China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded this month into Sikkim’s Doka La sector near the tri-junction with Bhutan and Tibet. Sketchy media reports suggest ‘jostling’ but no firing and PLA soldiers ‘destroying’ two bunkers before they were stopped.
Though the incursion was in early June, media reports quoted ‘sources’ (not specifying if they were military or civilian officials or just political sources) as the story was put out in late June.
It talked of Indian soldiers stopping the PLA by 'forming a human chain'. So are we talking of a normal border confrontation, a tense face-off, or an India-China kabbadi match in the high Himalayas!
Reason Behind the Incursion
The Army Eastern Command has kept mum on the issue, though a brigadier told this reporter that the escalation was checked by a timely flag meeting.
Despite media reports claiming that both the foreign offices were in touch, neither commented formally, which they are so prone to do on the flimsiest of issues. There hangs a tale.
This incursion happened just before Modi’s US visit, with the Chinese foreign office warning India and US against any plans to ‘intervene together’ in the South China sea or elsewhere.
China has been wary of India’s intentions in Tibet since Delhi helped in organising a not-so-hush-hush conference of Tibetans, Uighurs, Falungongs and 1989 dissidents at Mcleodganj in May 2016.
The recent visit of Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh led to a fierce Chinese verbal volley perhaps because Beijing apprehended that the Dalai Lama will announce his successor in Tawang.
That is interesting because in the late 1990s, India and China had decided not to question each other’s control over Tibet and Sikkim, following which the Nathu La pass was reopened for border trade after forty years.
China had welcomed Modi’s recent comment, ‘not a bullet has been fired at the border in 40 years’ and now the incursions remind Delhi of 1962 when the US abetted the Tibetan insurgency with close support from India.
Thereafter America backed off from providing any meaningful help when Nehru had desperately asked for the US fighter squadrons.
The Chinese are also wary of India furiously beefing up its military infrastructure in the Himalayas. The Chinese foreign office has protested against Indian border roads and bridges like the one at Dhola-Sadiya in Arunachal, saying it was not fair to beef up infrastructure in Arunachal without resolving the border dispute.
What Explains PLA’s Aggression?
Sikkim is the only sector along the 3500-km border where India has a tactical and terrain advantage. India’s decision of raising the mountain strike corps, though mired in financial uncertainties, has upped the ante.
For the first time, Indians seem to be planning for an effective counter-thrust in the event of a conflict, and not just hold the border in a defensive war.
Any such counter-thrust must come in Sikkim and the Chinese, who earlier in the century had agreed to reopen the Nathu La for border trade, are wary of any military infrastructure coming up in Sikkim.
After the much publicised PLA incursions during President Xi Jinping's visit to India in 2014, the LAC had cooled down. Be it Xi Jinping or Prime Minister Li Keqiang, their visit to India was punctuated by PLA incursions in the Ladakh sector, at Depsang and Chummar.
But as the two countries worked out the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement, piloted by former NSA Shivshankar Menon, the incursions sharply dropped in the last three years.
But formation commanders say they have noticed 'greater aggressiveness' on the PLA's part after the Dalai Lama's Arunachal Pradesh visit and in light of a planned visit to Ladakh.
Intelligence analysts suggest the Chinese apprehend the Dalai Lama to announce his successor in Tawang or somewhere in India, which will cold-water their plans. It seems that the ghosts of Tibet have returned to haunt Sino-Indian relations again!
(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and an author. He can be reached @SubirBhowmik. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)