What will be the outcome of the current stand-off between India and China in Sikkim? 

Latest incident of Doklam should not be seen as a separate event. Rather it should be seen as a part of chain of events starting since the British interference in the region comprised of Xinjiang and Tibet which make around 1/3rd of the total area that comes under today’s China.

This region(Xinjiang + Tibet) is mostly barren and characterised by very low population density. But this region has a great geopolitical importance as it maintained buffer region between Chinese and Indian states.

Except Mongol invasion in 13th century(entered India via Khyber, North West Frontier), there was absolutely no major military campaigns conducted by either side into other’s territory. Though, there used to be a frequent exchange of traders, scholars and noble dignitaries between the two.

British considered the region important in order to secure the borders of British India. Therefore, it conducted several campaigns into the region and successfully entered into the treaties by which it secured the Eastern front which was maintained till 1950.

Once independent, China expanded in the western direction and captured Xinjiang and Tibet. China could not touch Mongolia as it is a buffer state with Russia. But, it captured Tibet which is a buffer state with India.

It is not wise to consider Indian armed forces of 1950s as weaker. Indian military participated in both World Wars and it had an immense experience of fighting in unfavourable terrains(Egyptian deserts, Burmese dense forests, European cool and marshy regions, etc). Indian forces also fought Pakistan in 1948 in Kashmir’s mountainous terrain.wp-1488864508406.jpg

China took initiative before India could and former captured Tibet. Ideally, India should have entered into a treaty with Tibet just like India has with Bhutan. China was engaged in Korean war(1950–53) and that was the ideal time for India to deliver. There was no ideological match between Buddhist Tibet and Godless Communist China. Also, Western countries including UK and USA would have supported India against Communist China. Instead of promoting Indian interests, our political leadership(liberal and left-leaning) was promoting South-South cooperation.

In 1962, China formally captured Aksaichin but withdrawn from Arunachal Pradesh which means China was more interested in the strategic importance of Aksaichin. China took advantage of Cuban missile crisis which ensured that none of the then super powers(USA and USSR) had a band width to involve in the conflict. For the first time, Indian and Chinese militaries engaged in bloody battle which ended with a defeat for India which was more political than military. As a result, Chinese military standing on the Indian border.wp-1488864491040.jpg

There are frequent references to 1962 in Chinese media, and a lot of chest thumping. Obviously, China is a much stronger country than it was in 1962. There is no comparison of today’s China with a China 55 years ago. China is indisputably a giant.

The same is true for India, and China would be well behooved to remember it.

Moreover, India has befriended the US, while China has filled the US with suspicion and anxiety over its policy of proxy distractions using North Korea, and silly island building exercises. The second largest holder of nuclear weapons, and the defacto #2 Superpower, Russia, may be a little unhappy with India due to the latter’s US bonhomie, but obviously supports India over its suspicion ridden relationship with China. Then there is Israel , Japan , South Korea , Vietnam , Taiwan and Even Iran. No love lost for China in any of these countries, yet they are staunch Indian allies. 

Although, China tested nuclear device in 1964 and it was useless with India as it cannot be used against India for two reasons,

  1. USSR possessed much more advanced nuclear arsenal, and
  2. nuclear bomb cannot be used(theoretically) for settling border disputes.

After 1965 Indo-Pak war, China tried to test Indian preparedness in 1967 in Sikkim sector. This time, Indian forces were prepared and as a result Chinese got the lesson about Indian strength.

Within 9 years(between 1962 and 1971), India fought 3 major wars and multiple minor skirmishes with China and Pakistan and eventually crushed Pakistan(in 1971) revealed the strength of Indian war machine which was ignored and underestimated earlier.wp-1488864480065.jpg

For the next 20 years, China did not try anything because,

  1. engagement in Vietnamese war,
  2. internal political disturbances, and
  3. tension with USSR(pro-Indian)

It is a common misconception that the tensions ferment at the border and then it reaches the capitals. That never is the case.

The primary duty of a government is to give a decent life to its citizens. And that requires money. Money, which is raised through industries and services. India and China are two of the biggest economies in the world today, and by 2050, China would become the biggest economy with India coming at the second number.

I have live in India but in contact with friends from Europe and North America and the Made in China has completely overwhelmed these nations. There are hardly anything that you buy, that is not Made in China. In contrast to that, laptop they bought from India, their mobiles which thry bought from India, their cloths and other accessories are still Made In India. China sees India as a huge untapped market and wants to flood its good with it, however the Indian government has not budged till now and there are still a lot of trade restriction, despite the trade balance tilted in favour of China by an amount of $50B.

Also to sustain the current economic growth, many growth engines are required which keep driving Chinese and Indian economies. China has come up with Belt And Road Initiative for this, in which dozens of nations participated.

By Lommes – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

However two nations, India and Bhutan stayed out. This was a direct challenge to Chinese plans of monopolizing itself in the world economy. Having two nations who do not budge to the demands of China and do not become its subjects is both an economic as well as political risk to it.

The first step to take care of this would be to part away these two nations, that is, push Bhutan out from the Indian influence. China has done it successfully in Nepal and now it has started to make moves with Bhutan.

China had stopped building roads in such sectors after an agreement in 2012 and hence it very well knew that tensions will arise when it again starts building a road in Dokalam. This is what he expected to happen

  1. China will make a road
  2. Bhutan will register a complaint with India.
  3. India will register a diplomatic complaint with China.
  4. China will ignore the complaint the build the road anyway.
  5. Bhutan will feel cheated that India didn’t help it.
  6. China will offer a good deal to Bhutan.
  7. Bhutan will start siding with China.

