India and China have been involved in a standoff along the Doklam area, part of their 3500-km shared border, for almost a month. The immediate cause for the standoff is China’s attempt to extend border road through the Doklam–Donglang plateau, which lies at a tri-junction between China, India and Bhutan. India has opposed the Chinese move on strategic grounds and in the light of cordial relations with Bhutan. If the road is completed, it will give China greater access to India’s ‘Chicken’s Neck’, the Siliguri corridor that links the seven North-eastern States to the Indian mainland.
Since the Sino–Indian conflict in 1962 over the border issue, border incursions/ confrontations have been frequent as manifest by such major skirmishes at Nathu La (1967), Depsang (2013), and Chumar and Demchok (2014). The armies of both the countries were engaged in a standoff in Ladakh, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in 2014. However, dialogue and diplomacy had managed to defuse the tension and win temporary peace.
The latest development appears to be one of the most serious escalations in recent years, due to a confluence of factors. The conflict no longer remains confined to India and China but directly involve a third country, Bhutan, which has asked China to stop building the road in its territory. India having signed the Friendship Treaty with Bhutan in 2007 upholds Bhutanese sovereignty as sacred and inviolable. Article 2 of the above treaty categorically states, “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.” On the other hand, China has reiterated its sovereignty over the area, saying that the road is in its territory. Moreover, China claims that the border in the Sikkim–Bhutan belt had been settled in an agreement with the British in 1890, and that India cannot violate the agreement.
China, unlike in the past, adopts a belligerent and recalcitrant approach on the entire issue. Accusing Indian troops of “trespassing” into its territory, the Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui stated that India has to, “… unconditionally pull back troops …” for peace to prevail. ‘Global Times’, the Chinese national daily, accused India of undermining Bhutan’s sovereignty by interfering in the road project and made a veiled threat that India would do well to remember its defeat in the 1962 war. China also retaliated by stopping 57 Indian pilgrims, who were on their way to Kailash–Manasarovar in Tibet via the Nathu La pass in Sikkim. The Government of India, while adopting a cautious approach in order not to precipitate the present situation, warned that the India of 2017 was not the India of 1962, and the country was well within its rights to defend its territorial integrity (statement of Union Defence Minister Arun Jaitley).
It would be relevant to ponder the Chinese motives behind the recent developments. As highlighted by Xi Jinping in October 2013, China’s strategy, while dealing with the neighbouring countries, is based on a multidimensional perspective that extends beyond the immediate confines of time and space and is focused on safeguarding China’s state sovereignty, national security and development interests. What we see in the South China Sea, East China Sea or elsewhere is a clear manifestation of this strategy with a clear pronouncement that China will not compromise on its territorial claims or interests. We should look at the present developments from this angle, rather than interpreting them as roadblocks in Indo–China relationship. Thus, there need not be any astonishment on Chinese claims over the Doklam plateau, despite the resistance from Bhutan and India. China’s furious protest against the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state that China claims and describes as its own, should be viewed in this regard. More significantly, China has started questioning the agreement on the border in the Sikkim sector, including the present status of Sikkim, an indisputable territory of India. No doubt, China’s assertiveness on territorial questions draws strength from its newfound economic and military capabilities and its imaging as a near-superpower.
Strategically or otherwise, India has her compulsions to reject such territorial claims. At the outset, the Chinese move of unilaterally changing the status quo of the tri-junction would lead to serious security implications for India. Sikkim is the only area through which India could make an offensive response to a Chinese incursion, and the only stretch of the Himalayan frontier, where Indian troops have a terrain and tactical advantage. The Chinese are well aware of this strategic advantage, which they want to undo by constructing the road through the Doklam plateau. Second, India has to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial interests of Bhutan, the lone friendly neighbour of India.
Despite the rhetoric and veiled threat, China is unlikely to escalate the situation beyond a point. Though China is vigorously projecting her ‘superpower image,’ it is equally concerned about maintaining harmonious relationships with other countries, a prerequisite for speedy economic development, as per the ‘Two Centenary Goals’ identified by the Chinese Communist Party in its 18th Congress. Similarly, the Indian side has no desire to engage in polemics or step up tension leading to conflicts. India’s concerns are protecting her territorial interests, strategic safeguards and commitment to friendly neighbours.
The current developments have cast a shadow on the efforts of both the countries to improve their relations through diplomatic channels and bilateral negotiations. At an informal meeting of the BRICS leaders on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a conversation “on a range of issues”. Though the External Affairs Ministry of India refused to elaborate on the issues discussed between the two leaders, the meeting has raised hopes for restrain and peace.
Diplomatic dialogues and formal/informal meetings of heads of governments, intermediaries or border personnel can go a long way in sorting out issues and restoring peace. Let us hope that such mechanisms would defuse the present standoff between the two countries.
*K V Thomas is former Assistant Director, Intelligence Bureau.
Views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of CPPR.