Those who saw the quasi-friendly, quasi-hostile sledging between Indian and Chinese soldiers on a barren patch of land strewn with stones, apparently near the Nathu La Pass on the Sikkim-Tibet border, must have been left quite bewildered. The first reaction of most would have been that some harmless jostling was in progress in inhospitable heights where Indian and Chinese forward positions exist face-to-face across an unmarked border. But when Chinese troops unceremoniously pushed back a batch of Indian pilgrims and stopped them from proceeding to Kailash-Mansarovar, matters looked more serious than initially thought.
Tuesday's official statement from the Chinese authorities made it plain that the Nathu-La route will not be reopened for pilgrims till certain issues are resolved. The statement was followed by a belligerent article by a Chinese "scholar" - normally a euphemism for a Communist Party hack - warning India not to fall into America's trap, clearly a reference to the bonhomie on display during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US and the equation he struck with President Donald Trump.
Undoubtedly, Beijing is unnerved by New Delhi's close association with Washington and is sending a message to both capitals against bolstering equations between India and the US. If in the process, 49 hapless pilgrims are victimized by Chinese high-handedness, well, so be it!
Clear and irrefutable details of precisely what happened along the border are not forthcoming despite the Chinese media's blatantly untruthful jibe that the Indian military establishment "spoon feeds" our media without disclosing the "facts". In fact, both the government of India and the army authorities have been spectacularly silent on the issue. Apparently, in a typical demonstration of military might, Chinese soldiers intruded into Indian territory and destroyed at least two Indian Army bunkers. Our forces had apparently intervened on finding the Chinese were building one more road in the sensitive border area. Beijing claims that the road is being built inside "undisputed" Chinese territory. Paradoxically, China, which does not recognize the McMahon Line calling it a "colonially imposed" arbitrary demarcation of the Indo-Tibet border, now refers to an Anglo-Sikkim Agreement to assert that the new road is being constructed outside the territorial limits of the erstwhile Kingdom of Sikkim.
The matter may or may not be too serious as admittedly the undemarcated portions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are frequently violated by Chinese troops and occasionally even by Indian forces when they notice suspicious activities on the other side. On large stretches along the Himalayan ranges, the border is unmarked, and in the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh (occupied by China since the 1962 conflict), this is a frequent occurrence. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) is known to periodically flex its muscles, enter Indian territory and even construct a helipad or two (as they did in Sumdorong Chu in Arunanchal Pradesh in the early 1980s). Usually the Chinese authorities either live in denial about such incidents or mildly rebuke India for "intruding" into their territory.
But this time, the matter is more contentious. To begin with, it is the first occasion that the Chinese have blocked access to the holy Mount Kailash through the Nathu-La route since it was opened in 2006 to facilitate both trade and pilgrimage. Till 2003, China claimed Sikkim was an independent country whose monarch had in the past accepted Beijing's suzerainty. This make-believe assertion was finally dropped by China during then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Beijing in 2003. It was also agreed during that visit that the two countries would progress rapidly to formally delineate unmarked portions of the Line of Actual Control as the first step towards settling the long-standing border dispute. India and China appointed two Special Representatives (then National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra was New Delhi's nominee) to take the negotiations forward. Informally, the two countries agreed to demarcate a permanent border "without unsettling settled populations". Shorn of diplomatic verbiage, this was interpreted to mean China giving up its claim on 90,000 sq. kms of Arunachal Pradesh, particularly the district of Tawang (which was well-populated), in exchange for India officially recognizing China's occupation of the unpopulated cold desert of Akasi Chin, most of which has been under Chine occupation. This still left the issue of the slice of Indian territory seized by Pakistan and subsequently "gifted" or ceded to China by Islamabad. It is through this piece of mountainous terrain that the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being built to give China access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea through the Gwadar port
While the latest hostile action on the Nathu La Pass and the verbal conflagration that followed may not escalate into something bigger, India needs to clearly size up China's Big Power aspirations. Beijing has always aspired to be the Asian hegemon. It is intensely distrustful of its two economically powerful neighbours - Japan across the sea and India across the mountains. India, however, is a huge market for Chinese consumer goods. And that is an opportunity Beijing does not want to forgo. But India's growing economic and diplomatic clout ruffles China. The evident camaraderie between two tough-talking leaders, President Trump and Prime Minister Modi disturbs China's long-term goals. India's unflinching opposition to China's grandiose One Belt One Road (OBOR) idea marks a setback for Beijing's strategic economic and political pursuits. Clearly, China wants to keep India engaged in territorial issues with it and its ally Pakistan. Since it has surged way ahead of India in terms of economic development, China wants to zealously guard the advantage, pricking India from time to time to register its military superiority.
Arguably, India has to both compete and, in many cases, cooperate with China and cannot afford permanent hostility. But there is an in-built economic conflict between the two countries that is bound to spill over into active hostility, spurred mainly by China. Beijing prides itself for settling border disputes with all its neighbours except India. But these settlements have mostly been among unequals (barring Russia). India's status in the world today nettles China but New Delhi too needs to tread cautiously without escalating tensions.
Disruption of the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra may seem humiliating, but if China insists on flexing its muscles in this manner, we may need to ignore it for the present and await a suitable opportunity to demonstrate our growing clout in the world. But for that, India's economic growth must catch up with China at least in the medium term. Resolving the border issue cannot be our priority till then.(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.