Indians understood this plan and instead of following a step (3), it sent its soldiers to Bhutan (which it can, given Bhutan is a protectorate), and pushed back the Chinese and stopped the road construction.wp-1488864485426.jpg

This step crashed the Chinese plans and infuriated them. At the back foot, China has started to speak in harsh, provocative tone and as well as flex its muscles with repeated military exercises. Till now it has done an Air Force exercise, an Army exercise and a Paratroopers exercise.

Chinese always look for opportunity to test their dogma of needling of their enemy in a step by step manner. India became nuclear in 1974 and captured Siachin in 1984 which revealed the Indian capability of fighting the war in the mountainous terrain to China. While tension with Pakistan was increasing in later 1980s, Chinese military entered Arunachal in 1987. Indian political and military leadership showed strong will and as a result Chinese withdrew again.

From 90s to 2015, Chinese followed the strategy of capturing the territory inch by inch. Frequent incursions in Ladhakh sector and lack of infrastructure at Indian side of the frontier showed the lack of will from Indian side to show aggressive stance towards protecting its own territory.

In my opinion, China is testing number of hypothesis with Doklam incident which are

  1. Indian resolve to protect its ally Bhutan,
  2. Capability of Indian forces to handle tension with both adversaries – Pakistan and China – together and simultaneously.

In my opinion, following are the Chinese objectives ,

  1. Diversion of Chinese people from South China Sea where China is facing US, Japan and allies. China has already harasses smaller countries like Vietnam, Philippines, etc and now its navy has come into the contact with US navy. There is no match between Chinese and US navy. No government in the world wants its people to know about its vulnerabilities. Therefore, open another front where there is a higher probability of domination, i.e. Indian border.
  2. If India can defend its ally Bhutan, China also got a ticket to help Pakistan. China thinks that they can defend their logic to enter Pakistan mainland militarily in case, India enters. However, China does not want to highlight this situation as it may give a ticket to India to have full fledge cooperation with Vietnam. Also, India may station its military presence in Taiwan which will be a major blow for China.
  3. If China can subjugate India, it will spread a message for other countries in the region. Again, same applies for India which is, India can become a greater ally of South-East Asian countries if it withstands and thwarts the Chinese pressure.
  4. Diversion of Chinese people from economic situation at macro level in the country. Raising nationalistic jingoism can divert the focus of Chinese people and unite them under Chinese nationalism.
  5. Engaging India at its Eastern border at the time when India has conducted surgical strike against Pakistan. It signals Pakistan that China may help former against Indian aggression.

The tensions in India-Chinese borders started to grow since 2009 and since then, India has been preparing its Eastern front. Today there are 200K soldiers deployed, including a newly raised mountain strike corps, forward air fields are activated, supersonic high precision missiles are deployed and light weight long range guns (howitzers) deployed. This is the prime reason you don’t see a verbal response anymore from the Indian establishment because it knows that a Chinese military attack can be repelled without much of a fuss.

Chinese side on the other hand has recently internationalized this issue after telling diplomats of the other countries of the mischief of India. These diplomats have expressed their concerns to India and till now India is unmoved.wp-1488864806610.jpg

The Way Forward:

India can either back off and push Bhutan to Chinese mercy, or take a stand irrespective of a few skirmishes and save its economy from being rolled over by the Chinese. If Bhutan goes to the Chinese influence, the impact on Indian economy will be huge and it will also be a huge risk for India’s security as then China will have even better access to the 7 North Eastern states of India and with time even they can fall.

China has a lot of stake right now and if it lets go this time, it might have to make many expensive arrangements to come up with new plans. Also, the other nations which are having border disputes with China will have India as their role model which Chiina just cannot allow.

There are three possible outcomes:

  1. Both armies pull back, road cancelled: The status quo will return but it will be a Chinese defeat. Hence China will not back off without good economic compensation. Very less likely.
  2. Localized Skirmish: China will try to use force to push back India and a small skirmish, of the 1967 kind will take place and whoever makes most gains in the initial 5–10 days will win. Likely
  3. Full Scale War: This is less likely as well, but it cannot be discounted. In such a scenario, China will release the pressure in Uttarakhand (most probably) or Ladakh/Arunachal Pradesh. In sync with that, Pakistan will escalate the tensions in LoC and might even open a front in Kashmir as well. India will have to deal with wars at two fronts and if it is able to resist for even 5 days, it will win.

The Indian government doesn’t have to use public talk to solve this issue and it is dealing pretty well till now. The Chinese government also knows the challenges it will face in its western front in case it tries military approach.

In my opinion, Chinese leadership is getting nervous due to multiple reason which are,

  1. Tension at multiple fronts – South China Sea(with US), Senkaku Island(with Japan) and Tibet(with India).
  2. Alliance of regional powers with United States.
  3. Internal tension due to retardation in economic growth rate.
  4. Militancy in Uighur and Tibet region.

In my opinion, China is not going to put its foot back for the long time to come. Therefore, Indian leadership should be ready to face this situation. It should be remembered that China does not doubt Indian military capability. It is testing the strength of Indian political leadership. In the coming days, India should be ready to thwart such activities in Ladhakh and Arunachal sector . 

Thank you for reading 

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