India China Imbroglio: Defensive offence or active defence

Thinking Beyond

Anoop Swarup

Let us have a relook at the India China standoff at Doklam where India has a stated position that it is an attempt by China to alter the status quo at the tri-junction with Bhutan. Yes for over three weeks, soldiers of the Indian army and the People’s Liberation Army face each other at a clearing at a height of over 10,000 feet in eastern Himalayas. If we look at the protest lodged by Bhutan with China it was the road building by China near the Bhutan camp in Zompelri on 16 June that led to the faceoff between the troops of the two Asian giants. Information in public domain reveals a pattern in Chinese troop incursions on Line of Actual Control that have gone up from 228 to 450 now with major ones being at Depsang, Burtse, Chumar and Pangong Lake in keeping with China’s increased assertiveness. Though the situation at the stand-off remains calm the official reaction remains terse with references to the 1962 war that we are all aware of. From an Indian perspective “the incident is serious because this is an attempt by China to change the status quo that we are committed to maintain under the 1993 BPTA”.

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The ‘Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement’, signed during the 1993 visit by the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao in Beijing, hailed also as the first Sino-Indian border agreement aimed at peace along the mountainous, disputed boundary is now at the centre-stage of India’s contention. In contrast, the Chinese claim that the Sikkim border was settled more than a century ago by the 1890 treaty with Great Britain pertaining to Sikkim and Tibet that was further endorsed by India post-Independence. Incidentally on 22 March, 1959 it was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, that parts of the Sino-Indian boundary were settled by the treaty. The opening Article 1 states, “The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluent from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet”. It further states that: “The line commences at Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory”. India’s stand is that as per the watershed principle in the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention, “the tri-junction is at Batang-la’ whereas the Chinese insist that the tri-junction is at Mount Gipmochi, further South.

An understanding of the domestic motivations for China to escalate the issue this time, perhaps is imperative. Let us not forget that China does have a reputation to weigh the consequences of a standoff for a compromise-be it the US in Korea (1950), with Taiwan (1995, 1958 and 1995), with India (1962), with Soviets (1969), with Vietnam (1974, 1979 and 1988 over Paracels and Spratley) and with Philippines (2102 over Scarborough Reef). Now in China it is the civil society discourse on propensity to give away its territory too easily that questions the leadership determination to protect their sovereign territories. The shift in strategy from a low profile to striving for achievement by Xi Jinping also keeps pace with Chinese capabilities and its post-Cold War mantra of no compromise as was evident in Depsang with the Chinese withdrawing their troops in exchange for India dismantling its bunkers in Chumar. Taking cue from the Chinese Ambassador’s assertion that the ball is in India’s Court, there is no wonder Xi Jinping will be projecting his power and control in the run-up to the 19th People’s Congress.

Interestingly at Depsang in 2013 and Chumar and Demchok in 2014, India could sort out the impasse for a solution in some three-four weeks, but as of now it has real and genuine grievances with China that shows little understanding: the case in point is the Chinese handling of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor issue and the Masood Azhar UN listing. Let India be prepared of the fact of two-and-a-half fronts as the Indian army chief spoke, perhaps more so as China prepares for the ‘Indian front’ reinforcements, i.e. new tanks North of the Chumbi Valley. The local balance of capabilities does favour India at Doklam presently but the question would always remain whether India’s defensive offense or China’s active defense would hold the sway in the days to come when the two National Security Advisors meet. In the long term however and surely enough in this game of strategic and tactical maneuvering perhaps the old age adage will hold that offence is the best defence.


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Anoop Swarup

The Author: Prof (Dr) Anoop Swarup, Vice Chancellor, Chair, Governing Council, Center for Global Nonkilling,

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