When Lobsang Sangay, the head of the self-styled Tibetan government in exile, hoisted the Tibetan national flag on the shores of Pangong lake in Ladakh (a mountainous, semi-autonomous region in northern India, borders the Chinese autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet), he hammered the last nail into the coffin of the most important budding alliance of the post –cold war period. This was BRICS, the association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. He did so by bringing the two largest members of BRICS, both in terms of population and GDP, to the brink of war.
The 134 km long Pangong lake is a particularly sensitive spot in China –India relations. Half of it lies in Aksai Chin (Both India and China claim the Aksai Chin area in their entirety), and the other half in Ladakh. Inspite of a 1993 agreement for peace and tranquillity that was inked by China and India, the Line of Actual Control in this area remains undemarcated. Patrol boats have therefore often faced each other on its waters. But the 1993 agreement has always held, because of the growing cooperation between China and India on global strategic and economic issues, especially after the formation of BRICS in 2008.
Till only three years ago, Sangay’s action would have drawn a routine protest from Beijing and been quietly forgotten. But it has acquired a dangerous political significance today because China and India are locked in a military face-off from which neither country is prepared to back off. This confrontation is taking place on an 89 km chunk of disputed territory, a plateau known as Doklam in India and Donglang in China, across which Chinese construction workers began to build a road on June 6.
Over the decades since the 1993 agreement, there have been hundreds of similar face-offs between Chinese and Indian troops, none of which has led to a single bullet being fired. But two things make this face-off different. First, it is taking place after three years of rapid deterioration in relations between the two countries. And second, it is not occurring on the Sino-Indian border, but on the border between China and Bhutan, a tiny and remote kingdom in the Himalayas.
India has close relations with Bhutan, but Bhutan is a sovereign country, which has the right to decide how it will deal with its disputes with other countries. India’s intervention has, in effect taken this right away from Bhutan. A studied silence on this issue from Thimpu suggests that India’s hasty defence of Bhutan is not entirely welcome there. Bhutanese newspapers have reported the stand-off almost entirely in factual terms, without comment. Kuensel, the state-owned newspaper, pointed out that Doklam/Donglang is only one of four territorial disputes China had with Bhutan. Would it be too far fetched to assume that it is hinting to New Delhi that, since it cannot step in to resolve all of them it would do better to leave these to Bhutan?
If so, the reason would not be far to seek. Locked between two giant neighbours Bhutan’s only way of safeguarding its sovereignty is to maintain good relations with both. By sending troops to his aid without any formal request from the King, Mr. Modi has put Bhutan in a position where it will have to offend one or the other. India could easily emerge the loser.
The reason Delhi has given to explain India’s precipitate action is that the Chinese are building a road along the eastern side of the Chumbi valley in disputed Bhutanese territory, that will give them a series of ridges from where they will be able to cut ‘The Chicken’s Neck’, a thin strip of land that joins the Indian north-east to the rest of the country.
Defence analysts drool over this kind of scenario building, but there could be other, more innocent, explanations. Yadong, in the Chumbi valley, is slated to become the terminus of a railway line from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. With the sharp deterioration in Sino-Indian relations Beijing might now be feeling the need to widen its area of control around the Chumbi valley to protect the massive investments it is making there. That does not justify the Chinese action, but it also does not justify a unilateral intervention by India.
The turnaround in Sino-Indian relations has been so swift, that it’s left most people in China and India confused. What is beyond doubt is that it was initiated by Mr Modi. The first indication was Modi’s sudden, and well- publicised, replacement in January 2015 of Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh by then Indian Ambassador to the USA, S. Jaishankar a day after his first meeting with former US President Barack Obama in Washington, and one day before Jaishankar was due to retire from the Indian Foreign service.
While Modi has never revealed his reasons, two years later, the Indian daily Hindustan Times summed them up, when Foreign Secretary Jaishankar got an unprecedented third extension of service, “ a Prime Minister has found a foreign secretary in tune with his vision and worldview, and his risk-taking appetite… for too long, India has been held back in its engagement with US in particular because of ideological categories which are no longer relevant….”.
Since then Mr Modi has lost no time in turning China from a friend to a foe. Whatever passed between him and Obama at their first meeting, brought Obama post haste to India to be Modi’s chief guest at its Republic day celebrations on January 26 2015. Obama’s purpose surfaced a day earlier when the two leaders signed the ‘U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’.
