Standoff In Sikkim


Two belligerent neighbors China and Pakistan are mocking India in a common voice, raising the specter of a war on two-and-a-half fronts. New Delhi must give a befitting reply


Nobody can say if Pakistan and China are coordinating their statements against India. But, the timing of Pakistan’s decision to test fire its low-range missile Nasr and Chinese media’s call for Sikkim’s “independence” suggests the two neighbors might be simultaneously reminding India of their potential for mischief.

The Chinese threat, considering that it has a ring of novelty to it, sounds more alarming. After hinting at the military action on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) near Bhutan after the standoff at Doka La, China now wants to incite trouble within the Indian borders and target New Delhi’s ties with Bhutan.

Calling for Sikkim’s “independence” and separation from India, its media has asked Chinese citizens to “fuel” pro-independence movement in the Indian state bordering China and overturn India’s “brutal” annexation of the state, reports Hindustan Times.

Its blatant attempt to stoke secessionist fire in India is borrowed straight from Pakistan’s strategy in Kashmir, where it has been provoking and financing groups that want to secede from India. Yet, Sikkim is not Kashmir.

Since its merger after the 1975 referendum ratified by the elected government, Sikkim has been a stable and undisputed part of India. In the past two decades, China too has recognised India’s sovereignty over Sikkim through several measures that strengthened bilateral ties between the two neighbours.

So, why is China talking about Sikkim’s independence?

Though Beijing knows India’s sovereignty over Sikkim is unquestionable, it is raising the stakes in the war of words that began with the skirmish over China’s attempts to build a road through Doka La (Doklam) in Bhutan. The new Chinese report is aimed at telling India that apart from a traditional military and diplomatic response, it is capable also of a proxy war — the kind Pakistan has been waging in Kashmir.

The Chinese response was expected since the day India decided to boycott its One Road One Belt project and then leaned towards the US and Japan for a joint maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean. To push India back, China responded by its almost predictable ploy of crossing the Line of Actual Control on the pretext of building roads and then putting pressure on New Delhi to back off and negotiate. But, this time it has raised the volume of its rhetoric and propaganda machines after Arun Jaitley’s remarks about India not being the India of 1962 — when it lost a war with China — and the Indian army chief’s statement that he is ready for a war on two-and-a-half borders (both external and internal).

Experts believe that a military response to the current standoff at Doka La, which India considers strategically important to guard its Siliguri corridor, is unlikely. India is in the middle of a military modernisation cycle and needs some more time to get its act together. Its 17 Strike Corps, being raised from the scratch specifically for mountain warfare, is not yet fully deployed.

China, on the other hand, gains very little from a war near Doka La. As defence expert Colonel Ajai Shukla argues, advancing to the Siliguri corridor would require Chinese troops to break through strong Indian defences in Sikkim and advance southwards more than a hundred kilometres through difficult jungle terrain – a tough military task. The beleaguered Chinese units that do make it to Siliguri would have to beat back inevitable Indian counter-attacks. Even assuming that China obtained control over the Siliguri corridor, India could simply bypass the corridor, moving through Nepal or Bangladesh.

Clearly, both sides believe a war of words suits them better at this stage.

Pakistan’s rhetoric after the trial of its improved Nasr missile appears timed with the Chinese threats. After Nasr, a missile aimed at hitting an advancing army with a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon, was test-fired from three places, its army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa reportedly saying this was like cold water over India’s cold start doctrine.

The cold start doctrine is a term used for a military attack that envisages a rapid advance into the enemy territory and then using the gains to negotiate a surrender. The lightning attack is aimed also to break the enemy before it can put together a military response.

India’s cold start doctrine was a subject of conjecture for several years before the current army chief General Bipin Rawat acknowledged it in an interview in January 2017. “The cold start doctrine exists for conventional military operations. Whether we have to conduct conventional operations for such strikes is a decision well-thought through, involving the government and the Cabinet Committee on Security,” Rawat told India Today.

Pakistan believes it can neutralise a cold start by attacking the advancing army with Nasr fitted with a tactical nuke. With this aim, it has deployed low-yield nukes and missiles that can strike up to a distance of 70 kilometre on the front. It has given its brigadier-level officers to use the tactical nukes in case Indian strike corps enter cross the LoC. Its strategists argue India will not be able to afford a targetted strike at an army division and would desist from starting a short war aimed at breaking Pakistan.

When Bajwa claimed Nasr has poured cold water over the cold start doctrine, he effectively told India that the two countries now had military and strategic parity. And the Deep State in Pakistan can continue meddling in Indian affairs without fearing an Indian response.

At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reaching out to new friends like Isreal, India’s traditional enemies are raising their anti-India propaganda and rhetoric by mocking India’s sovereignty and strike power. It would be interesting to see how New Delhi response to this chorus on India’s borders.