An India surrounded by countries which would be proxies of China would severely limit India’s global aspirations and keep it tied down to South Asia, thus allowing China a free run in Asia and the world.
China’s aggressive actions at the tri-junction between India, Tibet and Bhutan, in the Doklam plateau of the Chumbi Valley, is no routine border incursion and poses an extremely grave security and diplomatic threat to India. China’s actions signal its intent to embark on its long-term expansionist plans in this part of Asia, and ought to send alarm bells clanging in India’s security establishment.
A brief recap of the events at the border would be in order here. China has long laid claim to the Doklam plateau that falls in west Bhutan and adjoins the Chinese-controlled Chumbi Valley of Tibet. Chumbi Valley separates Sikkim from Bhutan and hangs like a dagger over the vulnerable Chicken’s Neck, or Siliguri Corridor, that connects North East India with the rest of the country. Chumbi Valley is, however, very narrow and cannot accommodate the number of troops and military hardware China would require either in case of an offensive, or to deter India militarily.
Also, Chinese troops in Chumbi Valley suffer from a serious strategic constraint since the ridge lines along the Valley fall in Bhutan and Sikkim and Indian troops have a clear tactical advantage there. It must be remembered here that India provides military muscle to Bhutan and the Indian Army has a strong presence in that country through the IMTRAT (Indian Military Training Team) units stationed in Bhutan. Thus, Indian troops pose a serious threat to the Chinese not only from Sikkim but also from Bhutan, where they are stationed.
It was Indian soldiers who backed the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) which confronted and challenged Chinese attempts to construct a road through Doklam. The Chinese road through Doklam plateau – a strategically vital territory of Bhutan that China falsely lays claim to – would have even touched an RBA garrison. RBA troops, backed by IMTRAT units, stopped the Chinese road construction works and Bhutan issued a demarche to China, objecting to the construction that would have altered the strategic balance in that region in China’s favour.
An incensed Beijing, thus, spoke of India violating Bhutan’s sovereignty. Indian military presence in Bhutan has long riled China and despite its best efforts, Bhutan has steadfastly remained a close friend of India.
China’s Grand Design
Standing at Beijing’s infamous Tiananmen Square, China’s notorious communist dictator Mao Tse-tung said 1953 (after the annexation of Tibet): “Xizang (Tibet) is like China’s right palm whose five fingers – Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA (as Arunachal Pradesh was known as then) – remained severed and under the occupation of, or influence of, India. The palm is ineffective without the fingers, and so it is necessary to liberate the five fingers and rejoin them with the palm.”
That was no empty rhetoric. The Chinese, anyway, never indulge in empty rhetoric. Mao was articulating the deeply ingrained trait of expansionism among the Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in the world. This expansionism, which has only intensified with China emerging as a global power, has brought that country in conflict with most of its neighbours. China, buoyed by successfully bullying smaller nations in its periphery into submission, wants to try out the same with India.
For China, Indian influence over Bhutan (which the Chinese maliciously allege is an Indian protectorate) is a deep irritant. China has been pressurising Bhutan, without success, to establish direct diplomatic relations with it instead of dealing with Beijing through the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. China is desperate to gain a toehold in Bhutan by opening an embassy in Thimpu. Doing so would be the first important step in increasing Chinese influence in Bhutan and weaning that country away from India’s embrace through massive financial aid and development projects.
China been successful in subverting India’s influence over Nepal, and large sections of the political establishment in Kathmandu are now openly pro-China and deeply anti-India. China has been pouring in financial and material aid to Nepal, executing massive infrastructure and power projects, and has brought Nepal into its own sphere of influence. New Delhi is, thus, wary of allowing Bhutan to open up to China.
The Chinese claims over large slices of territory in west Bhutan – Doklam, Charithang, Sinchulimpa and Dramana – have been made with twin objectives: (1) to neutralise the disadvantage its own troops face in Chumbi Valley and deny Indian troops in Bhutan access to the strategic high grounds overlooking the Valley, and (2) to force Bhutan to establish direct ties with Beijing. In fact, say sources in India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), China has already offered to defuse the tension in Doklam if Thimpu agrees to start working towards establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing and limits access of IMTRAT units to west Bhutan that adjoins Chumbi Valley.
Of the “five fingers” of the palm (Tibet), Ladakh is already under serious threat, what with half of it (Aksai Chin) being under Chinese occupation. Nepal is slowing falling to Chinese control, and China has upped the ante over Sikkim now even though it had accepted that Sikkim is an integral part of India in exchange for India reiterating its position about Tibet being an inalienable part of China. By transgressing into northeast Sikkim, China has perfidiously brought Sikkim back to the broader border dispute with India. India can now expect the Chinese to start contesting Sikkim’s ascension to India in 1975.
China’s transgressions into Bhutan and its claim over Bhutanese territory is thus part of its grand strategy to bully and beat Bhutan into submission and wean it away from India’s influence. China has already been laying claim to Arunachal Pradesh, especially the Tawang tracts to the west of the state that People’s Liberation Army troops overran in 1962. China has stationed large number of troops and sophisticated military hardware all along the Arunachal-Tibet border. In fact, Indian military presence and physical infrastructure compares very poorly with that of China across the border not only in Arunachal but Sikkim as well.
Importance of the ‘Five Fingers’
A look at the map of Asia will show that many landlocked parts of China – the eastern areas of Xingiang, and provinces like Gansu, Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan – would benefit immensely with free access to the Bay of Bengal. That can only happen if the ‘five fingers’ come under Chinese control.
China already exercises tremendous influence over a big section of Bangladesh’s political and military establishment. The pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is in the opposition now, and its ally the Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as Islamists in that country, are all closely linked to Pakistan, which is totally beholden to China. Beijing, through Pakistan and also on its own, thus wields a lot of influence over Bangladesh that offers a direct opening to the Bay of Bengal.
Chinese presence in Myanmar has increased and grown stronger and, through that country, China has also gained access to the Bay of Bengal. Even though Myanmar’s powerful generals have, of late, realised the insidious nature of Chinese presence in their country, they cannot simply shrug off the Chinese yoke that they had happily brought themselves under. India’s efforts to wean away Myanmar from China are far too sparse. And with its control over the rebellious tribes inhabiting the restive northern parts of Myanmar that are beyond the control of Myanmarese army, China automatically enjoys a lot of leverage over that country.
China’s incitement of insurgencies in North East India have to be thus seen from the prism of its expansionism. By aiding, supporting and training various militant groups of the North East and even extending safe refuge to them within its territory (the refuge granted to ULFA chief Paresh Barua being just one example), China wants to keep that part of India in turmoil and, thus, under indirect control.
In the long run, once it firmly establishes direct or indirect control over the ‘five fingers’ and rids them of Indian influence and control, China would gain a huge geo-strategic advantage over India. An India surrounded by countries which would be proxies of China would severely limit India’s global aspirations and keep it tied down to South Asia, thus allowing China a free run in Asia and the world.
New Delhi would also do well to keep in mind the fact that China’s right palm with its five fingers under Beijing’s control can also be used as a wrist to deliver a debilitating punch to India. The only way that can be countered is to meticulously follow the Chinese path of strengthening the economy, spurring growth and building up the country’s military capability. And, also, by judiciously weeding out the Chinese ‘plants’ in India’s polity.