China views India as the only power that can challenge its unbridled march to supremacy in Asia. While Beijing was demanding a multi-polar world sometime ago, it is no longer willing to countenance a multi-polar Asia. It demands unchallenged dominance in the continent. China considers India’s rise to be against its interest and at its expense.
TRADITIONALLY SPEAKING, RELATIONS BETWEEN DIFFERENT countries do not change in sharp movements or in sudden spasms. Usually there is an incremental increase or progressive decline over an extended period of time. In addition, under normal circumstances discussions between concerned governments are held outside the glare of media flashlights and the public gaze. Deliberations are conducted in camera, behind closed doors, and results shared with the outside world in a gradual, phased manner.
That is how diplomacy normally operates. None of the above appears to hold true as far as the Doka La or Dokalam standoff between India and China is concerned. From day one, when the confrontation on the cold, deserted plateau on the India, Bhutan, China tri-junction came to light in late June 2017, China launched a blitzkrieg of insults and intemperate invectives against India for going against the 1890 Treaty between Britain and China demarcating the border between Sikkim and Tibet.
Map showing Chinese claims. Courtesy: Indian Defense Review, and yesheydorji.blogspot.in.
China had stated, quite incorrectly, that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had acknowledged the applicability of this Treaty to the boundary between Sikkim and China. Contrary to the claim that the letter was an overwhelming endorsement of the 1890 treaty, Nehru had conveyed categorically that the Treaty did not define the southern borders between Sikkim and Tibet which had yet to be demarcated. Nehru in his letter dated 26 September 1959 written in response to Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s missive of 8 September, had stated that “rectification of errors in Chinese maps regarding the boundary of Bhutan with Tibet is therefore a matter which has to be discussed along with the boundary of India with the Tibet region of China in the same sector.” China is claiming rather facetiously that India is going back on its earlier commitment. This is far from true. Over the last several decades, relations between India and China have been less than cordial. Even at the best of times there have been undercurrents of tension, if not hostility, between the two countries.
But what has been happening on the Doka La plateau is unprecedented. It is incomparable to anything that has happened earlier. Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar tried to suggest in his lecture in Singapore, organised jointly by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Indian High Commission in July 2017 that this standoff was like other earlier border incidents between the two countries and would be handled amicably by the two sides as had been done in the past.
This unfortunately does not reflect an accurate assessment of the situation. India's Foreign Office, and indeed Mr. Jaishankar, also know this. So it was no surprise that his statement met with a dismissive rejection by the Chinese foreign policy establishment as soon as it was made. Matters deteriorated to such an extent that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was forced to assert in the Rajya Sabha on 20 July that India was ready to meet any armed challenge from China. The problem between India and China had, of course, been brewing for a long time.
The root of the problem is that China is in a hurry to quickly assert its Middle Kingdom status that it feels it is entitled to, and which it lost because of the “century of national humiliation” and imposition of unequal treaties by foreign powers. As Chinese President Xi Jinping declared soon after assuming power, he would strive to “achieve the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” The Doka La standoff resulting in the diminishing of India was an important step in realisation of that Dream.
China's impatience to emerge as the pre-eminent power on the globe received an impetus after the 2007-2008 international financial and economic crisis which saw the Western economies declining rapidly. China was, however, able to continue to march forward relentlessly because of its huge foreign exchange reserves and the enormous economic stimulus it was able to provide to its economy. The comparative distance between the economy of China and that of the United States decreased significantly, while that between China and other dominant world economies increased notably to the advantage of China. The only other major country whose economy did not go downward as a result of the crisis was India because of the prudent macro-economic policies pursued by it, and also because it was comparatively less dependent on foreign trade.
China looks upon India as the only power that can challenge its unbridled march to supremacy in Asia. While China was demanding a multi-polar world sometime ago (this refrain seems to have decreased considerably in recent times) it is not willing to countenance a multi-polar Asia. It demands and expects unchallenged dominance in the continent.
