by Sean Keeley · October 9, 2017
Long after China and India negotiated a face-saving “disengagement” to the Sikkim border standoff, PLA troops are still causing unease with a heavy presence near the disputed terrain. The Indian Express reports:
More than five weeks after India and China stepped back from a standoff at Doklam on the Sikkim border, Indian soldiers remain on high alert with around 1,000 Chinese troops still present on the plateau, a few hundred metres from the faceoff site. […]
At the plateau, sources said, the Chinese have not dismantled any of their tents and temporary construction in the vicinity. The PLA battalion, which has been spread over the area due to lack of space, is being kept under surveillance by the Indian Army, said sources. The Chinese soldiers in the area still have road construction equipment and other stores, they said.
Although India doesn’t expect another “flashpoint” in the area, the assessment is that China could attempt a stronger intrusion at another location on the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) — possibly at Barahoti in Uttaranchal, in the central sector.
Other reports have echoed this one, with additional details offering more cause for concern: according to the for instance, PLA troops were widening a road approximately 12km from the original standoff site. Indian sources say that work is being done within Chinese territory, unlike the road-construction that triggered the border dispute back in June. But the reports of a new Chinese road in the sensitive region have spread quickly, fueling political fires in New Delhi. Rahul Gandhi, a prominent rival of Modi and the Vice President of the Congress party, took to Twitter to demand an explanation of the Prime Minister: “Modiji, once you’re done thumping your chest, could you please explain this?”
Beijing, for its part, has been adamantly denying that anything is out of the ordinary. “The Chinese troops of border defence have always been patrolling in Donglang to protect their territorial rights, according to the relevant border treaties and agreements,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. And India’s Ministry of External Affairs has been trying to calm the anxieties produced by reports, claiming that there have been “no new developments” since the August 28 disengagement and that the “status quo prevails.”
But as Indian Express reporter Sushant Singh has pointed out, that framing is somewhat deceptive. Yes, the “status quo” since the August disengagement is technically being maintained by the Chinese. But that agreement only entailed a stepping back of 150km on each side—not a full-scale withdrawal, and a far cry from the previous status quo that India and Bhutan wanted China to adhere to:
Essential point is that India and Bhutan wanted China to restore status quo ante as on June 16. China has not done so, but has altered that. https://t.co/INWTraeoU0
— Sushant Singh (@SushantSin) October 6, 2017
In short, this looks like a subtle but pointed provocation from the Chinese side. Barely a month after the border crisis was supposedly defused, Beijing is maintaining a heavy troop presence, showing India that it will not fully withdraw and can still stir up trouble along the border. This fits a pattern of what India’s top army chief recently described as a “salami-slicing” strategy of periodic Chinese transgressions to inch positions forward and make gradual gains along India’s northern border.
It remains to be seen whether the current situation will snowball into something more dangerous; some analysts believe the PLA troops are just engaging in minor border bluster and do not want to cause a crisis ahead of China’s Communist Party Congress. Regardless, the jitters being felt in India now are an indication of where relations are heading in the future. With distrust high on both sides of their long and partly disputed border, the risks of miscalculation are high—and China and India are likely to engage in many more standoffs to come.