Encased in the fluff of mutual praise was the one paragraph that mattered: “Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” As Indian commentator, Srinath Raghavan, pointed out in The Wire, China has by far the strongest interest in preserving the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. What India signed on to, therefore was the preservation of freedom of navigation for military vessels and aircraft in the South China sea.
In the next twelve months India signed three military agreements with the USA, that gave its armed forces virtually unrestricted use of Indian base and supply facilities. This was followed by visits to Itanagar the capital of Arunachal Pradesh (China claims Arunachal Pradesh as its own, and refers to it as “southern Tibet”) , by the US consul General in Calcutta, and to a monastery at disputed Tawang by US Ambassador Richard Verma in February and October 2016. China protested to Delhi about both visits but chose to accuse the Americans of playing divide and rule politics in Asia.
But in May 2016 India went one long step further, and sent four warships to join a US-Japan task force and cruise through the South China Sea calling on ‘friendly’ ports for three months. Since then China and India have been on a collision course.
The first collision occurred when Modi disregarded insistent Chinese requests not to allow the Dalai Lama (the Tibetan spiritual leader, whom Beijing considers a separatist) to visit Tawang in April this year. When Delhi contemptuously ignored these, Beijing issued its first warning against putting Sino-Indian relations back on the path to conflict. On March 3, its foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, issued a formal warning to New Delhi: “China is gravely concerned over information that India has granted permission to the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh. …An invitation to him to visit the mentioned territory, would cause “serious damage to peace and stability of the border region and China–India relations. We have ….urged India to stick to its political commitments and abide by the important consensus the two sides have reached on the boundary question…. (and) not provide a platform to the Dalai clique and protect that sound and stable development of Sino-India relations”.
Beijing had issued a similar warning to Delhi on the eve of the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Tawang to open a hospital in 2009. But the two prime ministers then, Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh, had resolved the conflict by firmly preventing the media from turning it into an international circus.
Since then the pinpricks have multiplied , with China firmly rejecting Indian efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (the elite club of nations that control nuclear trade), and refusing to designate the head of one of Pakistan’s most violent militant groups Masood Azhar and Hafez Sayeed, as international terrorists, and India hosting conferences on Tibet, and inviting prominent Tibetan and Uighur (China’s ethnic minority Muslims) dissidents to them.
Beijing held off from any overtly hostile action till the Belt and Road conference because it was extremely keen to have India’s participation. This is because it needs outlets for profitable investment, and India’s GDP is larger than the combined GDP of Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Malaysia, the seven countries where the bulk of Belt and Road investment is allocated. Chinese commentators were therefore using the columns of the Global Times to urge India to participate in the ambitious Chinese project till as late as May 7, just one week before the conference began in Beijing.
But Mr Modi decided to keep India sulking in its tent. For Beijing, with economic cooperation virtually ruled out, only political confrontation remained. Three weeks later it unilaterally activated its claim not only to the Doklam/Donglang plateau but to two adjoining extensions, one of which it had never claimed before, and its road construction teams moved onto the plateau.
Today Mr Modi is faced with having to do something he has never done before. This is to admit, however tacitly, that he has made a mistake, pull Indian troops back from the Dokalam plateau, and step back. If he does not, then China has made it absolutely clear that it will go to war to evict the Indians from Doklam/Donglang. What is worse the war will be fought on Bhutanese territory over the objections of its leaders and people.
Hordes of Indian “analysts” who have been asked whether the present confrontation could lead to war have hastened to say ‘no’. That is precisely the wishful thinking that preceded the 1962 China-India war. The truth is that having manoeuvred India into just the impossible position, Beijing would be stupid not to take advantage of it to administer another crushing defeat upon its only rival in Asia.
Short of giving a formal ultimatum China has left no avenue unused to convey this warning. In an editorial on July 4, The Global Times issued the following warning: “We hope India can face up to the hazards of its unruly actions to the country’s fundamental interests and withdraw its troops without delay. We need to give diplomatic and military authorities full power to handle the issue. We call on Chinese society to maintain high-level unity on the issue… This time, we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.”
On the same day China’s Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, expressly did not rule out war when questioned persistently by a correspondent, and warned New Delhi:” “The first priority is that the Indian troops unconditionally pull back to the Indian side of the boundary. “That is the precondition for any meaningful dialogue between China and India.”
A day later, in a moderately worded, but steel-hard editorial Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stated that if India did not want a further escalation of the situation in Doklam, it must withdraw its troops to the Indian side of the border.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher’s editorial policy.