Doklam: An uneasy truce
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New Delhi: From the way Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the ninth BRICS summit this month, with a wide smile and a warm handshake, it seemed all was well between the world’s two most populous nations.
From the body language of the two leaders, it would have been hard to tell that their countries had less than a week ago ended a tense military standoff that lasted 73 days—their most serious confrontation in decades.
The disengagement had, in fact, paved the way for Modi’s attendance at the 3-5 September summit of the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—the world’s biggest emerging economies.
As a key driver of BRICS, its most influential member and the host of the summit, China wouldn’t have wanted the event to be marred by the absence of its biggest neighbour. Everything at the summit was carefully choreographed, from the welcome accorded to the delegates to the group photograph.
But the truce that India and China have called may be an uneasy one at best.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said after the BRICS summit that bilateral ties hadn’t been derailed, but conceded that they had been “indeed damaged and affected”.
India and China have an unsettled border with most of the almost 4,000km in question undemarcated. It is a legacy of their brief but bitter 1962 war—which ended badly for India.
But the latest tensions were not related to that dispute. The crisis was triggered by China wanting to build a road on the Doklam plateau that is claimed by Bhutan as its territory.
China, on its part, said the plateau is part of its territory, known as Donglang. Doklam is located at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan, and is close to the Nathu La pass in the state of Sikkim.
Tensions began to mount after Indian troops stationed in Bhutan under a special bilateral security arrangement intervened to keep Chinese troops out.
“Doklam is a disputed territory and Bhutan has a written agreement with China that pending the final resolution of the boundary issue, peace and tranquillity should be maintained in the area,” Bhutan’s ambassador to India Vetsop Namgyel told Press Trust of India in late June.
“We have issued a demarche to China through its diplomatic mission here. Recently, the Chinese army (People’s Liberation Army) started construction of a road towards Bhutanese Army camp at Zompelri in Doklam area which is in violation of an agreement between the two countries,” Namgyel said.
Claims, counter claims
That’s what set the Doklam confrontation apart—India and China were tussling over territory claimed by a third country. The Indian view is that New Delhi and Beijing had agreed in 2012 that boundaries that fall between India and China and a third country—i.e. on a tri-junction—would be resolved taking into account the views of the third country.
In intervening on behalf of a smaller neighbour, India contended that the Chinese action changed the status quo along the border. It also expressed concern that a road could allow China to cut off the Indian mainland’s access to its northeastern states.
According to China, it was a case of India trespassing into its territory. “The Donglang area belonged to China since ancient times and it doesn’t belong to Bhutan. India wants to raise an issue with this part. I should say it doesn’t belong to Bhutan, nor it belongs to India,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in June.
Significantly, China cited an 1890 British colonial era treaty—and not subsequent pacts—to claim its rights to the region.
In the days immediately after the standoff began, Indian officials in New Delhi seemed to be at a loss to explain the reason behind the Chinese action. It after all came just days after Prime Minister Modi met Chinese President Xi at Astana in Kazakhstan where they had reached a consensus on two key points—“that at a time of global uncertainty, India-China relations are a factor of stability, and in their relationship, India and China must not allow differences to become disputes”, as revealed by Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar.
The Bhutan factor
According to former foreign secretary Shyam Saran: “I think China saw this as a low-risk, low-cost move to nudge Bhutan into accepting what has been a longstanding offer on settling the border issue, which very importantly, would have meant that Doklam, which is under dispute, would have gone to China.”
“Secondly, it was also to nudge Bhutan into establishing diplomatic relations, exchange of embassies, which they have been resisting for quite some time and, in the bargain, some collateral benefit of putting some additional pressure on India as well. And China in a sense follows a certain playbook, a playbook in which every single move that it makes, may not be important enough or threatening enough to invite a strong counter-reaction. Incremental advances which cumulatively begin to change the facts on the ground,” Saran said.
