After almost seven weeks into tension, the Indo-China rivalry on the Sikkim/Doklam region, in which both countries are accusing the other of violating their borders, has refused to die out, exposing the delicate nature of their bilateral relations despite the otherwise strong bilateral trade worth billions of dollars.
Whatis significant is that because of the way the crisis is playing itself out, the regional balance of power is undergoing significant transition, leaving both countries, particularly India, adjusting to the changing dynamics. Relations between the two have polarized as India has risen to seek to counter China’s growing hegemony.
The latest manifestation of China’s position came when the Chinese Foreign office released a “facts and position” paper, supported by a map and pictures of the Indian military’s position on the border and arguingthat “Indian border troops have illegally crossed the China-India boundary in the Sikkim Sector and entered the Chinese territory.
The incident occurred in an area where there is a clear and delimited boundary, making it fundamentally different from past frictions between the border troops of the two sides in areas with undelimited boundaries.”
The document goes on to argue that “The Indian border troops have flagrantly crossed the mutually-recognized boundary to intrude into the Chinese territory and violated China’s territorial sovereignty. This is indeed a real attempt to change the status quo of the boundary, and it has gravely undermined peace and tranquility of the China-India border area.”
While it is not difficult to discern that by releasing such a document at this stage of events when a number of Indian troops have been withdrawn, China is trying to build international opinion in favor of its position by simply projecting India as an “intruder”—hence the “fact and position” paper.
It is also evident from the way China has projected India as a “third party”, having nothing to do with China’s border dispute with Bhutan. The document states, “The China-Bhutan boundary issue is one between China and Bhutan. It has nothing to do with India. As a third party, India has no right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan, still less the right to make territorial claims on Bhutan’s behalf. India’s intrusion into the Chinese territory under the pretext of Bhutan has not only violated China’s territorial sovereignty but also challenged Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence.” India thus also qualifies as an ‘aggressor’ in Chinese projections.
What has particularly enabled China to make such emphatic projections is, as the document itself notes, the progressive thinning of Indian troops on the border plus, and what is even more important, a reasonable improvement in China-Bhutan bilateral relations.
Taken from the Chinese Document
The document states that both China and Bhutan “have conducted joint surveys in their border area and have basic consensus on the actual state of the border area and the alignment of their boundary.”
What is even more revealing about the growing relationship between the two countries is, however, not written in the document. Although Bhutan does not have diplomatic ties with China, Bhutan’s ambassador to New Delhi did attend an event at the Chinese embassy in New Delhi on Aug. 1 to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
While Bhutan has maintained a critical “silence” during the Indo-China stand-off, its participation in a Chinese event has certainly senta strong message about its willingness to re-define its relations with its neighbor.
While reports in India media did try to playdown the significance of this participation by linking it to the presence of India’s own officials at the event and those of other countries as well, the fact remains that China does have strong diplomatic ties with all of the countries except Bhutan. As such, despite having no official relations, the “facts and position” paper does confidently call Bhutan and China as two “friendly neighbors”, with their ‘friendship’ based upon respect for each other’s sovereignty and independence—something that then paves the way for “enjoying peace and tranquility.”
Should India, therefore, be worried about Bhutan’s possible tilt to China? Is the stand-off a prelude to a regional are-alignment, with Bhutan gearing up to become the latest entrant to China’s billion-dollar projects?
While we are yet to witness anything of this nature happening on the scene, the off-the-scene nature of China-Bhutan relations has certainly left India, as one commentator put it, “guessing about the state of play of China-Bhutan dialogue. And that could be the single most far-reaching outcome of the standoff at Sikkim.”
Despite the strident rhetoric employed by China over India troop movements in Sikkim, the tension is highly unlikely to lead to large scale hostilities, let alone a limited war. The dynamics are certainly changing. Nepal, an erstwhile Indian ally, has already started off on its own ‘journey to China’ and it is Nepal again that China has started to engage to build regional pressure on India.
By demanding complete Indian withdrawal, China seems to be playing the long \game here as it is only through this prolonged standoff that China could accelerate the process of developing back-channel, off-the-scène relations with Bhutan and thus offset India’s position, which is critically dependent on the kingdom in the territory.
Chinese official media, in this context, are not leaving any stone unturned. In its Friday’s rather provocative editorial, Modi mustn’t pull India into reckless conflict, the rabidly nationalist Global Times “warned” India against starting a war that it might not have the “power to control.”
A prolonged standoff would thus allow Bhutan to strengthen the voices of developing a more balanced foreign policy. Certainly, it will cause tensions to rise, and they might not settle down until the up-coming BRICS summit that both Xi and Modi are expected to attend on September 3-4. Conversely speaking, the tension could very well rise further if Xi and Modi fail to reach some sort of ‘understanding’ on the issue.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel