Sikkim standoff: Doklam will prompt new thinking on India-China relations

 

The massive beefing up of logistics moving  “tens of thousands of tonnes” of military vehicles and equipment to Tibet ,by China , likely under the garb of two defence exercises held on the plateau in recent weeks but perhaps aimed at muscle-flexing amid the Doklam stand-off, said reports today.

The vast haul was transported to a region south of the Kunlun Mountains in northern Tibet by the Western Theatre Command, which oversees the restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, and handles border issues with India.

Since mid-June, scores of Indian and Chinese troops have reportedly been locked in a standoff on a piece of territory claimed by China and Bhutan. Though the dispute between the two nuclear-armed rising Asian giants might appear to be a bilateral affair, the dispute in question is a tripartite one, as it involves the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan at its centre. The terrain in question is claimed by Bhutan, which has long had a special and privileged relationship with New Delhi while having no diplomatic ties with Beijing.

The message the government sent, beyond the facts of how the stand-off began, was threefold: that Indian troops now sit across from Chinese troops for a second month at a part of the tri-junction claimed by Bhutan; that India is upholding its commitment to Bhutan with its military presence there; and finally, that it is pursuing all diplomatic options in order to resolve differences with China on the dispute.

China has so far rejected any talks until the Indian troops move back. But New Delhi’s insistence on neither asking the troops to step back nor stopping the pursuit of dialogue is a mature response. 

China’s position remains that diplomacy can only be possible after India unilaterally withdraws its troops back to its side of the international border and the standoff appears no closer to a resolution.

Sikkim standoff: Doklam will prompt new thinking on India-China relations
Image courtesy:India.com

 

Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engineers reportedly began construction of a motorable road from the terminal “turning point” at the end of a track that had existed since at least 2005 and possibly much earlier.  According to the Bhutanese government the PLA sought to construct a “motorable road from Doka la in the Doklam area toward the Bhutan Army camp at  Jampheri.”

 Indian troops decided to move preemptively across the international boundary on June 18. Indian decision to cross the border was  an act of collective security provision for Bhutan, a tiny kingdom that has long relied on India for defensive ballast.

The two countries have a 1949 Treaty of Friendship that gave India total guiding influence over Thimphu’s defense and foreign policy; this treaty was revised in 2007 to give Bhutan far greater autonomy, though it retained a clause noting that “neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

The Indian government has primarily framed its decision to intervene across the international boundary in terms of its obligations to Bhutan. “In coordination with the RGOB, Indian personnel, who were present at general area Doka La, approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo. These efforts continue,” the June 30 statement by the Ministry of External Affairs noted.

However, that same statement, further down, notes that the planned “construction would represent a significant change of status quo” in Doklam, which would have “serious security implications for India.”

China’s current claims over the Doklam plateau should be seen as yet another instance of cartographic aggression, which China often engages in. It is, however, China’s action of building an all-weather road on Bhutan’s territory, one capable of sustaining heavy vehicles, that has prompted Bhutan and India to coordinate their actions in their joint national interests, under the terms of the 2007 Friendship Treaty.

For India and China, this standoff has released long pent-up frustrations that highlight their divergent paths and aspirations in Asia and the world. For China, the standoff serves as an opportunity to put an increasingly assertive and confident India back in its place as Asia’s permanent second-class great power.

For India, despite some de-escalatory messaging ,memories of defeat at the hands of the PLA in 1962 continue to sting and so showing resolve at all costs remains the overriding task. For now, India has no plans of complying with China’s ultimatum and pulling its troops past the international boundary.That’s precisely why the scope for a peaceful walk-back from the brink appears to be shrinking with every passing day and why this standoff matters.

The only silver lining is that both India and China, though for different reasons, are reluctant to engage in an open conflict ,one that could prove detrimental to both. The Chinese economy is slowing down at present and the main preoccupation is to regain its past momentum.

China is also preparing for its 19th Party Congress, at which Xi Jinping hopes to establish full control. It is, hence, anxious to avoid any kind of major distraction. India’s reluctance again centres on the economy. Its concerns are that a conflict would stymie economic growth. Both, therefore, have valid reasons not to provoke a conflict.

The Chinese cannot make any gain with the existing number of troops in the Western Theatre Command and any movement from elsewhere would mean the element of surprise would be lost, said defense sources monitoring the standoff. 

The Indian Air Force has 22 airfields in the Eastern sector. The Chinese air force has 15 air bases and 27 airstrips. The Indian Air Force is at a significant advantage over the Chinese along this part of the border in the Eastern Himalayas because all the Chinese bases are located high in the Tibetan plateau and therefore, jets taking off cannot carry their full weapon load. All India’s bases are in the plains and there are no operational constraints.

One available option is the Special Representative Meeting (SRM) that was set up primarily to deal with border issues. Over the past decade and a half, the SRM has been enlarged to some extent to deal with strategic issues.

It will not be the first time that the SRM has been used in this manner to deal with knotty problems outside border matters.As of now, it appears to be the only viable and meaningful option to tackle the impasse. The Special Representatives should, hence, urgently establish contact and work out a modus vivendi that would ensure a solution without loss of face for either side.

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