“Doklam in a sense came as a surprise to them—that, in fact, there was a (Indian) reaction to them,” he said. China, he said, “did not anticipate this reaction”.
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Bhutan and China don’t have diplomatic relations. In recent years, China has been trying to establish diplomatic ties with Bhutan, which is largely seen as a country within India’s sphere of influence.
According to Tenzing Lamsang, editor and founder of The Bhutanese, a privately owned newspaper published from the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, Bhutan and China have been in talks to resolve their unsettled boundary for years.
In the 1990s, China came up with a “package deal”, where in return for the smaller disputed Doklam area, it was willing to give bigger territorial concessions in disputed territories in central Bhutan. Doklam, Lamsang said in a recent article in The Indian Express newspaper, is not strategically important for Bhutan. But in the mid-1990s, Bhutan rejected the Chinese deal, mainly because of Indian concerns over Doklam.
The road the Chinese were building in June, he said, was heading down through the disputed territory towards the Zompelri ridge that overlooks the “Chicken’s Neck”, or Siliguri corridor, which connects mainland India to the North-East states bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar, besides China.
It is through the Siliguri corridor that rail and road networks connecting the rest of India to the North-East pass. Also important is the fact that this corridor feeds the primary military formations located in the North-East.
War of words
In the days that followed the start of the confrontation, China unleashed a psychological war against India. First it stopped Indian pilgrims from using the Nathu La pass to reach the ancient Hindu pilgrim site of Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet. Then came a barrage of threats and warnings through official channels like the foreign and defence ministries as well as state-backed media.
In July, Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui ruled out a compromise and put the onus on New Delhi to resolve the “grave” situation.
“The Chinese government is very clear that it wants peaceful resolution at current state of the situation for which withdrawal of Indian troops from the area is a ‘pre-condition,’” Luo said.
Again in early July, an editorial in state-run Global Times news website called on Beijing to teach New Delhi a “bitter lesson”—bigger than that in 1962.
“India has long treated Bhutan as a vassal state, a rare scene under modern international relations. India’s illegal border intrusion is not allowed by international law; besides, its suppression of Bhutan must be condemned by the international community,” the editorial added.
Another editorial in the days that followed warned that if India “stirs up conflicts in several spots, it must face the consequence of an all-out confrontation with China along the entire LAC (Line of Actual Control)”.
This was followed by China’s defence ministry warning India not to “push” its “luck” by underestimating Beijing’s resolve to safeguard what it considers sovereign Chinese territory.
Chinese defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian reiterated China’s demand that Indian troops pull back from the Doklam plateau, adding that China will step up its troop deployment, vowing to defend its sovereignty at “whatever cost”.
Capping the incessant flow of warnings and threats from Beijing was an accusation by Chinese foreign minister Wang.
“The rights and wrongs are crystal clear and even senior Indian officials have openly stated that Chinese troops did not enter into the Indian boundary, which is to say, India has admitted it crossed into Chinese territory,” Wang was quoted as saying in a foreign ministry statement in August.
India remained guarded in its reaction. In a detailed statement on 30 June, India said it was “deeply concerned at the recent Chinese actions” and told Beijing that road construction activities “would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.”
India, the statement added, “cherishes peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas. It has not come easily. Both sides have worked hard to establish institutional framework to discuss all issues to ensure peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas. India is committed to working with China to find peaceful resolution of all issues in the border areas through dialogue.”
In July, in a statement to Parliament, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj urged both India and China to pull back—seen as a response to Beijing’s demand of a unilateral pullback by India.
In another statement to Parliament in August, Swaraj indicated there could only be a diplomatic solution to a military standoff with China and advocated patience in India’s handling of the problem.
The Indian foreign ministry also stated that diplomatic contacts were on between the two sides to resolve the standoff. The ministry also recalled that in June, Prime Minister Modi had reached an understanding with Chinese President Xi that differences between the Asian giants should not be allowed to become disputes. This was during a meeting between the two on the margins of the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in the Kazakh capital.
