“China is at a stage where it feels that the power differential between China and India is large”- Member NSAB
The standoff between India and China on the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction is continuing, with neither side willing to budge, putting huge political capital and reputation at stake. To understand the dispute and its geostrategic significance, Rohit Srivastava interviews Lt Gen SL Narasimhan (Retd), a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and an expert on China. Some excerpts…
China was trying to alter the status quo significantly in the area of Tri Junction violating the understanding reached in 2012
1- What is your reading of the current stand-off between India and China? How legal is the Chinese stand?
The current standoff between India and China has come up because of two reasons. One is that China was trying to alter the status quo significantly in the area of Tri Junction, violating the understanding reached in 2012, that issues related to tri junctions along the India China border will be resolved with the concurrence of all parties involved and that status quo should be maintained. The second is that the area where the track construction was being attempted is in the area of Bhutan. As per Article 2 of the 2007 India Bhutan Friendship Treaty, “….. The government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other”. Since the Dolam Plateau is Bhutan’s territory and there are also strategic implications of this track, India intervened, most likely at the behest of Bhutan. China has been quoting the 1890 agreement between Britain and China to say that the Tri Junction is at Gyemochen. That is only partially true. Therefore, the legal basis for China’s stand is questionable. Whether this track construction is a well-considered act to change the status quo or it is a tactical level issue that has gone wrong is debatable.
2- Do you agree with India’s reaction to the situation? Is there anything else that India should have done?
India’s reaction was an appropriate one. Given the circumstances that are the only way to react. Being Bhutanese territory, The Government of Bhutan, protested and asked the Chinese troops to vacate the area of Dolam. The very fact that the Chinese have not acceded to Bhutan’s protest vindicates the stand taken by India.
3- The Chinese spokespersons have been very provocative during their briefing on Doko la. They are generally very cautious and restrained in their statement. What is different this time?
This is not the first time that such incidents have taken place. During the previous incidents, China used to complain about our media. This time, it has been the other way around. It appears they resorted to it as India’s response was restrained, mature and balanced. They also must have wanted to attract the attention of International Community to convey that they are right from their point of view. It appears that their rhetoric went much higher than they themselves would have expected.
4- Is there any trigger behind the stand off?
Many analysts have said so but it is debatable. In the answer to the first question also it has been mentioned that this aspect is debatable.
5- Chinese media has reportedly asked for creating separatist movement in Sikkim. There is an ongoing agitation in Darjeeling for the creation of Gorkhaland. Should this worry government and in what way China can exploit the situation?
Those statements should have been avoided. Only once did they mention about Sikkim and also about Kashmir. Thereafter, there has been no mention of it. One is sure that they realized the mistake and also felt that they too have some sensitive underbellies.
6- Can we expect a hybrid warfare against India in the Sikkim-Siliguri region by China?
Unlikely but it needs constant monitoring.
7- You have commanded troops in both Sikkim and Northeast. How well prepared India is in the region against any Chinese aggression? How is the upcoming mountain strike corps going to improve our offensive capability?
India is well prepared to meet any security challenges that may arise. The infrastructure that was lacking earlier is catching up. The new mountain corps is still under raising. As and when it gets completed it will improve India’s capability considerably.
8- There was news about China building road to deploying its light tanks in the Sikkim area. India, in past, had also mooted the idea to procure light tanks for the NE. How would effective light tanks be in those terrains?
The Tibetan Plateau on the Chinese side is fairly flat and the ground is stable. Therefore, it is easier for them to improve their infrastructure quickly. The terrain is also suitable there for the employment of armor. However, things are different on the Indian side. The terrain is very rugged, mountainous and has narrow valleys (barring a few areas). It will be difficult for armor to operate in most of the areas. One has read about the VT5 light tanks that China is trying out from the Chinese media. The effectiveness of that tank, particularly in high altitude areas where the engine performance is affected adversely, remains to be seen.
India – USA – Japan strategic relationship should not be perceived as something against any other country.
9- Given the terrain on the Indo-Tibet border, what if India come up with a Heli-borne division with the support of attaching helicopter units against China?
Firstly, capabilities are not built only against a particular sector. Secondly, a helicopter division is not at all viable in the sector under discussion. It will involve enormous cost and logistical requirements which, when compared to the benefits, will not be commensurate with the effort.
10- In the larger strategic picture of India-US-Japan strategic relation and China- Pakistan CPEC where do you see the India-China bilateral relation heading?
Bilateral relations between two countries are not dependent on individual events or projects. Secondly, India – USA – Japan strategic relationship should not be perceived as something against any other country. It is aimed at coordinating efforts for issues in the multilateral organizations and militarily to improve the interoperability between the armed forces. Though the bilateral relations between India and China seem to be under strain at the moment, the fundamentals of this relationship are strong. As two big neighbors who are old civilizations, most populous, economically and militarily growing at a fast pace, it will be prudent to have good bilateral relations. One sincerely hopes that the present issue gets resolved amicably and the bilateral relations improve considerably.
11- How does China (people and establishment) perceive India and its rise in global stature? Where does 1962 fig in their perception of India?
Though the mention of 1962 has appeared a few times during the present Sikkim stand-off, it appears to be more in the minds of officials dealing with the subject in China than of a public opinion. Secondly, China is at a stage where it feels that the power differential between China and India is large and therefore, she can go it alone on many multilateral issues. This is a marked change from a decade ago.
Lt Gen SL Narasimhan, PVSM, AVSM**, VSM (Retd) is a Madras Regiment Officer, has seen action in Op PAWAN in 1987 in Sri Lanka and has a vast experience in ‘Counter Insurgency Operations. After having successfully commanded the largest Corps of the Army in the North East, he attained super annulation after a successful stint as Commandant, Army War College. He is presently Member of the National Security Advisory Board. He is well accomplished in the Chinese language.
1. The views expressed int this interview are personal.