It is for this reason that China has been trying to box India within South Asia so that the latter will not be able to play a role appropriate to its size in terms of territory, population, talent, human resources, and economy in the region or globally. China befriended Pakistan soon after the 1962 war between India and China in order to pose an obstacle to India’s growth and rise. Some analysts tend to suggest that China’s support of Pakistan is due to India’s increasing closeness with the United States. While expanding and warming relations between India and the United States, particularly over the last three years during the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, might have made China nervous, it is not the reason for China’s growing proximity with Pakistan. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that stronger India-U.S. ties have prompted China to take unhelpful anti-India stance by opposing India’s membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), obstructing designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations, etc.
China considers India’s rise to be against its interest and at its expense. It, therefore, tries to scuttle India’s progress at every opportunity. For China the significance of 21st century being the “Asian Century” is that it will exercise unchallenged and unquestioned dominance over Asia and the world.
The harsh and shrill tenor and vituperative rhetoric that emanated from China was caused by the fact that it did not expect India to move in quickly and take a strong, unrelenting stand to defend the rights and interest of a small country like Bhutan. China had mistakenly thought that it would be able to move in and swiftly construct the road on the Doka La plateau which would bring it strikingly close to the Siliguri corridor. This would put its forces in a commanding position to cut off all contact between India’s mainland and Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as its own and, increasingly, has started calling it South Tibet.
Two aspects are clear on the Doka La issue. One, from the word go, China portrayed India as the "aggressor" which has occupied territory which is inalienably Chinese. China had not even vaguely suggested that it was trying to usurp territory that belongs to Bhutan, that there has been a dispute between the two countries, and that both of them decided as per their Agreements of 1988 and 1998 to take the final decision through discussions and not through force. On the contrary, China is trying to change the situation on the ground by force. More than twenty rounds of talks have been held between Bhutan and China, but no solution is in sight.
China, over many years, has been nibbling away at Bhutanese territory without any effective opposition from Bhutan or from India. China must have been under the impression that this time also it would be able to build a road southwards on the Doka La plateau which would significantly expand its strategic advantage over India. China has also disregarded the Agreement of 2012 between itself and India which states that the tri-junction between Sikkim, Tibet, and Bhutan would be determined in consultation between the three countries.
Another factor that seems to have contributed to China’s blustering and self-righteous behaviour is the weak-kneed and inadequate response by the United States and ASEAN countries to its claims over most of 3.5 million square kilometres of the South China Sea, notwithstanding the comprehensive and sweeping verdict against its claims by the United Nations’ body.
China has put to use its standard approach of trying to threaten and bulldoze India by laying historical claim to the Doka La plateau, and of assuming the mantle of a victim when it is challenged on its stand. That is why it has unsuccessfully been trying to project India as the “aggressor” while it itself has been chipping away at Bhutan’s territory and constructing roads over the last many years.
During the Doka La standoff, China spouted venom against India not only through its Party publication, the Global Times, but also through its foreign office establishment. The Chinese foreign office employed intemperate, undiplomatic, and imperious language which grew increasingly menacing and sinister by the day. Chinese foreign office termed India’s action as betrayal and treachery. With every passing day, Beijing intensified its public diplomacy assault against India. It enhanced the vigour and ferocity of its attacks. Foreign Secretary Jaishankar also acknowledged that China had been “unusually aggressive,” while briefing members of India’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs. Mr. Jaishankar maintained in front of the parliamentary panel that India and China were engaged with each other diplomatically to resolve the issue through dialogue. China, on the other hand, stated categorically that no talks with India were possible till India withdrew its forces from the Doka La plateau.
