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Sino-Indian Border Confrontation: National Security Threat to Nepal?

By Prabasi Nepali

Sino-Indian Doklam Standoff:  National Security Threat to Nepal?

Media reports persist in referring to the Sino-Indian border standoff in the “trilateral” “Doklam Plateau” in the “Sikkim Sector”. The border dispute is not “trilateral” and is nowhere in the so-called “Sikkim Sector”. It is squarely situated in the Doklam Plateau abutting the Chumbi Valley in Tibet, which is nominally Bhutanese, but is disputed by China. Tensions have arisen between India and China because China built a mountain road through the Doklam Plateau, which India perceives as a strategic threat to Sikkim (which it annexed in 1975 ), the northern Darjeeling District of West Bengal and above all the crucial passage connecting the sub-continent to the North-Eastern States (Siliguri Corridor/Chicken’s Neck), including Arunachal Pradesh (which China claims and calls ‘South Tibet’).

There are voices in the Nepalese media which have sounded alarm over the crisis in the Eastern Himalayas: “God forbid, if war breaks out between India and China in Doklam, expect it to be long and ugly and to even spread to our country” (Republica, August 13, 2017). Unfortunately, the writer proceeds from erroneous historical premises and does not factorize the current state of international relations. Currently, China is busy preparing for next month’s summit of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in China itself. Both Brazil and South Africa are in turmoil, and China has a great stake in the success of BRICS. It is also closely involved in dampening down the Korean crisis by reining in US President Trump. Thus, it will not allow a minor border skirmish to escalate into a full-scale border war as in October 1962. China will probably not undertake any action until after the BRICS summit, the congress of the Communist Party (when Xi will be confirmed as General Secretary and consolidate his grasp of power), and above all until the Korean crisis simmers down.

If however, India overplays its hand, and provokes a major Chinese reaction (as in 1962, which was a result of Indian miscalculation, not of China’s as the writer contends), it will be a short quick surgical operation involving only conventional forces. But these will be very specialized and mechanized units already stationed in the Chumbi Valley of Tibet (separating Sikkim from Bhutan) which will overwhelm the Indian mountain divisions stationed in Gangtok and Kalimpong. There is also absolutely no reason why Nepal should be involved. We should uphold our policy of strict neutrality as in 1962 and keep our mouths shut if hostilities do break out, even if the Indian Army mobilizes the Gurkha Regiments. There is also no need to panic and no “need to deploy our military in the borders with both countries” (as the writer urges). It is redundant for the country to go on a ‘war footing’. It is in fact ‘war mongering’ to “take measures to secure our airspace by deploying our anti-aircraft guns in all strategic locations.” Our borders and our air-space (in the north, as well as, in the west, south and east) are not militarily defensible.  No country, whether in the immediate neighbourhood, nor in the wider world, will come to our aid if we are attacked. We can only preserve our sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity by diplomatically keeping both our giant neighbours at arms length – equidistance and equiproximity writ large – and our international bona fides at the United Nations (after all we are a major contributing and hugely successful nation in UN Peace Keeping Operations). Unfortunately, our politicians and diplomats have been miserable failures in highlighting this contribution.

US-North Korea War of Words: Hopefully No Escalation

There is no doubt that militarily, the United States is the most powerful country in the world, whether in conventional or nuclear terms. At the same time, North Korea although a relatively small country, can now threaten the continental United States with its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile(s) [ICBMs]. After the United Nations Security Council at the urging of the US last week clamped a comprehensive catalogue of sanctions on the rogue state, US President Donald Trump unnecessarily started a war of words with the perceived nuclear enemy number one.

It all started off with a stern warning from Trump that North Korea would face “fire and fury” if it kept threatening the US. This started an explosive discussion in the US and around the world as to the precise meaning and content of the ominous and menacing phrase. The North reacted, perhaps playfully and sarcastically, by saying that in mid-August of this year, it would test fire an

‘Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile’ (IRBM, and not even an ICBM of longer range) in the direction of the US island territory of Guam in the north Pacific, but well short of the island itself, to demonstrate its advances and prowess in missile technology. This was too much of a challenge to the volatile and narcissist Trump and he virtually exploded.

The idyllic island of Guam has a population of 162,000 and draws more than 1,5 million tourists every year. It hosts two US military installations and 6,000 US soldiers, making it an attractive target for North Korea. Pyongyang has claimed that it would take less than 18 minutes for its missile to cross the 3,400 km distance over southern Japanese islands and the ocean to the US territory. Guam is equipped with the sophisticated THAAD weapons system which is capable of destroying intermediate-range missiles in the final phase of flight.

Trump did not mince his words when threatening North Korea with military retaliation. It would “truly regret” attacking the US, and that the US military is “locked and loaded”. At the same time, Trump could not let the opportunity pass for self-praise: “We’re going to do a great job, don’t worry about a thing,” adding “They should have had me eight years ago, or somebody with my thought process” [!]

The North’s official KCNA news service, for its part, accused Trump in an editorial of “driving the situation in the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war,” calling the US “the heinous nuclear war fanatic.”

Meanwhile, China North Korea’s key and only ally, has pleaded with Trump to tone down his rhetoric to prevent tensions from boiling over. Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Trump in a phone call on Saturday to avoid “words and deeds” that would “exacerbate” the already tense situation on the Korean Peninsula, state television CCTV reported. Xi also called on “relevant parties to maintain restraint” and to “persist in the general direction of dialogue, negotiations and a political settlement” – clearly admonishing both the US and North Korea. Xi also stressed that “China and the US have a common interest in realizing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and maintaining peace and stability [there].”

Trump Considering Military Option in Venezuela

Trump is also completely frustrated with the development in Venezuela, which is on the verge of imploding, and where the US has done little to ease the suffering of the people. The economy has virtually collapsed in this oil-rich country, and to say there is an acute shortage of basic amenities and medicine is a complete understatement. The dictatorial socialist president Nicolas Maduro is in power because the military still supports him.

Trump has not had much success in the domestic arena, and in the typical stance of a failed politician, seeks to divert attention from domestic politics through foreign adventures. His hawkish posture vis-à-vis North Korea and now towards Venezuela is a reflection of this. Washington had slapped sanctions on President Nicolas Maduro and some of his allies. This only had the effect of consolidating his oppressive regime and further increasing pressure on a hapless people. He also branded Maduro a ‘dictator’ over his attempts to crush his country’s opposition, but this was tantamount to the pot calling the kettle black, as his own approval ratings were about 39 percent, the lowest of any president in modern times. Moreover, Trump’s own dictatorial tendencies cannot be overlooked, and these would have definitely come to the fore were it not for the ‘checks and balances’ of the American political system.

Trump said he is considering military options as a response to the escalating crisis in Venezuela, a move the South American country quickly repudiated as “craziness.” Trump had discussed the country’s political and economic crisis at his golf club in New Jersey with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and mulled the possibility of military intervention: “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary…Venezuela is a mess. It is a very dangerous mess and a very sad situation.”

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