Ideally, natural allies
Diplomacy, not force, is best way to resolve disputes between India and China.
Few in India have heard the name of Doka La or Doklam, a tiny sleepy village in the Sikkim sector near the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction, until a few weeks ago. The same may be true about the people in China. China is engaged in a military standoff with India at Doka La, over the latter's objection to a Chinese road building initiative there. The Chinese Army in the area is waiting for the command to attack India. Unusually, its naval submarines have suddenly gathered in good numbers in the Indian Ocean. India's defence forces, on their part, are ready to protect the country's territory. India is also treaty-bound to protect the territory of the neighbouring Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan from external infiltration or attack. Bhutan does not have full diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. The Chinese Army's provocative bid to expand a road connection at the tri-junction is not acceptable to India. The latest military standoff at Doka La is most unfortunate and uncalled for.
Ordinarily, there is no reason why India's biggest trade partner, China should ignore India's geopolitical concerns and try to scare both India and peace-loving Bhutan. Chinese products — from cell phones, industrial goods, automotive tyres, chemicals, and consumer items to toys, fireworks, and poor man's handicrafts — are flooding Indian market. China is running almost a $60-billion annual trade surplus with India. India's avoidable imports are keeping millions of Chinese workers employed. Billions of dollars worth Chinese investments to India are in the pipeline. Despite the military standoff at Doka La and the Chinese official media's war-like postures, the government has said it has no intention of taking a second view of Chinese trade and investments in India. Normally, one does not bite the hands that feed. China appears to be different. Currently, China-India trade and economic cooperation are booming to the benefit of both the countries. One would expect China to use its diplomatic power amicably to settle the dispute over a few yards or kilometres of territory around Doka La, and its road project there instead of overexposing its military might to generate an unnecessary tension in the region.
The state-sponsored Chinese media has warned that the conflict could lead to a "war," if not handled properly. It has reminded India of the consequence of the 1962 China-India war in which China held some 10,000 Indian POWs. Shockingly, some are even talking about freeing Sikkim from India. Lately, majority of Nepali-speaking Sikkim has decided to take legal action against West Bengal for the political impasse at its Gorkha-dominated Darjeeling district. The aggressive Chinese military postures at Doka La may also be indicative of bigger political conspiracy that China is trying to hatch in the region. However, China forgets that Nehru's India of 1962 is not the same as today's India, one of the world's top 10 economic powers, enjoying strong diplomatic support across the world. India respects China for its magnificent achievement in the economic and military front, especially since 1982.
China, now a recognised top world economic and military power, is too big a nation to make such a mountain of a molehill in the context of the Doka La impasse, and raise a war cry on an issue such as this - unless it has something else in mind. It is difficult to believe that diplomacy should play second fiddle to China's military and territorial ambitions that seek to enforce its complete supremacy in Asia using roads, ports, and strategic infrastructure projects, including erecting islands and military installations in the sea, to expand its economic colonialism in the region. Lately, China-built roads and ports have connected China with all countries around India in South Asia, barring Bhutan.
China's Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui's reaction to Chinese media's war cry against India somewhat lacked diplomatic craftsmanship. He had reportedly reacted saying that "there has been talk about this option, that option. It is up to your government policy (whether to exercise the military option)". Zhaohui, who is highly regarded in Delhi, said that the Chinese government is very clear that it wants peaceful resolution of the standoff with India in the Sikkim sector, but for that withdrawal of Indian troops from the area is a "precondition." The best way to make the peaceful resolution of the China-India-Bhutan border tension is through a dialogue.
China, which is trying strongly to forge a relationship with Bhutan, must recognise the sentiments of both India and Bhutan. Historically, Bhutan is closely associated with India. As soon as Narendra Modi became India's Prime Minister in May 2014, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk invited him to visit Bhutan. And, it was Modi's first trip abroad. Among the issues discussed then between the top delegates of the two countries were China and the insurgency in Northeast India. India was the first to congratulate Bhutan after it embraced democracy.
Hopefully, the China-India tension in the Sikkim sector will die down soon and the military standoff will be withdrawn. However, the earlier the two countries recognise and respect the geopolitical sentiments of each other the better it is for stronger diplomatic relations between them. In fact, China and India should be natural allies. Two-way dialogues should resolve all disputes between the world's two major economic powers. Trust is the key. Russia, a common friend of India and China, has always trusted India as a genuine ally and is deeply involved in India's civil, nuclear, and other strategic programmes, including technology transfer. Together, China and India stand to gain a lot through cooperation rather than conflict. Last week, at Hamburg, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged BRICS to champion multilateralism and handle disputes peacefully. Hope China follows the Xi advice to reduce tension at Doka La and restart trade through India's Nathu La pass, 54 kms east of Gangtok.
(The views are strictly personal.)