A dispute high in the Himalayas threatens years of diplomatic progress
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Indian and Chinese forces are locked in a stand-off high in the Himalayas, where the borders of India, China and Bhutan come together. In recent years, observers have grown used to such disputes being worked out peacefully, with a mutual face-saving solution. But as time goes by, concerns that this incident could mark the beginning of a longer term downward trend in Sino-Indian relations are rising.
To help understand the origins, significance and potential resolution of the Doklam stand-off, we asked Professor Wang Dong from Peking University, and Doctor Samir Saran, the Vice President of India`s Observer Research Foundation, to present their perspectives on these questions.
What is the origin of this dispute?
Wang Dong: On 16th June, 2017, the Chinese side was building a border road in Dong Lang (or Doklam), which is close to the tri-junction between China, Bhutan and India, but belongs to Chinese territory.
On 18th June, 2017, Indian border troops, in an attempt to interrupt China’s normal road construction, illegally crossed the demarcated and mutually recognized Sikkim section of the border into Chinese territory, triggering a standoff that has thus far seen no ending. In the past, border standoffs between China and Indian all occurred in disputed areas. This time, however, the standoff took place along a demarcated borderline which has been established by the 1890 Convention between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibetand has been accepted by successive Indian governments since independence in 1947. Given that the Doklam Plateau is located on the Chinese side, as accurately stipulated in the Convention, and that the Doklam area has been under China’s continuous and effective jurisdiction, it is crystal clear that the Doklam standoff is caused by Indian border troops illegally trespassing into Chinese territory. Indian border troops’ illegal intrusion into Chinese territory has not only unilaterally changed the status quo of the boundary, but also gravely undermined the peace and stability of the China-Indian border area.
There is no legal basis in India’s claim that New Delhi acts to assist Bhutan in defending its territory. Nothing in the Friendship Treaty between Bhutan and India justifies India’s cross-border intervention. India’s incursion into Chinese territory under the excuse of protecting Bhutan’s interests has not only violated China’s sovereignty but also infringed upon Bhutan’s sovereignty and independence. It should be noted that in fact it is pressure and obstruction from India that prevented Bhutan from concluding a border agreement with China and thus completing negotiations of establishing a diplomatic relationship between China and Bhutan. The bottom-line is that India has no right to hinder boundary talks between China and Bhutan, much less the right to advance territorial claims on Bhutan’s behalf. Indeed, India’s behavior will set a very bad example in international relations. Does New Delhi’s position suggest that China also has the right to intervene on behalf of another country which has territorial dispute with India?
Also, India has cited “security concerns” of China’s road building as a justification of its illegal incursion into Chinese territory, a position that runs counter to basic principles of international law and norms governing international relations. Given the fact that India has over the years built a large number of infrastructure facilities including fortifications and other military installations in the Sikkim section of the border area (that actually dwarves the very little infrastructure China has built on its side of the boundary) that poses a grave security threat to China, does India’s stance imply that China could also cite “security concerns” and send its border troops into India’s boundary to block the latter’s infrastructure buildup?
As Confucius says, “Do not do unto others what you do not wish others to do unto you.” New Delhi should heed the sage’s wisdom.
Samir Saran: The dispute was triggered by China’s construction activities on the Doklam plateau, which is at the tri-junction of Bhutan, India and China. India and Bhutan both acknowledge Doklam as a tri-junction and, as such, the boundary points of all three countries around it should be settled through consultations. In fact, the India-China Special Representatives dialogue agreed to do precisely this in 2012. China’s military activity seeks to change facts on the ground, rendering any diplomatic or political boundary negotiation moot. Now, China may unilaterally assert where the tri-junction actually lies, but in an age where maps are drawn, scrutinised and contested on social media, it behoves Beijing to adopt a statesmanlike approach to this dispute.
India sought to prevent China from pursuing such construction on the Doklam plateau for two reasons: first, in keeping with the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, India coordinated with Bhutan on all matters, including security issues, of mutual interest. India is acutely conscious of the fact that it is the net security provider in South Asia, and that military activities cannot but, be conducted through mutual consultations, no matter how big or small your neighbour is. One wishes the leadership in Beijing too embraced this principle. By asking China to desist from unilateral activity in Doklam, India sought to reassure its smaller neighbor that it will not allow Beijing to unilaterally change the boundary situation to Bhutan’s detriment. Second, the military implications of China’s infrastructure activity in the region, located close to the narrow Siliguri corridor which connects mainland India to its north eastern states, are worrisome for India. By intervening, India is making it clear that it will act forcefully to protect not only its territorial claims but also its sovereignty and national security interests.
