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Standing up to a Bully and Standing up for Bhutan; By Commodore. R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

C3S Article no: 0059/2017

It has been three weeks since the standoff at the Bhutan, Tibet and India tri-junction with no signs of abatement. China has tried to browbeat India by using its state-run media and even the Chinese diplomats in India to use undiplomatic language. India has shown nerve and has not indulged in the similar use of language barring some of the privately-run media houses where the free for all discussions compete with the no holds barred attitude of the Chinese media and officials.

The Global Times the official mouthpiece has gone berserk just like its government and has been indulging in an anti-India tirade. It has gone to the extent of threatening India with dire consequences if it does not move out from the border. It has used strong words and has asked India to “move out or get kicked out”. A nation that is aspiring to be the number one in global affairs cannot be seen as using such language in respect of another sovereign country. In a game of brinkmanship, India has shown steely resolve in supporting Bhutan which does not have diplomatic relations with China and has territorial disputes. China has not explained why it has chosen to alter the ground position in the tri-junction known as Doklam. If all these years, it was a zone of tranquillity where all the three sides respected the status quo, what explains the aggressive behaviour of China? There are many answers and it would be interesting to list some of them.

China perceives India’s actions of not endorsing the Belt and Road Initiative as a stumble block little realising that after shouting from the roof top about Panchsheel, it is China which is the violator of Panchsheel. The activities of China to invest in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in a disputed territory cannot be an act of respecting the sovereignty of another country.

The actions of China in the South China Sea (SCS) clearly illustrate how China cares for international norms of justice and also the sensitivities of its smaller neighbours.  In SCS, it has succeeded in converting the contested sea areas into a Chinese lake with rocks and reefs converted as full-fledged military Islands. The USA which has many friendship treaties with sovereign countries in the Pacific chose not to challenge the activities of the big bully in the South China Sea. Mere statements and sailing of a few vessels or overflights in the disputed areas in SCS were not going to deter China in illegally constructing and occupying disputed Islands.

Much to the consternation of China, a similar action of needle and nibble inch by inch has not worked this time in this recent standoff. From the point of India, it cannot be seen as letting down Bhutan its close Himalayan ally which even constitutionally is dependent on India for providing the requisite security.

The timing of the incursion and road building has been carefully chosen. This timed to perfection to coincide with the visit of Modi to the USA where he hit off well with Trump. The acceptance of the sale of Predator drones to India and many other collaborative initiatives has not been received well by China.  The visit of Modi to Israel likewise has opened up new vistas in terms of cooperation in the strategic domain and will open up India to high-end military products and other civil end-use technologies that will help India to sustain its growth profiles and trajectory.

Exercise Malabar that will commence next week is another irritant for China which had protested in the past about the alliance of democracies against China. India and USA have been carrying on with this edition for decades and the 21st edition of  Malabar will also have Japan maritime forces participating in large-scale intense exercises. India apparently did not allow Australia to participate in the Malabar due to the sensitivity of China and China welcomed  India’s position. There is a serious case for review of our actions in the light of the lack of reciprocity to India’s concerns on many issues. India needs to pursue a course that serves its national interests without giving undue importance to the so-called sensitivity of any nation.

For the last two months, an increased activity of PLA units has been observed in the Indian Ocean. As per the reports, some thirteen units including submarines have been on patrol in the Indian Ocean. The presence of a research vessel is to monitor the nature of the exercise and derive inferences for the future.  All actions of China are aimed at stymying the aspirations of India. The reluctance to admit India into the Nuclear Supplier Group(NSG), the continued blocking of the resolution to proscribe Masood Azhar, the opposition to admit India into the United Nations Security Council, and the blatant violation of the Panchsheel norms to indulge in heavy investment in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) clearly indicate the confrontational attitude of aggressive China.

There has been plenty of sabre rattling on both sides. While India indicated that it is not 1962 and India is better equipped and prepared, China likewise responded by saying that even the China of today is different. Both China and India cannot afford to indulge even in a limited war as it will adversely affect both countries which are two of the top three economies in Asia. From the Indian point of view of trade, it has nothing much to lose. It already has a trade deficit with the Chinese goods flooding every nook and corner of India. There is already a clamour for banning Chinese goods and for imposing a heavy duty on imports. India which has withstood the sanctions post the Pokhran blast can easily absorb the impact of not doing business with China by diversifying its economic forays in other parts of the world. China’s economy is already under strain and China can ill afford to create economic turmoil for itself.

To say the least, it was mischievous of China to use its media to talk about independence for Sikkim from India though this issue of Sikkim joining the Indian State in 2003 has never been challenged including from China. If China insists on changing the stance on Sikkim and Bhutan, it can be paid back in the same coin by asking for liberating Tibet and Hong Kong. The accepted position on Taiwan in consonance with the one China policy can be changed if China tries to use the Sikkim card.

The most important part of this discussion is about the need for India to respond in such a manner that the interest of its smaller neighbour which is under the security umbrella of India to stand up to China. India stands committed to the India-Bhutan friendship treaty of 2007 which expects close cooperation related to security issues and both sides will not allow the use of their territory against the interests of one another.  Bhutan has already clarified that it is China that is trying to change the ground situation in its favour despite Bhutan’s objections. India cannot be seen as dithering and acting in consonance with China’s illegal position vis-à-vis Bhutan.  Unfortunately, there are some Indian scholars who are quoting selectively to support China’s position and not that of India. It is important to read what the then PM of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, had to say in September 1959 about the border dispute. By no stretch of imagination can it be concluded that he accepted the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 which is quoted in an article in the Indian Express. On the contrary, he strongly opposed the stand taken by China. He was proved right. By this transgression and construction activity, China wants to alter the strategic balance and gobble up some more turf as it has done in SCS.

By all counts, this has been the most serious standoff between the two Asian powers. India has every reason to stand firm in support of Bhutan its natural ally. Letting down Bhutan would be a monumental blunder on part of India which is losing clout in its immediate neighbourhood with China gaining inroads in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Maldives and Bangladesh. In addition to honouring the friendship treaty with Thimpu, there is a slew of actions that India can initiate to ensure that it does not provide too many handles to China.

The trade deficit is totally in favour of China and there is no need to increase this deficit. Actions are required to ensure that the Indian markets are not flooded with cheap Chinese goods. There is already a momentum to stop buying Chinese goods. This is to be used as an opportunity to shore up our own SMEs and MSMEs to start making things in India. All the licenses given to China for investing in India in niche markets have to be reviewed. This should also include the Chinese expression of interest to start making cars in India. There is no need to give free access to China to invest in India in critical areas as it clashes with our own objective of Make in India.

All future editions of Malabar should also include Australia which is a natural partner in the Asia Pacific as there are enough justifications for such alliances for Military Operations Other Than War(MOOTW) as brought out by this author in a related article.

Unfortunately, the border negotiations have gone on for decades with no end in sight. This must be accorded the top priority that it merits under the trying circumstances. While waiting for early resolution, there is a need to reinforce our border surveillance and response mechanisms in the sensitive borders. The military capability over land, on the seas, in the air/space and cyber capabilities must be augmented to be able to respond to such provocations by the northern aggressive hegemon.

India also needs to look at alternatives for ensuring that the Manasarovar pilgrims are not subjected to the vagaries of political adventurism by China.

On the part of China, it will do well to control its media which unlike in India is state-controlled and therefore has to exercise a lot more restraint in its reporting and analysis. The Chinese diplomats in India need to learn the diplomatic language which was conspicuous by its absence.

[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is the Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi and Director, C3S The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, C3S, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at]

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