Few Indians have heard of the Doklam Plateau located astride the borders of Tibet, Bhutan and India’s Sikkim. Like elsewhere along the Sino-Indian border, Beijing recently moved into this strategic area. It disregarded the fact that its claims had been contested by Bhutan, which regards the area as its territory. The disputed region remains a subject of inconclusive and continuing negotiations between China and Bhutan. Apart from its treaty commitment to protect Bhutan, India is seriously concerned about any Chinese move into the area, as it would pose a serious security threat to its vital lines of communication across its eastern and northeastern borders. India moved troops into the disputed area to stop the Chinese incursion, resulting in a face-to-face standoff between the forces on both sides.
Unlike in the past, China reacted vituperatively with its state-controlled media repeatedly issuing dire warnings of repeating its 1962 invasion. When Chinese troops intruded across these borders in 1967, they were beaten back along with heavy casualties. Similarly, when the Chinese intruded the Sumdorong Chu area in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986, they faced a measured, but strong Indian reaction. The intruding Chinese troops were outflanked when helicopter-borne Indian troops dropped along the border. The situation was defused diplomatically, when then external affairs minister N D Tiwari visited Beijing in 1987. A process of pull back by both sides was agreed upon. This, in turn, led to Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi visiting China in 1988.
The present Chinese aggressiveness is a reflection of their growing national arrogance after successfully threatening and occupying a large number of islands along its disputed maritime borders with neighbours, ranging from Vietnam to the Philippines. It disregarded a ruling of the International Court of Justice. China has also similarly coerced a number of neighbours on its land borders. At the same time, it has expanded its military presence across the South China Sea and Indian Ocean with substantial investments in a number of countries from Myanmar to Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Djibouti. However, China’s aim to become the hegemonic power in Asia faces challenge from India and Japan. Pakistan uses China as its primary instrument to ‘contain’ India.
Narendra Modi government’s policy of asserting its independence and strength along its borders appears to have rattled China. It is interesting that the Chinese move, more or less, coincided with Modi’s recent visit to the US where President Donald Trump openly lauded joint military naval exercises by Japan, the US and India in the Indian Ocean. Over 70 per cent of the world’s maritime oil trade is routed through the Indian Ocean. China has, in effect, been told that it will not be allowed to dominate these vital trade routes. China’s anger and frustration with India flow from the latter’s readiness to respond strongly to the diplomatic and security challenges that Beijing poses, while signalling that it is open to dialogue to settle issues causing tensions. The present impasse can be settled if China agrees to disengage and withdraw its troops following diplomatic and military discussions, as it did in 1987.
The most interesting photograph one saw recently was of a smiling PM Modi shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in Germany. This occurred at a time the Chinese media and even its ambassador in Delhi were making loud and belligerent noises. New Delhi has clearly signalled to China and the world that while it would stand firm on issues of its territorial integrity, it would like to end the current impasse on its borders through talks. One hopes that after detailed briefing by the government, political parties will unite in Parliament and address these challenges to the country’s territorial integrity.