All this came amid news reports of China carrying out war games in Tibet, close to the standoff site, and India moving large numbers of troops to the area.
Then, 73 days into the stand-off, on 28 August came the news that both sides were beginning to disengage. A two-line statement from the Indian foreign ministry said that thanks to diplomatic contacts, the two countries had agreed to “the expeditious disengagement of border personnel at the face-off site at Doklam”.
It later added that the disengagement had been completed “under verification”.
Two weeks after the resolution, there is still no official word of how the agreement was reached. And in the absence of an official explanation, theories abound. One of the theories is that China saw it prudent to make a tactical retreat given that India and Bhutan were seen to be on more solid legal ground. And with the BRICS summit coming up, China would not have wanted to jeopardize a showpiece event hosted by it for Doklam.
ALSO READ: Doklam standoff: A timeline of events
“With the economies of countries like South Africa, Brazil and Russia not doing well, India’s absence at BRICS would have been telling,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese Studies at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University. He pointed to the fact that India only confirmed Modi’s presence at the BRICS summit a day after India and China announced their military disengagement.
On the margins of the BRICS summit, Modi and Xi met and agreed to adopt a “forward looking approach” in the relationship between India and China, said foreign secretary Jaishankar.
“One of the important points which was again made during the meeting was that peace and tranquillity in the border areas was a prerequisite for the further development of our relationships, and that there should be more efforts made to really enhance and strengthen the level of mutual trust between the two sides,” Jaishankar said.
Given that India and China were neighbours, areas of differences would exist, “but it should be handled with mutual respect” and efforts made to find common ground in addressing those areas, he said.
In the defence arena, “the personnel involved in defence and security must maintain strong contacts and cooperation, and ensure that the sort of situation which happened recently do not recur,” Jaishankar said.
Analysts say one of the major takeaways from the Doklam episode is the need for better border management. “We had agreements in 1993, 2005 and 2013. I think the many provisions suggested in these should be better implemented,” said Kondapalli. One of the suggestions to be implemented was the setting up of a hotline between the political leadership of the countries, he said.
Happymon Jacob, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, says India would have to be more wary of China in the future.
“India has long enjoyed a special status in the South Asian region and often treated it as its exclusive backyard. With China expanding its influence in the region and competing for status and influence, it considers South Asia along with India in it, as its periphery. And China is unlikely to respect India’s exclusive primacy in the region,” Jacob said.
Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal noted that India’s strong stance had fundamentally altered the dynamics of bilateral relations. Previously, India was seen as not standing up to China. Post-Doklam, that had changed and this was likely to be noted by countries in South-East Asia, which have maritime boundary issues with China, such as in the South China Sea.
“They will draw the right conclusion without India having to project Doklam as a victory,” Sibal said.
Many irritants dog Sino-Indian ties. They include the unsettled boundary dispute, a ballooning trade imbalance in China’s favour (India’s trade deficit with China mounted to $46.56 billion last year), Chinese infrastructure construction in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which is disputed between India and Pakistan.
China claims 90,000 sq. km of Indian territory in Arunachal Pradesh and occupies around 38,000 sq. km in Jammu and Kashmir. Also, under an agreement signed between Pakistan and China in March 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded 5,180 sq. km of territory claimed by India in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to China.
From the Chinese point of view, the fact that India continues to host the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom China regards as a “splittist”, is an irritant. India’s outreach to countries like Japan, Vietnam and others in South-East Asia is also viewed with suspicion by China.
In a seemingly bold move, India has reportedly sold Brahmos cruise missiles to Vietnam, which has strained ties with China over a maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
In 2014, India had extended a $100-million export credit for defence deals to Vietnam and increased energy ties with the country.
For now, though, China and India are making the right noises.
“Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi have held successful bilateral talks in Xiamen and both sides should conscientiously implement the consensus of the leaders and ensure healthy and stable development,” Chinese foreign minister Wang said in Xiamen, following the BRICS summit. *