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Chinese Checkers in the Himalayas

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 13, 2008

    In a disturbing sign, the Chinese seem to have brought up Sikkim and not Arunachal Pradesh back to the table during the recent visit of Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to China. The belief was that China had implicitly recognised Indian sovereignty over Sikkim in 2003, and as such there was no dispute on the matter with China. China’s recognition of Sikkim was interpreted as a quid pro quo for India’s recognition of total Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in 2003.

    In an article in the Indian Express on October 6, 2004, this author had argued that Beijing – even after the 2003 commitment – maintains the position that Sikkim is a historical issue between India and China and ‘‘hopes’’ it will be resolved as bilateral relations improve. That though the Chinese have not yet raised the border issue in the Sikkim portion, they might bring it up in future. And that, the recognition of Sikkim as a part of India will depend on the demarcation of the boundary to the satisfaction of the Chinese. Similarly, the trade agreement between Sikkim and Tibet is also without prejudice to the status of Sikkim.

    The Sino-Indian relationship, with a strategic dimension since 2005, has progressed by leaps and bounds, pushing the trajectory of trade growth currently at $40 billion and now set to hit $60 billion by 2010. But will it withstand the strains of repeated Chinese frowns at the border? New Chinese provocations have come since July 2007, ranging from the demolition of Indian forward posts in North Sikkim, objection to Indian troops’ deployment in the Siliguri Corridor, objection to the Prime Minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, cyber intrusion on Indian computer networks, laying a fresh claim in “Finger Area” and now expressing “unhappiness” over India reopening its airbase at Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh.

    Why does China play checkers, when India has been going out of its way to save Beijing from facing embarrassing prospects over the Olympics torch relay? China surprised India by laying claim to the 2.1 square kilometre “Finger Area” in Sikkim and threatened to demolish the stone cairns, usually fiddled only by rustling Yaks.

    On Tibet, India was fulfilling its commitment, but China almost expressed contempt for India and its democratic form of government; peremptorily summoned the Indian Ambassador in the middle of the night and threatened to withdraw the Olympic torch if India cannot ensure its security. It wanted India to crack down on the Tibetans and even specified the type of security that should be adopted for the relay. These events ominously gave an impression that the government had waffled on its Tibet policy and was bending over backwards to please the Chinese. The debate over the Indian response contrasted from being totally meek to a sharp display of realpolitik maturity. Op-ed contributors thought Mukherjee’s warning to the Dalai Lama had diminished India as a democracy and made everyone “feel small”. Nearly everyone empathised with the Tibetans, but at the same time realised the inability to offend China. Chinese could correctly assess the Indian public mood. For they know for sure that New Delhi has a soft government with its foreign office not willing to take a confrontationist line, its military not in a mood to fight, a large section of its political class, across party lines, amenable for concessions to China, and most importantly Indian intellectuals, including think-tanks, have become ardent aficionados or acolytes of China.

    On this score, even the Dalai Lama should now gracefully accept defeat, collect his passport from Chanakya Puri and return to Lhasa for he should know that the answers for his problems lie in Beijing and not in New Delhi or in Western capitals. After all, he also knows that the religion he practices, though it came from India, the same lineage and tradition also prevails in China. The ultimate salvation for the Tibetans naturally lies not in the West but in the East. The Dalai, so far, has successfully played the democracy and human rights game, and in the process inflicted enough damage on China. It is now time for him to reconcile with China and take up a larger responsibility for the revival and restoration of Buddhism in China. India could potentially moderate his future plan but now lacks a sense of imagination. After all, Buddhism is no longer on India’s agenda after Nehru’s death. In fact, it is China which is fast assuming the leadership role of the Buddhist world. Therefore, it is not too late for the Dalai Lama to quickly resume his traditional “Priest” role for China, at least for the Dhamma’s sake. And, in the process, if he can revive the spiritual bonds among Indian, Chinese, Tibetans, and rest of the Asians, then possibly he would have achieved the task of laying the foundation for a new architecture of peace and destiny in Asia.

