It has been more than a month since the crisis at Doka La or Doklam erupted. It has not been resolved as yet, nor are there any signs of early peaceful settlement of the dispute. Many squabbles and altercations on the 4,000km long frontier between India and China have occurred over the last many years. Chinese forces have encroached into Indian territory several times. All these contretemps have however been quickly settled. None of them has lasted this long. This crisis is obviously different from the earlier ones.
A more important difference from earlier discords, notwithstanding Foreign Secretary Jaishankar’s contention in Singapore at the Lecture organized by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Indian High Commission in July, 2017, that this face-off will be sorted out amicably like earlier incidents on the India-China border, is that a third country viz Bhutan is involved in this crisis. All earlier standoffs have been between India and China. It is for the first time that Bhutan, the only other country in addition to India with which China has not settled its boundary is a party to this dispute. Settlements have been arrived at with 12 out of the 14 countries, barring India and Bhutan, with whom China shares land boundaries. All of these agreements are detrimental to interests of the other countries and heavily tilted in favour of China. China has conducted 24 rounds of talks with Bhutan over a period of 33 years but no solution has been reached thus far.
China feels that Bhutan has adopted irreconcilable and uncompromising positions under the influence of India. This is manifestly untrue. Bhutan has been extremely wary of China’s expansionism ever since China came under Communist rule in 1949. Its anxieties were further exacerbated in 1959 when His Holiness the Dalai Lama was forced to flee from Tibet. It is for these historical reasons that Bhutan does not maintain diplomatic relations with China, nor does China have an embassy in Thimpu. All bilateral communications are conducted through the Chinese embassy in New Delhi.
The buildup of the impasse commenced on 8 June just when Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping were having a cordial and seemingly fruitful meeting after a gap of more than 7 months in Astana on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in which it was decided, according to briefing by Foreign Secretary Jaishankar, that ‘’differences’’ will not be allowed to become ‘’disputes.’’ The Doklam issue splashed across the headlines of newspapers and international media just when PM Modi was meeting President Trump in Washington DC at the end of June, 2017. The timing could hardly have been coincidental!
While China has been talking about the applicability and sanctity of the 1890 Treaty, which in any case was never accepted by India with respect to the tri-junction area that brings Bhutan into play, it disputes the McMahon line between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet calling it an unequal treaty imposed upon it by an imperial, colonising power. At the same time, it has gone ahead and finalised its borders with Myanmar on the basis of exactly that same boundary demarcated by the McMahon line. This is clear proof of double standards and hypocrisy.
There are several inconsistencies in the Chinese assertions articulated by it thus far. These have been examined in great detail over the last five weeks. I will hence not deal with those extensively, except to emphasise that Bhutan has conducted itself in a courageous and exemplary manner. It has protested to China in writing that China’s actions are ultra vires of the agreements signed by them. Those who are suggesting that Bhutan has been rather quiet, need to be mindful that India has also not been particularly loud or vociferous. Notwithstanding the shrill, vituperative and undiplomatic expletives emanating from the Chinese state-controlled media and several uncalled for and incendiary remarks from the Chinese Foreign Office and Defence Ministry, India’s response has been measured, balanced and reasonable. India has stressed on the need to use all channels of dialogue and diplomacy to solve the issue.
China, on the other hand, has stridently maintained that India should vacate the territory and pull back its troops before any talks can take place. India’s publicity and public diplomacy efforts have been found wanting and inadequate. It is no one’s contention that India should enter into a slanging or wrangling match with the Chinese media or officialdom giving a tit for tat to them. But India’s public outreach instruments need to stay upfront to cogently and forcefully explain and rebut the calumny of falsehoods that China has been peddling. It is as necessary to reach out to the Indian populace as it is to inform the international decision and policy makers and thought leaders on the accurate sequence of events.
If it is recognised that India needs to behave in a circumspect and non-provocative but firm manner, then it is equally if not more true for Bhutan. After all it is a small country of around 38,000 sq kms facing a mighty behemoth of 9.4 million sq kms. As against the Chinese population of more than 1.3 billion, Bhutan has only 742,000 citizens. Bhutan’s total GDP is $2.3 billion as compared to $11 trillion of China.
Disputes have occurred in the past between Bhutan and China, most notably in 2005, when China constructed roads and modern infrastructure in territory disputed between the two countries. Bhutan’s protests on these activities were termed by China as ‘’over-reaction’’ and no cognisance was taken of its objections. India did not intervene on earlier occasions. China would have thought that this time too they would be able to brush aside and dismiss any objections raised by Bhutan.
