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China was surprised in Doklam, never thought India would challenge it: China scholar Yun Sun

Three years ago when Indian soldiers stopped their Chinese counterparts from constructing a road near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction at Doklam, China was taken by surprise as it never expected India would challenge it, said Yun Sun, a China expert and co-director of East Asia Program at the Stimson Centre in the US.

Yun Sun said this during an interview with India Today TV on Tuesday.

Speaking about the 2017 Doklam standoff between India and China, Yun Sun said, “During the Doklam standoff in 2017, China was surprised because it was not expecting India to stand up to it and to stage a 72-73 day long standoff over a piece of barren land near Bhutan.”

This, Yun Sun, said was one of the major developments that made China revisit its strategy and focus regarding engaging with India.

Asked about the motivation behind the ongoing Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), Yun Sun said Chinese officials seem to be of the view that there was a need to respond to India’s activities near the border.

“If you ask a Chinese government official, the response would be that China was responding to what India had been doing along the Line of Actual Control,” Yun Sun said.

She said that it is well known that there is a historical dispute over the perception of the exact locations through which the LAC passes.

“So, when the Chinese identified that India is building roads and other infrastructural projects in their region, their concern was how should they (China) respond. They felt that India is stabbing China on the back that India is putting China in an impossible position where either China responds aggressively and be seen as attacking India, or does nothing and actually end up losing territory,” Yun Sun said, adding that understanding the Chinese motivation behind the recent moves is not very hard to understand.

She said while the English media in China may not have sufficient text to give an idea of the Chinese thinking over the present situation, there is an abundance of information on China’s strategy and motivation that is available in the Chinese language media.

Asked about the timing of the recent aggression, Yun Sun said that while border disputes between the two countries have been on for years, the year 2020 is of special importance for China because of the internal pressures and the perceived external attacks on it over the coronavirus pandemic.

“The power competition between India and China in Asia gives rise to conflicts and affects regional power balance,” she said.


Speaking about the nature of border conflicts between India and China, Yun Sun said the situation is that both the countries are trying to address their security concerns by deploying forces into the region and building infrastructure.

“Both sides think what they are doing is to protect their national security and their national interest. But in effect, what they are undertaking as their respective exercise in enhancing their capabilities, is perceived as an aggression by the other side. This is because enhancement of security on one side automatically translates into decrease of security on the other side,” Yun Sun said.

In terms of military activities, both sides react to “what they believe” the other side is doing, she said.

‘China’s biggest threat is US; India’s is China’

Responding to the theory that China is intentionally becoming aggressive during the time of pandemic to assert itself at the global stage by attacking its neighbours, Yun Sun said people who forward this theory must realise that for China, the threat is on its Eastern border (East and South China Sea) and not on the Western Border (with India).

“From the Chinese perspective, its main security concern is not in the West, but in the East. The US is identified as China’s greatest military threat. Why would China then want to start a two-front war with India in the west and US in the east? That is not something in China’s national interest in any sense,” Yun Sun said.

She added that while India is not China’s biggest security threat, “for India, China is its biggest threat”.

“China would like to have friendly relations with India, especially in context of the US trying to come closer to India and persuade it to get involved in the South China Sea. But if the Chinese perceive that India is trying to leverage its alliance with US to force China to abandon its territorial claims, then that is not something that it would ever entertain,” Yun Sun said.

Adding further, she said that while China would want to have good relations with India, it will not be at the cost of sacrificing its territorial integrity.

“Good bilateral relation with India is a means to an end i.e. to defend its national interest. Good bilateral relations in itself is not an end. If China has to sacrifice its territorial integrity for the sake of good relations with India, then having good relations fails the purpose,” she said.


Asked about where the present situation is heading towards and if there is a possible way out, Yun Sun said at the moment it is clear that both sides are imitating each other in terms of enhancing border infrastructure and defence capabilities.

“If India is building a road in Daulat Beg Oldie, then China sees it as a security vulnerability and would want to build a road in its area. Similarly, when China builds up something in the area, then India will perceive it as a strategic weakness and would want to build something similar.”

Advocating for a diplomatic solution to the present situation, Yun Sun said, “What is happening at Pangong Tso Lake has happened in the past too. I think diplomats of both sides are negotiating on a path for de-escalation. But the top leaderships of the two countries will have to come forward so that the troops on ground act in line with the diplomatic talks.”

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