we shouldn’t back down. Bhutan and China have been trying to come to a settlement on that area for over 20 years now, and China has unilaterally changed its position,” says Kanwal, a Distinguished Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). “Their (China’s) attempts to build a road in the Bhutan area must be stopped because once they claim control over that area, it gives them a launching pad for offensive operations in the Siliguri belt. So, it is in India’s interest to support Bhutan and China won’t be able to do much, just like in the past. They will be forced to back down,” Kanwal tells FE Online.
Also read: What is India China Sikkim border standoff?
Chaulia cautions against the consequences of this for India’s NSG bid. However, Chaulia too feels that India should send a strong signal to China. “So far, there has only been jostling between the two armies, nothing more than that. The situation at the LoC is far more serious with Pakistan regularly indulging in ceasefire violation. In case of the China, the maximum that will happen is that more incursions will take place in Arunachal and Ladakh,” Chaulia tells FE Online. “So, India has to be ready for that. Yet another thing that India should be ready for, apart from deep incursions, is that China will further harden its stance on NSG and Masood Azhar. China may also try to lure Bhutan with promise of aid in order to make India look foolish, but I think they have less leverage with Bhutan, so that may not happen,” he adds.
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China is trying to bully India – something that India is not going to ignore – and a fact that would make China even more resentful. While backing off from Bhutan is not the solution for India, it should at the same time look to effectively increase defence preparedness and secure the over 4,000 km long LAC, feel experts.