“To teach India a lesson” was considered by China an adequate explanation for a war in 1962. The same justification was given for the Doklam stand-off and it will not be too long before China gives the same explanation for its confrontation with the Indian soldiers along the Line of Actual Control at Daulat Beg Oldi, Galwan Valley, the Pangong Lake, Bararahoti, and Naku La in Sikkim. In each case, decoding the meaning of the Chinese statement did not even need knowledge of the Chinese language.
The years from 1947 to 1962 were the golden years of Indian foreign policy. India became a natural leader of the Third World as a country that won its independence without firing a shot and a champion of decolonisation, disarmament, equitable economic development and Afro-Asian solidarity, formalised in the Belgrade conference. There was even talk of India taking over the permanent seat of China in the UN Security Council. At that point, China decided to teach us a lesson that there was another powerful country in Asia to rival India by use of force, if necessary.
Doklam crisis came at a time when India had managed to work out a relationship with the Trump Administration in spite of the unpredictability of US policies and President Trump’s withdrawal from the international scene. India and the US had begun to work together bilaterally and internationally, even though there were issues relating to Russia and Iran. Doklam may well have been the cumulative effect of India’s growth and popularity. Unlike the previous intrusions along the Line Of Actual Control, the event was staged at the India-Bhutan-China Tri-junction, the status of which was supposed to be respected by both India and China. A part of the reason for choosing this venue may have been to wean India’s best friend, Bhutan, away from India by questioning India’s locus standi in the situation. A confrontation was avoided after a series of threats and there are still reports of a threatening presence of China in the area.
Surprise is a Chinese characteristic in most of its actions, but the latest border skirmishes were a real bolt from the blue because it came in the midst of Covid-19, when nations should be working together to avert an existential threat to mankind. In fact, there is a call from the Secretary General of the UN that there should be a general ceasefire, regardless of the position of the combatants. But on May 5, a scuffle broke out between Indian and Chinese troops at the Pangong Tso lake, located 14,000 feet above the sea level in Ladakh. Soldiers from both nations engaged in fistfights and stone-pelting at the Line of Actual Control. The incident, which continued until the next day, resulted in several soldiers being injured on both sides.
Three days later and nearly 1,200km (745 miles) away to the east along the LAC, another fight erupted at Nathu La in Sikkim after Indian soldiers stopped a patrol party from the Chinese Army. Both countries downplayed the incidents and the issues were resolved at the local commander level, as has generally been done in the past. But the Chinese went incommunicado while reports came of troop movements and threat of escalation.
"China is committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas," the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said in a statement. The Ministry of External Affairs stated that it is in talks with China to deal with the standoff. But President Trump saw the situation as a “raging border dispute" and offered to mediate. When he was in India a few weeks earlier for Namaste Trump, he was not even aware that India and China had common borders.
The offer of mediation by President Trump had an electrifying effect on India and China and both sides quickly began talking of peace. The Chinese envoy underlined how the two nations are fighting the scourge of Covid-19 together and urged both to view each other favourably. "We are engaged with the Chinese side to peacefully resolve this issue," foreign ministry spokesman said. "Our troops have taken a responsible approach towards border management and are following protocols."
But tension remains in the area, because the Chinese troops had come much beyond their claim line this time. At least 10,000 PLA soldiers are now believed to be camping on what India claims to be its territory - Pangong Tso Lake, Galwan Valley and Demchok in Ladakh, and Nathu La in Sikkim, according to the Indian media reports. The Chief of the Army, General Manoj Mukund Naravane’s visit to Leh and many high level consultations in Delhi conveyed the impression that the Chinese action this time went beyond theatricals and show of force.
No doubt, the process of educating India is in progress in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is bound to change the international pecking order and China is very much a candidate for world leadership, though its role in the pandemic drama, prima facie, is that of the villain. The US is in doldrums and unless the election changes its prospects, the US cannot lead the new global order. President Putin and the European Union are still struggling to save lives and livelihoods. This situation gives a window of opportunity to India since India has played its cards well by focussing on the war against Covid without engaging in polemics. It has also become “the healer of the world”, sharing knowledge, medicines and equipment and emphasising multilateralism in solving global issues. This is by itself a provocation for China and it wants to serve notice that India should not entertain any hope of global leadership. At the World Health Assembly, India co-sponsored a resolution urging a review of Covid developments, but said nothing that would alter the status of Taiwan. We have done well, but China would like India to be more “friendly.”
Concurrently, not far from the Chinese border, an unsettled part of the India-Nepal border suddenly flared up causing suspicion that the two situations were linked. When such issues come up with our neighbours, the natural tendency of some experts, including some former Indian Ambassadors, is to blame ourselves for being a bully. The Gujral Doctrine was meant to make unilateral concessions to our neighbours, in the expectation that our neighbours would be so grateful that our relations with them would improve dramatically. But when India made concessions, our neighbours made more demands and the Gujral Doctrine was consigned to the dustbin of history. Or is the Gujral Doctrine being revived?
India-Nepal relations, though based on a special treaty, were intermittently disturbed over the years. In the present case, the problem arose in November 2019, when India published a new political map, following the change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir. When Nepal raised objections, it was agreed that the matter will be resolved through high level discussions. But the publication of a counter map by Nepal and comments like “the Indian virus being more lethal than the Chinese or Italian virus” by the Nepalese Prime Minister were not in the spirit of our bilateral relations. Happily, India and Nepal have decided to solve this whole issue through negotiations and a crisis has been averted. Nepal had always tried to balance India and China to get benefits from both and, therefore, we cannot blame anyone for suspecting that Nepal may have coordinated its move with the Chinese. Good neighbourly relations have to be reciprocal, regardless of the size and strength of the partners.
Even at the best of times, Nepalese sentiment at the popular level has viewed India with suspicion. In 2014, following the visit of PM Modi to Nepal, a dozen Nepalese journalists visited me in Thiruvananthapuram for a conversation. They were invited by India, expecting that they will celebrate the new spirit in our bilateral relations. I was amazed that not a good word was said by any of them about India. I gained the impression that the baggage of the past was hanging over our heads. No wonder then, that Nepal has reacted negatively now, whether it is for internal political reasons or external temptations.
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions,” said Shakespeare. We did not need the Chinese battalions and Nepalese shenanigans at this time. If Pakistan also acts up, we will have our hands full and it may distract us from our fight against Covid.