Peace on the India-China border benefits all parties
News reports over the last month suggest a significant build-up of military power at the disputed India-China border. China’s official media, Global Times, has said that Beijing has deployed advanced aircraft at the border “to confront any threat from India.” Its military spokesperson has said this has become “urgent” because of India’s own significant upgrading of its air presence at the border. This includes deployment of Russian-origin Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft, which have been described by a commentator as India’s “premier fighter jet” that can strike land targets with advanced BrahMos cruise missiles.
The same commentator has noted that Chinese military upgradation has been even greater, with a new air strip, backed by new aprons and fresh supplies of equipment. Again, Indian sources have reported increased deployment of troops at various points of the 3,500-kilometer border, with enhanced surveillance to watch Chinese activities and long-range patrols of 15 to 30 days to ensure there are no intrusions across the ill-demarcated frontier dividing the two Asian giants.
The Indian junior minister of defense, Subhash Bhamre, has warned that the situation on the border is “sensitive,” since “patrolling, transgression and stand-offs have a potential of escalation.”
This heightened military activity on both sides is directly related to the 73-day confrontation between Chinese and Indian troops in June-August last year — the most serious face-to-face encounter between the two armies since the war of 1962.
On June 16, Chinese forces brought heavy construction equipment to extend a road southwards through the Doklam valley, an area claimed by both China and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. This activity was strongly opposed by Bhutan on the grounds that the construction was on its territory and was in violation of the agreements between the two countries to maintain the territorial status quo until final settlement was reached.
Bhutan called on India to safeguard its interests on the basis of treaty ties between them going back to 1949, which were refreshed with a “Friendship Treaty” in 2007, the terms of which state the two countries would “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.”
The Chinese not only laid claim to territory belonging to Bhutan, it also seriously jeopardized India’s interests, as the Chinese action brought the trijunction between China, Bhutan and India 89 kilometers south. This would place it just 130 kilometers from the Siliguri Corridor in India, the narrow strip of land between Bangladesh and Nepal that connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. A Chinese thrust into this corridor, also referred to as “Chicken’s Neck,” would effectively cut off from India a part of West Bengal, Bhutan and all the northeastern states — a total population of 50 million.
India and China must work together to ensure border tensions do not boil over.
India refused to back down from the confrontation, which at times saw some jostling and stone-throwing between the two sides, but no shots were fired. The stand-off ended on August 28 with the mutual withdrawal of troops and cessation of road construction by the Chinese.
The Doklam episode had some unique features. It was the first major stand-off between the two countries in the “middle sector” of their disputed border, with earlier confrontations having taken place in the western sector of Jammu and Kashmir or the eastern sector in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. This indicated that China would now assert its claims all across the border, even in areas where the principles of a settlement had previously been agreed upon.
Again, Chinese claims were accompanied by strident, even abusive comment from its official media, including threats to teach India a “bitter lesson” and force it to retreat. The Indian response was generally measured and non-confrontational.
This pre-planned confrontation was seen in India as an attempt to test the resilience of the India-Bhutan relationship and the extent of India’s commitment to Bhutan’s interests. On both counts, India emerged with flying colors, conveying clearly to China that neither India nor Bhutan would be intimidated by China’s show of force.
But there are greater implications of the Doklam experience that merit attention from India’s perspective. Clearly, China is now asserting its “historic” claims more aggressively, largely to project itself as the dominant power in Asia.
Also of immediate concern to India is the fact that China has tied itself economically and politically with Pakistan. Beijing is robustly backing Islamabad’s anti-India postures and consolidating this alliance in order to subject India to increased bilateral pressure and restrict its strategic space in the region, largely by showing no concern for India’s interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
The two countries have so far been able to ensure that their disputed border has not led to bloodshed since 1962. As China becomes more aggressive in asserting its big power status and more unilateral in asserting its claims, it has become imperative that the two Asian powers shape initiatives to manage their competitions and focus on their shared interests in a peaceful border, controlling extremism across the region and, above all, achieving national development.
• Talmiz Ahmad, a former Indian diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.