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India-China border standoff: With no side budging, a stalemate seems likely

Ranjit S Kalha | Updated on: 7 July 2017, 17:48 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

Just ahead of the G-20 Summit at Hamburg, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official said that “the atmosphere is not right for a bilateral meeting between President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.

Thus hopes that a summit between the two leaders would help resolve the standoff at the Sikkim border have been dashed.

The Chinese also maintain that China is willing to resolve the issue diplomatically, on the condition that Indian troops first withdraw to their own territory.

But if India refuses to budge, what happens next?

The Chinese position

To understand the Chinese posture, it is perhaps worthwhile recalling what Fu Ying, the Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) told her American audience about a year ago about China’s attitude towards border disputes.

Fu Ying is no ordinary person; she is a Mongol and only the second female to hold the office of Vice Foreign Minister (Asian Affairs) after Wang Hairong, who was Chairman Mao Zedong’s niece. Fu Ying has also served as the Chinese Ambassador to UK and Australia. 

This is what she told her American audience: “China stumbled into the 20th century with its capital under occupation of Imperialist armies. For over a century, China suffered the humiliation of repeated foreign aggression and bullying. That is why the Chinese people are very sensitive about anything that is related to the loss of territory and would never allow such recurrence, even if it is an inch of land (emphasis added). This is something that the outside world needs to keep in mind when trying to understand Chinese behaviour.”

Chinese official statements emanating from Beijing have emphasised that the Anglo-Chinese Agreement of 1890 settles the Sikkim-Tibet border. As per para [1] the Sikkim-Tibet-Bhutan tri- junction is at Mount Gipmochi. They cite letters written by former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to former premier Zhou Enlai on 22 March 1959 and 26 September 1959 in support. 

The Chinese also lay claim to the Dokhlam plateau in Bhutan. On the other hand, the Chinese conveniently ignore that in 2012 they agreed with India that the location of the tri-junction would be settled in conjunction with all parties concerned - i.e. India, Bhutan and China. It was also agreed that the status quo would be maintained till the process of boundary settlement talks was on.

By trying to build a road through the Dokhlam plateau on a unilateral basis, the Chinese have clearly reneged on their promises.

Weighing the options

As far as the Anglo-Chinese Agreement of 1890 is concerned, there are some positive aspects for India also. Firstly, it is the only agreement that we have that defines the Sikkim-Tibet border that both India and China have accepted.

As Nehru pointed out it was jointly demarcated, but as is inevitable over a period of time there are vey few markers left on the ground. Nevertheless, if we were to obfuscate on it for short-term gains, we would be turning a settled border into an unsettled one with all its ramifications.

Secondly, it is the only agreement that recognises the principle of the watershed. This is an important point for we have been pressing the Chinese to recognise the principle of the watershed in the McMahon Line area, but without any success.

Perhaps with time, a diplomatic solution might emerge to solve the standoff on the border

The Chinese would, of course, weigh their options very carefully before embarking on the next step. They can, if they so wish, resort to force; but in all such cases the eventual outcome may not be as it has been assessed or hoped for. That is in the very nature of such action.

A stalemate can just as well ensue with neither side budging from its present position. On the other hand, the Chinese are also well aware of the storm clouds gathering in North-East Asia with the standoff between the North Koreans and the US.

With an unpredictable President at the helm, it is very difficult to surmise which way US policy may turn. The Chinese may wish to postpone any further action on the Sikkim-Tibet frontier till the picture in North-East Asia becomes much clearer.

No country, much less China would like to face a two-front situation. And perhaps with time, when saner voices might prevail, a diplomatic solution might emerge to solve the standoff on the Sikkim-Tibet border.

That is what we all should strive for, as it is in no one’s interest that this standoff should degenerate into a conflict situation.

First published: 7 July 2017, 17:48 IST