On a more strategic assessment, this dispute is perhaps a harbinger of the Himalayan fault-line that is bound to get sharper as India’s economy grows and China continues to seek greater political and normative influence in the sub-continent. China must internalize that a multi-polar world will also necessarily see a multi-polar Asia emerge and its attempt to become the sole determinant of political outcomes in the region may be challenged.
What issues are shaping perceptions about the wider meaning of this stand-off?
Samir Saran: There is little doubt that the border dispute is the byproduct of a larger rivalry between China and India, both of whom can decisively steer the future of Asia. New Delhi is wary of China’s ambition to “hard-wire” its influence in the region through infrastructure and connectivity projects in order to emerge as the sole continental power. Already, India-China ties have deteriorated as a result of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor – which passes through the disputed Pakistan occupied Kashmir – seen by India as a clear affront to its sovereignty.
A unipolar Asia does not serve India’s interests. Accordingly, India is determined to be a reliable partner to its South Asian and other regional interlocutors. New Delhi realizes it must leverage its fast growing economy and military capacities to offer trade partnerships and security arrangements to other countries on the continent. By coming to Bhutan’s assistance on this border, New Delhi is making it clear the dispute will not be resolved without accounting for Bhutan’s interests. The subtext of the most recent iteration of the Malabar naval exercises, which sees participation from the US and Japan (and possibly Australia in the future), was a signal to China that unilateral militarization, such as the kind China engaged with in the South China Sea, will not be acquiesced to.
India understands the importance of being able to resolve bilateral disputes with China in a peaceful manner. We are the two biggest countries in Asia —with land and maritime borders extending in all directions — and how both countries manage their differences will determine the region’s stability. New Delhi has steadfastly abided by a rule based international order, often against its own interests. In 2014, for example, India accepted an adverse arbitral ruling regarding an UNCLOS dispute with Bangladesh. In comparison, China has run roughshod over its neighbours in the South China Sea, going so far as to threaten war with them. By highlighting the need to peacefully resolve the current border dispute, India is telling China, “Look, we have a problem here. For our sake and the region’s, we should adopt a mature and sensible attitude towards its resolution”.
Wang Dong: The root causes of the standoff in Doklam are multiple. First of all, since Narendra Modi took office as Prime Minister of India in May 2014, India has gradually shifted away from its traditional non-alignment policy, and moved closer to the United States and its allies such as Japan and Australia. Many Indian officials and analysts believe that Beijing has been taking the side of Pakistan in the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict. They also regard China as a stumbling block to India’s efforts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Second, India’s misperception may also come from the fact that India has always been highly sensitive, sometimes even paranoid, about infrastructure projects initiated by China in border regions, whereas it has failed to account for its own much more intensive military infrastructure buildup along the border area.
While the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” has become the flagship project of China’s much touted “Belt and Road Initiative”, India views it as a part of the “New String of Pearls” strategy attempting to besiege India. Third, India’s swelling nationalism in recent years, exacerbated by a deepening threat perception against China, may have misguided its policy deliberations. After the standoff in Doklam occurred, a senior Indian military leader claimed that ”India is no longer the India of 1962”—an indication that India has not completely come out from its psychological shadow as a victim in the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict. Indian leaders should resist the temptation to play up its domestic nationalism, and avoid making wrong decisions that will have a severely negative impact on the Doklam logjam as well as the future of Sino-Indian relations.
Despite repeated urging and warning from the Chinese side, India so far has refused to fully withdraw its border troops. If India continues to refuse to do so, it is likely to lead to the worst case scenario: the outbreak of an armed conflict between the two countries. However, this will be a heavy blow to the diplomatic achievements made by the two countries over the past 30 years.