Both the countries were at an impasse, the like of which had not been visible since the Sumdorong Chu incident in the North East Frontier Agency (currently Arunachal Pradesh) in 1987. During the standoff, the increasingly belligerent and hostile rhetoric emanating from Beijing demonstrated that it was not in a mood to agree to a diplomatically negotiated solution. It had painted itself into a corner and did not like to be seen losing face to India when it imagined itself to be the next unchallenged superpower of the world. India, on the other hand, had been extremely measured and restrained in its pronouncements.
The response of the Indian government through the official statement by the Ministry of External Affairs on 30 June 2017 stated that the construction of the road by China represents a change in status quo and entails serious implications for India’s security, was reasonable and responsible. India had tried to downplay the seriousness of the cascading confrontation. This is evident from India’s official public pronouncements, which, unlike those from China, had been discreet, sober, and mature while at that same time not sounding diffident or weak.
India made up for its reticence in words by being decisive in its actions through the visit of Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat to the Sikkim sector, and through bolstering its troop enforcements in a non-combative mode in that area. India had clearly sent out the message that it does not want a military confrontation, but if one is imposed upon it, it is prepared to defend itself with vigour and determination.
The government needs to do a deep rethink and engage in a hardnosed public messaging offensive firmly articulating its own position on the issue. If this is not done, the world and some sections of the domestic Indian “intelligentsia” might start believing that India does not have a counter-narrative to what China is saying. Either directly or indirectly, India needs to demolish the falsehoods being dished out by China and present the correct position. While India may continue to try and prod China to behave with “strategic maturity,” it should not lose the battle of public perception by adopting a mute and reticent approach.
India also needs to look at other avenues and leverages available to it. Even if it does not spell them out clearly, it should be ready to bring them into play immediately as the situation demands. Chinese media, think tanks, as well as its foreign office have been acting in an irresponsible and incendiary manner by challenging the accession of Sikkim to India, by suggesting that China could intervene militarily in Kashmir at Pakistan’s request, and by offering to negotiate between India and Pakistan.
Most importantly, India needs to be fully prepared and ready to respond to any adventurous or reckless incident or confrontation that China might decide to impose upon it. India can be certain that if a showdown between India and China were to take place, even if in a limited manner, Pakistan would jump in on China’s side to take full advantage of the situation. India would not be able to depend upon any of its partners, neither America, nor Japan, nor Russia to come to its aid in any material or substantive manner. India will have to depend solely on its own resources and assets both in terms of equipment, and even more importantly, on its soldiers and manpower. India can be certain that with its strong and inspiring leadership at the national level, a clash would be anything but a repeat of the performance in 1962.
The 21st century can emerge as the Asian Century only if there is peace, and there are supportive and mutually beneficial relations among the major powers of the region including China, India, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN and others. Tranquility and non-adversarial situation on borders and mutually advantageous ties between India and China are a sine qua non for obtaining commensurate gains and dividends from this opportunity that beckons us.
The Doka La crisis and China’s increasingly combative pronouncements have far-reaching implications for the future of India-China relations. It brought into sharp profile the thinking among China’s decision- and policy-making Party and government authorities about their perception of India. It will take considerable time, if at all, for the threats issued by the Chinese foreign office, think tanks, and official media to recede from public memory. India’s foreign and security establishments will have taken note of all the venom poured by the Chinese state-owned media. Events and developments have put the future of the “Asian Century” in serious doubt and jeopardy.
Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, a postgraduate in physics from Delhi University and a career diplomat, retired as Ambassador of India to Sweden and Latvia in the rank of Secretary to the Government of India in July 2012. He has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan and has held several significant positions in Indian Embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Teheran and Dhaka. Ambassador Sajjanhar negotiated for India in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations. As Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangkok, he was an active negotiator in the India-Thailand Free Trade Agreement (FTA) as well as India-Asean FTA discussions. The US-India Nuclear Deal was signed by PM Dr. Manmohan Singh and President Bush during Ambassador Sajjanhar’s term in Washington . Currently, he is Honorary President, Institute of Global Studies, New Delhi, and is on the governing boards of several other organisations.