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What’s Behind the China-India Standoff Near the Sikkim Border?

The flare-up at Donglang (or Dokalam or Doklam to Bhutan) in recent weeks came as a nasty surprise to Beijing.  Located smack in the triangular junction between China, India (Sikkim) and Bhutan, Donglang currently under Chinese control is claimed by both China and Bhutan. More than 10 rounds of negotiations between the two claimants in past decades have not resolved the issue. But peace had prevailed in the disputed area since the Sino-India War in 1962.

So why the sudden face-off now, and what caused the rupture?

Both Bhutan and India alleged that China had built roads on Bhutan territory in violation of a bilateral agreement. Last week, China gave photographic evidence showing that Indian troops and army vehicles had crossed into Chinese territory, which is clearly separated by the crest of the plateau. Beijing has also made public this week  a copy of a diplomatic note from the then Indian ambassador to Beijing affirming agreement with the borders between China, Sikkim and Bhutan.

The timing of the Indian incursion into Chinese territory gives India’s game away. Indian troops and vehicles crossed into Chinese territory on June 4. That was less than 3 weeks from the Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting in Bern, Switzerland from 22 to 24 June. The incursion sought to exert pressure on China to stop blocking India’s inclusion in NSG. And when China again objected to India’s inclusion, Modi’s petulance turned the border skirmish into a potential war.

But why the tri-junction, of all places along the more than 1,000 km border with China?

Over the past two years, China’s relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal have improved markedly after China’s multibillion- dollar loans and investments in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. An 8-billion dollar rail line, to be built and funded by Beijing, is at an advanced stage of discussion between China and Nepal. India sees red in China chipping away at Delhi’s sphere of influence. More so since Modi came into power with his Hindutva foreign policies that regard India as the Big Brother in South Asia. Modi must be up at night worrying about Bhutan, the most submissive of its brethren in South Asia, could be the next pivoting to Beijing. Hence, India’s trouble-making at the tri-junction, demonstrating to Bhutan that only India can protect Bhutan’s interest.

China has exercised utmost restraint in the standoff till now. If the Indian troops still refuse to withdraw from Chinese territory, China’s army are likely to kick the Indian intruders off Chinese territory. If Modi were foolish enough to fire the first shot, the Indians would rue their rash action. The lesson this time round will be more painful than the one Chinese taught them in 1962.

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