Diplomatic Enclave: FACE OFF

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The Doklam crisis is the longest face-to-face confrontation between India and China for several decades

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi shook hands at the sidelines of a meeting of BRICS leaders in Hamburg during a G-20 summit. The Indian side described the two leaders as having discussed a range of issues, but the Chinese spokesperson denied a bilateral meeting or that the face-off between the Indian and Chinese troops on the border at Doklam was discussed. The Indian side may have tried to gild the lily in its description of the “conversation”, while the Chinese side was more pedantic in its depiction, but the leaders would have met and greeted each other at a event hosted by China, which is the current chair of BRICS and is also expected to host a summit in September.

There have been border face-offs on earlier occasions, but the Doklam crisis, now four weeks long, is the longest face-to-face confrontation between Indian and Chinese soldiers for several decades. In a bid to lower the tension in both countries, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar speaking at an Asean event in Singapore suggested that India and China could resolve their current stand-off in the same they have settled past differences along their disputed border. But the Chinese spokesperson responded that there was a “fundamental difference” in the current stand-off as the border with Sikkim is the only Sino-Indian border that has been delineated.

The border along the state of Sikkim is not disputed, but the trijunction of India, China and Bhutan at the Chumbi Valley is not a settled issue as there are conflicting claims between the three countries. There are two main differences in the Dhoklam stand-off from earlier border disputes. In this instance it is not a face-off between India and China as in earlier times; it involves all three countries, India, China and Bhutan. The crisis unfolded with the Chinese attempt to extend a road to a location that Bhutan claims as its territory. When soldiers at the Bhutanese outpost could not stop the Chinese earth-moving machinery on their territory, the Indian soldiers came to their assistance.

The other difference in this confrontation is the kind of anger and vituperation that has appeared in the Chinese media. The Chinese government has made strong statements in protest; Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui gave a press interview where he called for an unconditional pull back by Indian troops as a precondition for meaningful dialogue between China and India. Ambassador Luo said India had no right to interfere in the China-Bhutan boundary talks, nor was it entitled to make territorial claims on behalf of Bhutan.

The Indian stance has been restrained while the nationalist Chinese media is unusually belligerent. Chinese English language media as well as the official newsagency, Xinhua have carried commentary and analysis by strategic experts that have escalated the rhetoric to unusually high pitch. These have ranged from reminders of the 1962 war to accusing India of treating Bhutan as a “vassal state” and coercing Thimphu into supporting New Delhi with editorial warnings that New Delhi needed to be taught a “bitter lesson” for trespassing across the border. China has a lively commercial media, but state authorities usually keep tight control on the narrative over sensitive issues of national concern. The heightened rhetoric is an indicator of the Chinese ire at the border face-off.

On the western side of the border, Indian authorities allowed the Tibetan government in exile to unfurl the independent Tibet flag at the Pangong lake along the Line of Actual Control in the Ladakh sector – a needless provocation for the Chinese government.

Bhutan issued a demarche to China over the construction of a road towards its Army camp in Zompri area of Doklam and asked Beijing to restore status quo by stopping work immediately. China claims that the Sikkim border was well demarcated according to the 1890 convention between China and the British. However, Bhutan was not a party to the convention. China-Bhutan is not demarcated and there are disputes over three sectors. Bhutan, which does not have diplomatic ties with China, has been holding border talks with China; the two countries have an agreement to not make any changes in the status quo along their border region.

The Doklam plateau is of critical importance for India due to its proximity to the Siliguri corridor that connects the northeast to the rest of the country. Bhutan’s experiment with electoral democracy is gaining strength and there are voices in Thimphu, which are taking a more critical view of Bhutan’s relations with the outside world. Though Bhutan has protested to China, it may not want a prolonged stand-off on its territory. China has been building roads in other disputed border regions, and it could have implications for its other differences with China. New Delhi needs to be sensitive to Bhutanese sentiments.

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