Indian-Chinese relations over the expansion of the Belt and Road initiative have been tense from the start, as China expands its soft power and builds closer ties with India’s neighbours on all sides under so-called “win-win partnerships”. The current confrontation between India and China in the border region of Sikkim should be seen as an outlet for this tension, and Chinese motivations must be closely watched: China/Indian rebalancing in the region continues, and this incident may be a glimpse of things to come.
Chinese army officers on the Chinese side of the international border at Nathula Pass in Sikkim. (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)
The Bhutan-China-India trijunction has been the site of a standoff between China and India for close to three weeks now, after Indian troops prevented Chinese troops from building a road on the narrow plateau of Doklam (Donglang in Chinese) along the Sikkim border. Fracture lines in relations between the two countries were exposed earlier this year when India announced it was boycotting China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) forum in Beijing, citing core concerns regarding sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a recent threat from Chinese state media of a future “bitter lesson” will have done little to calm tensions. As China tests the balance of power in the region, the incident may have wider-reaching implications for India’s position in Southeast Asia for years to come.
The facts of the Sikkim situation are murky at best, but it is clear that China has initiated the confrontation through attempts to build a road on Bhutan territory, with the Bhutanese and Indian militaries challenging the move in turn. A core element of the standoff lies in diverging interpretations of where the trijunction actually lies: Beijing says it lies 15 kilometers south of where Thimphu has marked the crossing.
China’s aggressive stance on the issue has raised eyebrows globally, with Beijing’s assertiveness pointing to a newfound strength drawn from China’s expanding economic and military capabilities. With a leadership and party relying on nationalist rhetoric to keep memories of past “humiliations” alive in the minds of the Chinese population, the chances of working towards long-term diplomatic solutions to border tensions remain slim. China’s consolidated power over Tibet – as well as on-going military operations in the South China and East China Seas – has only worked to harden its stance in situations such as these. From India’s side, the army chief has said he is ready to fight a “two-and-a-half front” war, referring to China, Pakistan and domestic insurgencies, and India’s hosting of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in April this year was further indication that the regional giant is undertaking a repositioning of its own.
India’s refusal to attend the OBOR summit in May 2017 cast doubts on the viability of the project, with India fast becoming the voice of a brewing opposition to Beijing’s attempts to remake Asia’s commercial routes and transform the course of trade and investment flows in the region for decades to come. Of the 64 countries identified by China as part of the initiative, only twenty were represented by their top leaders at the May summit. A joint communiqué outlining summit outcomes betrayed a failure on China’s part to push a unilateral agenda, with ministers from several countries voicing objections over issues of transparency and environmental protection. Despite some 68 countries and international organisations have signed cooperation agreements as part of the initiative, a legitimacy gap remains to be bridged.
The standoff in Sikkim may, then, represent an assertion of Chinese dominance over India. Certainly, Chinese diplomatic engagement with Bhutan is a channel to watch, as China may seek to assert itself within India’s traditional sphere of influence without firing a single shot. Amid China’s expanding territorial claims in the region, the narrow Siliguri corridor connecting India’s Northeast states with the rest of the subcontinent might also be at risk, though a military takeover remains unlikely. As the dispute unfolds, the balance of power between Asia’s rising giants could indeed be set on an unfinished highway set on 89 square kilometres of farmland