    Mukherjee’s visit also clearly indicates that we have not gained any leverage in Beijing for our handling of Tibetan protests. Instead, the Chinese look more belligerent and claim fresh areas. Clearly, China seems to be making a dubious shift in its position. China has been aiming to snatch Tawang if not the whole of Arunachal Pradesh through negotiation, but now understands the difficulty stemming from the Indian domestic angle. The pleading by Chinese leaders to make Tawang an exception is well known. But now knowing that this is unattainable, Beijing is possibly resorting to another trick by reopening the Sikkim card as a leverage to pressurise India over Tawang. They may be intending to withhold formal recognition of India’s sovereignty and say – give us Tawang or face new consequences in Sikkim. Recall the PLA-owned think tank’s latest article A warning to the Indian Government: Don’t be Evil, which warned India to stay away from the “path of confrontation” and not to “misjudge the situation”.

    The PLA has started using the Tibet railway since December 2007 and is steadily ramping up its military infrastructure (road, rail and air) capabilities in Tibet close to the Indian border for dual usage. The Tibet crisis and India’s acquiescence may have emboldened the Chinese to further assert the point that Tibet is incomplete without Tawang and that it is crucial for Tibet’s security. Beijing could bring up fresh obstacles. A case is being built up that internationally branded terrorists are active on Indian soil. Beijing will next ask New Delhi to dismantle the Dalai Lama’s Dharamsala set-up. The PLA may even be contemplating a limited military pursuit to capture Tawang, while India still thinks that China’s position in Tibet is tenuous. They have been cautioning New Delhi on Arunachal Pradesh and very soon they would say – we had warned you before!

    The External Affair Minister’s visit to China has not broken any new ground. Beijing seems to have given a snub to Mukherjee by cancelling his planned meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao. But significantly he has not allowed Beijing to set its agenda on Sikkim. The progress on our concern over the trans-Himalayan Rivers is also little. So, was the visit only about aid diplomacy to deliver relief materials worth $5 million to quake victims in Sichuan? We could have done this better through spiritual diplomacy.

    On Tibet, Mukherjee seems to have got a pat on his back but the Chinese leadership was probably not happy with Indian media coverage of the Dalai Lama. Mukherjee may have reiterated India’s position on Tibet, though it is not clear whether the phrase Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is being used.

    All in all, the visit appeared as a bit of a disappointment with no substantive breakthrough being made on any of the controversial issues. The Chinese, on the other hand, visibly appeared reluctant to move ahead in a positive way and keen to play checkers with India.

    India needs to be watchful of China’s moves in South Asia. In Pakistan, Chinese firms are constructing a hydro project on the Neelam River in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Their profile is ever growing in Nepal. In Sri Lanka, China has surpassed India and Japan by providing $1 billion in aid with no strings attached. After Gwadar, it is building a port in Sittwe (Myanmar) and one at Hambantota (Sri Lanka). Reports suggest that Chinese weapons are pouring into the Northeastern states. The news channels splashed fresh satellite images of China building a major underground nuclear submarine base on Hainan to control the Indian Ocean Region.

    Given China’s unpredictable behaviour, it would be too early to drop one’s guard. Instead, India should exploit the current window of opportunity and assert its position before it gets closed once the Olympics are over. The reopening of Daulat Beg Oldi is a thoughtful and an unusually sharp decision. We should consolidate our position further and reopen Chushul and Fukche.

    India could also reopen the issue of Skasgyam Valley, ceded to China by Pakistan. And, if Chinese continue to make diversionary moves, India should reclaim the ownership of Minser Enclave, composing of several villages, located inside Tibet on the bank of Mount Kailash. Minser was a sovereign part of India until mid-1960s, which New Delhi forgot about due to apathy and it deserves a revisit before the final boundary settlement.