<b>Fifth Columnist<b>:Disquiet on Eastern front
China’s angst with India runs deeper than road construction on the border
There is an unwelcome air on India’s normally dormant 3,500-km eastern border with China. While small incursions and troop stand-offs between India and China are common along some parts of this contested frontier, a flare-up near strategically located Sikkim on the Chinese border is a rare cup of tea.
Beijing has accused New Delhi of sending troops into its territory and obstructing the construction of a road. According to the Chinese interpretation of events, Indian guards crossed into the Donglang region earlier in June and stopped Chinese from building a road on a plateau.
The two sets of troops then confronted each other close to a highly strategic valley controlled by China that separates India from Bhutan – a close Indian ally – and gives Beijing access to the so-called Chicken’s Neck, a piece of land that connects India to its North Eastern region.

In what appears to follow a historical pattern, reports of a Chinese ‘incursion’ and a confrontation with Indian troops coincided with prime minister Narendra Modi arrival in Washington to meet US President Donald Trump on Monday.
It is a case of history repeating itself. Stand-offs reported during diplomatic initiatives, are a recurrent theme in Sino-Indian ties. Modi was unsurprisingly miffed when the Peoples’ Liberation Army walked into Ladakh, with Chinese President Xi Zingping as his guest in Gujarat, during the latter’s first visit to India in 2014.
In 1979, when then foreign minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was on an official visit to Beijing, China had notoriously opened up a front with Vietnam, much to the embarrassment of their Indian guest. Yet despite a one-sided border war in 1962, which ultimately led to the demise of premier Jawaharlal Nehru, the frontier has been quiet, as Modi reminded his audience last week.
Except, two notable exceptions. In September 1967, Chinese and Indian forces clashed at Nathu La in Sikkim, not far from the current skirmish. On 11 September, Chinese troops opened fire on a detachment of Indian soldiers tasked with protecting an engineering company, which was fencing the North Shoulder of Nathu La. This escalated over the next five days to an exchange of heavy artillery and mortar fire between the Indian and Chinese forces, in which 62 Indian soldiers were killed.
Soon afterwards, Indian and Chinese forces clashed again in what has come to be known as the Chola incident. On October 1, 1967, some Indian and Chinese soldiers had an argument over the control of a boulder at the Chola outpost in Sikkim. It triggered a fight that escalated to a mortar and heavy machine gun duel. On October 10, both sides again exchanged heavy fire. While Indian forces sustained 88 casualties and 163 troops wounded, China suffered greater casualties, with 300 killed and 450 wounded in Nathu La and 40 in Chola.

So despite China’s overwhelming military superiority – the dragon’s defence budget last year crossed $150 billion, four times that of India’s military allocation the same year– there is also a realisation on both sides that military solution is not the way ahead.
India under an aggressive Modi is seemingly not willing to back down. On Thursday, India's army chief Gen Bipin Rawat visited Sikkim. Rawat, who also visited forward troop formations, said India is ready for “a two-and-a-half front war” – implying that India was prepared for both the Chinese and traditional rivals Pakistan.
Beijing, particularly riled with Rawat – recently panned by a fashionable Indian Leftist as Gen Dyer of Jallianwallah Bagh notoriety – asked the Indian Army chief to “stop clamouring for war”.
The press quoted the People’s Liberation Army spokesman Col Wu Qian as saying, “Such rhetoric is extremely irresponsible. We hope that the particular person in the Indian Army could learn from historical lessons and stop such clamouring for war.” The reference to 1962 was none-too-subtle.
While the recent skirmish in Sikkim appears to be the flashpoint, the real reason for China’s angst is larger.
India has deepened its military ties with the United States in recent years, particularly the George Bush and Barack Obama years. It has caused some worry in China, which is no less miffed with India’s refusal to participate in Beijing's multi-billion-dollar Silk Road infrastructure initiative. New Delhi is concerned that the project could cement China’s dominance over Asia, while India not being a participant in the project, is a huge economic input missing in China’s impressive business armoury.
Events appear to be moving on thin ice, for the moment. That the friction is building up became evident when David challenged the Goliath himself – tiny Bhutan, a close India ally, has protested to mighty neighbour China over road building in the disputed territory. Bhutan's ambassador to New Delhi, Vetsop Namgyel, said his government had called on China's PLA to stop building the road at a tri-junction where the Bhutan, Indian and Chinese borders meet.

Beijing is willing to demonstrate its military muscle if needed, old sweats of the Sino-Indian rivalry recall. On Thursday, the Chinese military confirmed it had conducted trials of a new lightweight battle tank on the plains of Tibet, not too far from the Indian border. When asked whether it is targeted against India, the PLA spokesman said, “The purpose is to test the parameters of the equipment and is not targeted against any country.” Sadly, the real casualties of this build up are Indian pilgrims going to Mansarovar. The border, for now, is closed for them.
Ranjit Bhushan