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Game of chicken in the high Himalayas

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With no thaw in sight, much will now depend on wider geopolitical factors. But the costs of conflict are high for India and China

Another face-off at the Himalayan border has surprised few. Since 2010, nearly 2,500 Chinese “transgressions” have been recorded on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the undefined border between India and China. But this is not a typical stand-off. The point, or area, of discord is unrelated to the India-China territorial dispute. The present stand-off is near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, and in an area where both China and Bhutan hold competing territorial claims.

The significance

According to the External Affairs Ministry’s June 30 press release, Indian involvement is aimed to prevent China from changing the status quo by building a road on territory claimed by Bhutan, India’s closest ally in the subcontinent. By upholding the rights of its ally, Indian actions are intended to convey the importance Delhi attaches to its special relationship with Thimphu as well as to signal that it intends to preserve its traditional military advantages in the overall Sikkim sector.

Beijing’s motivations have been speculated to range from big power bullying as part of a general pattern of China’s approach to its periphery, and driving a political wedge between India and Bhutan, to more mundane operational anxieties in a sector where India has traditionally held the higher ground. What makes the crisis particularly dangerous compared to previous episodes on the border is the absence of an agreed definition of what is at stake. For China, it is about “territorial sovereignty”; for India, it is about “security implications” emanating from a potentially deeper Chinese foothold in the lower Chumbi valley.

There are two broad schools of punditry. One argues that the unresolved Himalayan dispute, China’s sensitivity over Tibet and the ensuing security dilemma is the main cause of recurring friction; the other claims that wider geopolitics and threat perceptions have converted the frontier into an arena of competition to keep the other side off balance. Ideally, conflict management strategies should seek to address both these levels of the India-China dynamic. But with the level of mistrust and animosity at record highs, it seems improbable that either side is interested in reassurance gestures. The indivisibility of the object of discord — in this case China’s territorial claims and India’s conception of security in the Northeast — makes an exit ramp or de-escalation difficult. As it stands today, both sides have dug in their heels and signalled a commitment to their respective positions, the Chinese more explicitly and through a flurry of official pronouncements.

Breaking the stalemate

Where do we go from here? By interposing itself in close proximity to Chinese border guards, India has created a stalemate that can only be broken via one of three ways: one side backs off, either side tries to dislodge the other by force, or quiet diplomacy allows both sides to save face. The first scenario seems improbable given the crescendo of rhetoric surrounding the crisis. Rolling back the opponent’s position is also unviable because it would produce an escalation, whether in the local Sikkim theatre or along a wider front on the 3,488 km LAC. Some commentators have been thinking in highly tactical terms where India’s local military advantages are deemed to provide the ingredients of a compellence posture. However, unlike in the eight disputed pockets of the LAC where brinksmanship can be entertained, coercing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in an area where Beijing is convinced of its sovereignty and India’s own territorial stakes are not even at play would almost certainly involve fierce reprisals in the form of vertical or horizontal escalation in military and other domains. So we are left with a prolonged stand-off with little prospect for a thaw. Much will now depend on wider geopolitical factors and how each side evaluates its relative position in the international environment.

The Chinese seem to exude more confidence on this front. Beijing’s relationships with its main rivals, the U.S. and Japan, seem to be stabilising. While Washington is a divided entity today, the relationship with China has robust bipartisan support with little traction for a new adversarial posture. Dense economic interdependence and a renewed awareness of security interdependence in northeast Asia imply that the Sino-American equation will maintain its complex stability. More broadly, American grand strategy remains focused on the Eurasian heartland threat from Russia rather than a rimland challenge from China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bilateral encounter with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit was also instructive. Mr. Abe is reported to have responded positively to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Japanese officials noted that Mr. Abe held a “very friendly” meeting with Mr. Xi and Beijing had shown “goodwill from the top level” towards Japan.

The calculations

In sum, while China’s eastern front remains a zone of geopolitical competition, Chinese leverage in East Asia has reached a threshold where it can blunt a containment posture from the U.S.-Japan alliance. As Chinese scholar Long Xingchun confidently opines, “Though the U.S. and other Western countries have the intention to contain China through supporting India, they have a wide range of common interests with China.” The West is unlikely to “unconditionally stand on the side of India”. When combined with the strategic depth that China enjoys because of a stable strategic equation with Russia, the international environment from Beijing’s eyes seems comfortable and a far cry from the isolation China faced in the lead-up to the 1962 war or even the 1967 border crisis.

Ironically, the reasons for China’s reluctance to escalate the crisis emanate from its strength and rising international profile. Outbreak of hostilities on the Himalayan border would taint China’s image and undermine the internationalism surrounding the Belt and Road discourse. It would also fuel anti-Chinese sentiment in India, which both Washington and Tokyo would almost certainly profit from. Even on a sub-regional level, a conflict with India would steer China further towards an irredentist Pakistan as its sole partner, a suboptimal outcome for Beijing, which prefers a wider profile in the subcontinent.

From Delhi’s vantage point, calculating India’s relative position is less straightforward. Too be sure, policymakers have successfully navigated the uncertainty around Indo-U.S. relations after the interlude of suspense since January this year. The bilateral relationship is stable and poised to grow. The ongoing Malabar exercises involving the Indian, Japanese and U.S. navies in the Indian Ocean also offer psychological comfort to Delhi in the backdrop of the continental stand-off in the north. Some observers, however, exaggerate the geopolitical setting and impute a wider dimension to Indo-U.S. ties that might have faded since the Obama period. Further, with the U.S. inclined to resist Iranian and Russian influence in Afghanistan and further west, a Himalayan Cold War would be a distraction from more pressing geopolitical challenges elsewhere.

The situation in the subcontinent is equally complex. Given Pakistan’s unabated proxy conflict in Kashmir, an escalation with China will truly bring the two-front situation back into play after decades. On the other hand, the rest of the neighbourhood would prefer a stable India-China equation. Each of India’s neighbours has adopted a dual track foreign policy where special or friendly ties with India are supplemented by geo-economic linkages with China. A Sino-Indian conflict disrupts this triangular dynamic and impels these states to make choices they would rather not make. This sub-regional reality cannot be wished away by India, or for that matter China.

It should be clear that both countries have much to lose in an armed clash and a new Cold War in the region. Hopefully, the virtues of restraint would be obvious to both Delhi and Beijing.

Zorawar Daulet Singh is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 12:57:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/game-of-chicken-in-the-high-himalayas/article19265421.ece

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