India-China face-off: Ties gone sour

India-China face-off: Ties gone sour

India-China face-off: Ties gone sour
India and China are in the middle of a major face-off since the last major flare up in 2013 in Depsang Plains in Aksai Chin in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir. This time it is on the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction.

China claims Indian troops have crossed into their territory across Doka La. The Bhutanese region is in dispute between Bhutan and China but very close to India’s strategically important Siliguri corridor. Bhutan requested Indian troops to help stop Chinese road construction in the area to which New Delhi responded.

The technicality of the disputes between India and China and between China and Bhutan aside, there are several reasons for China’s latest escalation:

1) China wants to create a situation where Bhutan feels compelled to break free from India’s influence on its foreign policy and establish relations with China. Bhutan doesn't have diplomatic relations with China. Under the Indo-Bhutan treaty, Bhutan is guided by India in its foreign policy so that it is not detrimental to India's security interests.

China has been making inroads into India's neighbours. It has infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldi­ves with security implications. It has the CPEC project in Pakistan which goes th­rough Indian territory occupied by Pakistan. In the last decade, China has made inroads into Nepal which has played the game of playing India against China. Bhutan's location is of immense strategic importance to India. It offers some depth to India against China for security of India's North East. The current site of China's aggression in the Doka La area has direct security implication for the Siliguri corridor which connects the N-E with the rest of the country. Bhutan is the only country that has remained out of China's net and China wants to change that.

2) Bhutan's security is India's responsibility although there is no treaty to that effect. In 1959, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru told parliament that India will consider any act of aggression against Bhutan as an act of aggression against India. India maintains a training mission in Bhutan, known as the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT).

The current face-off started after Bhutan asked Indian troops to intervene. India had to act not only because it is in its own security interests but also to come to the aid of its friend. New Delhi backing Thimpu and standing up against Beijing has a larger message for the Indo-Pacific region which is facing China's aggression especially in South East Asia. India has openly stated that it looks at itself as a security provider in the region. China wants India to back down so that it can hurt India's image in the Indo-Pacific as a reliable security provider.

3) India has developed security ties with many of the nations with whom China has inimical relations especially the US and Japan. The US has been conducting freedom of navigation operations in the islands China has reclaimed and built military bases on them. China claims the Senkaku Islands from Japan and established an air defence identification zone over it.

India conducts a large and increasingly complex naval exercise named Exercise Malabar with both these nations. China has repeatedly warned India against any military alliance that threatens its interests in the Indo-Pacific. China will test the strength of India’s friendship with such countries with probing moves along the border and in the seas. The current face-off is one such.

4) India has increasingly opposed China in its ambitions to dominate the reg­ion, primary being the much touted Belt and Road Initiative. India was the only major country to not send a delegation to China for the Belt and Road Forum.

The state-controlled Chinese media has been scathing in its editorials criticising India. China wants India to recognise China’s pre-eminence in Asia and play second fiddle. It wants India to accept CPEC although it violates India's sovereignty. The Chinese media even hit out at India for the air corridor which India initiated with Afghanistan to trade goods saying it reflected India’s “stubborn geopolitical thinking” by looking at alternatives to connect with Central Asia than to join the CPEC.

5) China is also sending a message to the region and the world. China wants to project its power and show will to use force to deter big powers from getting involved in its disputes. It also wants to scare smaller powers with whom it has territorial disputes into backing down and settle all disputes on China's terms.

Aggressive posture

While China has overall taken a more aggressive posture with its neighbours with whom it has disputes, its relations with India have increasingly gone sour. After years of playing down India as a rival, China has started to realise that India stands in its way to dominate the region.

Chinese media has repeatedly tried to project India as unequal to it and virtually asked India to accept China’s dominance. We are likely to see more aggressive posturing by China on the long-shared border or the maritime domain. China will also use India’s neighbours against New Delhi’s interests.

India has no option but to hold out. This will require strong diplomacy as well as firm military posture that can counter any military provocation. India will have to look into its military readiness.Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat has said the Indian Army is ready to face a ‘two and a half front’ war while the Air Force chief has said the IAF doesn't have enough numbers and will have to make do with what it has.

It is likely that the current face-off will end with both sides holding on to their positions with a face saver and without any military action. This is undesirable for both countries but its implications will be long lasting.

(The writer is Editor, Defence Forum India)
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