Moreover, India will also have to pay a heavy price for its diplomatic blunder. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party took the power in 2014, domestic Hindu nationalism has been on the rise. If New Delhi fails to gain an upper hand should a military conflict break out, the ethnic and religious tensions in India are likely to be intensified, causing domestic upheaval and imperiling the political status of the BJP. Enormous demands for domestic infrastructure development in India may also be delayed, and ultimately India may miss the opportunity for economic development. On the other hand, even if China prevails in a military conflict, China’s relationship with India will suffer. The conflict will also likely create enduring enmity between New Delhi and Beijing, lock the two major powers into a lasting geostrategic rivalry, and inflict great damage to important pillars of a multipolar world such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the BRICS, and Group of 20 (G20). Therefore, it is necessary for China and India, the two most important developing countries in the world, to solve the Doklam standoff peacefully, avoid sending bilateral relations into a downward spiral, and maintain regional peace and stability.
What are the chances of it getting out of control?
Samir Saran: India acknowledges the importance of a diplomatic resolution, but is also wary of being perceived as indecisive or incapable of standing up to Chinese aggression. It is aware that the reputational costs of ceding to Beijing (or being seen as such) will be just as damaging as any loss of territory. Rhetoric from New Delhi has been strong. Reports also suggest the Indian military has reinforced its positions in the area’s surrounding the disputed region.
The Indian government has demonstrably been more sober about the dispute than Beijing. So it is unlikely that India will seek to escalate the conflict. On the other hand, New Delhi is just as unlikely to withdraw unilaterally and, to this end, may be willing to continue standing up to China were tensions to escalate.
Wang Dong: At present, the nature of the Doklam standoff is abundantly clear: it is caused by the illegal incursion into China’s territory by Indian border troops to obstruct China’s normal road construction. Thus, the top priority is for India to withdraw its troops back to its own boundary. Although China has the will to resolve the Doklam standoff peacefully and has so far exercised maximal restraint, the Chinese government has made it clear that it is determined to steadfastly safeguard China’s sovereignty “whatever the cost”, should India refuse to withdraw troops and thus peacefully resolve the standoff.
What should be highlighted is that China does not wish the Doklam standoff to get out of control, and it will endeavor to peacefully resolve the standoff. Nevertheless, the root cause of the standoff is India’s illegally trespassing the border into Chinese territory, so the initiative to resolve the deadlock lies in the hands of India.
How can the parties de-escalate the situation?
Samir Saran: Neither India nor China can afford to ignore the geopolitical implications of their actions. If the contest is to be resolved, the situation at Doklam must be de-escalated through the mutual withdrawal of troops, followed by a summit level conversation between the two countries. While a National Security Advisor level meeting amongst the BRICS countries has already taken place in July, possibly opening up space for a dialogue, the importance of the issue implies that it will have to be taken up at the leadership level. This is probably a good time to reinvigorate the Special Representatives dialogue process on boundary settlement. Both sides will have to dial down the rhetoric and more importantly, offer face saving concessions in order to placate domestic sentiments and larger strategic anxiety. This face-off is also a reminder of the need for both countries to create new constituencies, from among industry, think tank/ academia and civil society more broadly, that seek a stronger bilateral relationship.
Wang Dong: China and India will both benefit from cooperation, or get hurt from confrontation. China consistently holds a clear stance on the Doklam standoff that the precondition and basis for any dialogue between the two sides would be India’s withdrawal of its border troops first. In recent weeks, India seems to indicate its willingness to solve the deadlock through diplomacy and negotiations. Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval has just attended the BRICS NSA meeting in Beijing, and has met with both President Xi Jinping and State Councilor Yang Jiechi.
The longer the standoff lasts, the worse the damage it would inflict on bilateral relations between the two countries. Now the ball is in the court of India. New Delhi should take responsible measures to correct its wrongdoing and de-escalate tensions. Provided that India withdraws its personnel that have illegally crossed the border and entered into Chinese territory that will set the stage for both sides to find a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Apart from negotiations at government level, public diplomacy including dialogues between think tanks and could also help to break the tit-for-tat logjam and send out signals to each other for further reducing tensions and settling the dispute. In a sense, the standoff is a symptom of the deepening security dilemma between China and India in recent years. In the long run, both sides need to exercise political will and wisdom to correctly gauge each other’s strategic intentions, reverse the worsening security dilemma, and chart a positive-sum trajectory of China-India relations that will greatly contribute to a stable and prosperous multipolar world.