China had apparently not bargained that the government in Delhi today is not the UPA government that was in power in 2005. China would also have felt emboldened as over the years it has been nibbling away at Bhutanese territory in bits and pieces without facing much opposition from Bhutan. Its experience in the South China Sea where it did not face any serious opposition from the United States or ASEAN would also have enhanced its chutzpah and lulled it into believing that it would not encounter any serious opposition. China was apparently taken completely off guard when Indian soldiers moved in to decisively block and stop efforts by its soldiers to construct the road.
As mentioned in the press release issued by the Ministry of External Affairs on 30 June, India felt compelled to intervene because unilateral construction of the road by China would have changed the status-quo with serious adverse implications for India’s security as it would have brought Chinese forces within sniffing distance of the Siliguri corridor which connects the Indian mainland with the North Eastern States.
It was imperative for India to stand up and resist Chinese moves in order to safeguard not only its own security and economic well-being but also security and strategic interests of Bhutan. The close coordination and understanding exhibited by India and Bhutan during the crisis needs to be preserved and further reinforced.
The confrontation also represents a defining moment for the historic, civilisational and fraternal ties between India and Bhutan which China has been trying to damage for a long time. To preserve and consolidate Bhutan’s faith and confidence in its partnership with India, India had to step up and assert Bhutan’s rights and interests. India’s stand is also important for the message it sends to India’s neighbours, where its position as a friendly and reliable partner is sought to be diminished and discredited by China reaching out extravagantly and engaging with them in projects which are detrimental to India’s security interests.
A few confusing signals have been emanating from some sections of Chinese media in the wake of visit by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to Beijing for the BRICS NSAs meeting. It would be futile and self illusory to be misled by these tenuous, unsubstantiated whiffs in the air. Refrain from the party mouthpiece, The Global Times, continues to be that India needs to pull back before any dialogue can take place.
It has been made clear that India does not desire any conflict or confrontation with China. It would like a peaceful resolution to the issue so that status-quo ante of 16 June is restored. According to this scenario, Chinese troops will withdraw from the Doklam plateau, pull back their excavators and heavy equipment and stop construction of the road. Indian troops will also revert to their earlier positions. It needs to be kept in mind that according to a bilateral agreement, India maintains its security contingent in Bhutan for training and protection of Bhutanese sovereignty.
Reasons for India not wanting to engage in a local and limited or broad based and extended conflict are many. It wants peace to focus on development of the country and improvement of living conditions of its people. China is an important and significant partner, and cooperative and collaborative bilateral relations will be a win-win situation for the two countries. India’s relations with USA or Japan are not directed against China but are a reaction to China’s increasingly provocative and unhelpful stance on issues of interest to India viz India’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership, designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the United Nations, China’s dismissive attitude to India’s concerns on violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity by the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) etc.
Reasons for China to maintain peaceful ties with India are also several, including its vulnerabilities on Tibet, preventing a reversal of established policy by India on Tibet and Taiwan, attractiveness of the Indian market although India might account for a mere $60 billion exports from China out of its total annual exports of $2.3 trillion, anxiety at India forging closer strategic ties with the US and Japan, and a peaceful, non- threatening image needed in its aspiration for a great power status. All of these must weigh in as substantial considerations for maintaining long term stable relations with India.
However certain domestic compulsions like the forthcoming 19th National Congress of Communist Party of China due in October 2017 in Beijing and the power tussle and turmoil currently taking place in China could significantly constrain the maneuverability and flexibility of Chinese leadership to take a statesmanlike decision to peacefully resolve the ballooning confrontation. Having painted itself in a corner through its strident, insulting and offensive accusations and allegations, China might feel compelled to take some precipitate action against India, more for domestic political considerations than for any other purpose.
If such an eventuality were to play out, the possibility of which appears to be rather limited, India should be prepared to fully protect its interests and in the process also avenge its defeat of 1962 and reclaim some of the prestige and credibility that it lost on that occasion. India has a fighting force which has been exposed to action on the ground incessantly over the last many decades confronting insurgency from across the western border including the Kargil conflict in which India’s defence forces covered themselves with glory. Chinese forces on the contrary have not been engaged in any armed conflict since their war with Vietnam in 1979.
From all available indications, it appears that the standoff on the cold, deserted plateau will not get sorted out anytime soon. It will be a long haul. India will have to psychologically and logistically be determined to dig in its heels to protect the country’s security in the short and medium term and promote its strategic interests in the long term.
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