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Decoding the India-China Standoff

Updated on August 28, 2017
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Ashutosh believes in the spirit of nationalism, but despises jingoism & is thoughtful about nations' interests.

The Story So far

The two nuclear armed Asians giants, India & China are in a deadlock at the Doklam region of neighboring Bhutan since June 18th. It all started on June 16th, when the Chinese tried to extend their border road into the disputed Doklam Plateau region, changing the status quo on the ground. Also referred to as Doka La by Indian side and Donglang by the Chinese it is an 89 sq km tract in Western Bhutan that China claims as part of Tibet. The tri-junction of India, Bhutan, and Tibet is on the north-western edge of the Doklam Plateau where the Batang La post of India is located along Sikkim border.

With China unilaterally deciding to start construction of roads there prompted Bhutan to seek Indian assistance. This led to a scuffle between the Indian Border troops and the Chinese People's Liberation Army(PLA) as the Indian troops obstructed the construction work. The PLA in retaliation demolished two Indian bunkers at the nearby Lalten outpost which were constructed back in 2012. Nearly 300 soldiers from either side were rushed and have been holding ground in more of an 'eyeball to eyeball confrontation'. The numbers as of now have reduced, however, the forces on both sides continue to remain on high alert. Troop movements and reinforcements from both sides along the disputed borders have also been reported. Thankfully the aggression has not resulted in a single bullet being fired so far, post the conflict erupted. The war of words and show of strength though has been going on since between the two nations through various fronts. Amidst the hullabaloo, diplomatic channels are also being sought to defuse the tension. Although China has maintained its position that diplomacy can only be possible after India unilaterally withdraws its troops back to its side of the international border, a demand that India has outrightly rejected owing to its own insecurities vis-a-vis Chinese aggression.

India had made an official press release on June 30, 2017, reiterating its position on the Doklam standoff and reaffirm its support to safeguard the territorial sovereignty of its protectorate, Bhutan. On August 2nd, 2017, China also released a 15-page formal document supporting China's firm stance on the issue and called Indian intervention an illegal-trespass, the same was accompanied by supporting statements from Chinese Foreign Ministry.

The Disputed Doklam Region
The Disputed Doklam Region
Indian Transgression as Highlighted by Chinese Media
Indian Transgression as Highlighted by Chinese Media

Brief History Of Indo-China Conflict

India and China share a 3,488-km-long border from the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, out of which a 220-km section falls in Sikkim, which is the focal point of the current standoff. Although this isn't the first time an Indo-China border conflict has taken place. In fact, there is a history of conflicts between the two Asian neighbors.

The issue dates back to 1913-1914 when representatives of China, Tibet, and Britain negotiated a treaty in India under the Simla Convention. It was then foreign secretary of British India, Henry McMahon who proposed the McMahon Line (stretching around 890 km) as the border between British India and Tibet. While Tibet and Britain agreed Pecking (now Beijing) rejected the agreement.The same Macmohan line and the ill defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) along Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir has since then remained a thorn in the relation between the two countries. Post the Indian independence both countries have even fought a major war in 1962 where China proved superior and even seized some of the Indian territory in Aksai Chin region in Kashmir. India did pull one back when the two countries engaged in another armed conflict in 1967 and Chinese army got a heavy pounding at Nathu La (Sept 11th) and Cho La (Oct 1st) along the LAC. Post that the two countries have refrained from armed conflicts, perhaps the last time they came close to one was in mid-1986 to early 1987, when massive troops movements were observed along the border area, however, the tensions were later cooled off. Both countries also signed an agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas on September 7th,1993.

Currently, China is in occupation of approximately 38,000 sq. km of Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, under the China-Pakistan "Boundary Agreement" of 1963, Pakistan ceded 5,180 sq. km. of territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) to China. This again is a disputed area between India and Pakistan. China also till date doesn't recognize the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (formerly the NEFA or North East Frontier Agency) and claims it as its own. In fact earlier this year, fumed over the visit of Dalai Lama in the Arunachal Pradesh region, China went ahead and renamed five regions in the Indian state as its own post raising a protest with India. India's support and shelter for the Tibetian spiritual leader Dalai Lama is another reason for the conflicting relations between the two countries. He has been living in exile in India after fleeing a failed uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet in 1959.


Bhutan's Perspective

The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan landlocked between the borders of India and China is strategically important for both countries. The Bhutanese and Chinese Governments have so far held 24 rounds of talks to resolve the border disputes which also includes the current area of conflict - the Doklam plateau area. Paying no heed to protest from Bhutanese Government, China aggressively started building roads and mobilizing the army in the region. For Bhutan, this was an infringement and a direct violation of the territorial treaty obligations (1988 & 1998) and that's when it requested Indian assistance. Both Bhutan and India share the same understanding and wants status quo restored in the region, prior to June 16th, 2017.

Bhutan doesn't have diplomatic relations with China but is increasingly dependent on India and share close cooperation with it in various areas. On March 2nd, 2007, India- Bhutan revised 1949, Friendship Treaty which states, “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. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other”

Recent Scuffle at Doklam Between Chinese and Indian Army

Indian Perspective

It's a known fact that India confronted Chinese on foreign soil (Bhutan) on request from the Bhutanese Government. However, it's essential to mention that India's involvement is not just aimed primarily at assisting its ally but also safeguarding its own territorial integrity. From an Indian point of view, it's become a tripartite issue and a status quo is in the interest of all parties involved. It is concerned that the road if completed, would not just make India lose its strategic advantage in the region but also automatically give China greater access to India's strategically vulnerable Siliguri Corridor area, also referred to as the "chicken's neck". It measures just 23 kilometers wide between Bangladesh and Nepal and links the seven north-eastern states to the Indian mainland. It's a choke point and its capture in case of any future conflicts with China would be a severe threat to India security-wise, cutting off its access to its north-eastern states.

Chinese Perspective

As far as China is concerned it maintains Doklam as part of its territory citing a 1890 convention between China and Great Britain relating to Taiwan and Sikkim, both of which were later merged in Republic of China and India respectively. The Chinese Foreign Ministry even released a map to elaborate their claim that the Trijunction is marked at Gyemo Chen (Mount Kipmochi) and not Batang La as claimed by India and Bhutan. According to Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson "China's construction of a road in Doklam is an act of sovereignty on its own territory. It is completely justified and lawful, and others have no right to interfere." That's the stand it continues to maintain asking India to 'immediately and unconditionally' withdraw its troops from the area. China considers Indian move as exceptionally hostile and a violation of its sovereignty and has hence refused to budge or handle this incident in a more cooperative as well as calm and composed manner as it did in the 2013 and 2014 standoffs in the Ladakh region along the disputed border.

Official Reactions & Responses

There hasn't been a scarcity of reactions and counter reactions from both sides amid the standoff. The war of words hasn't been short of historical context either. Here are few of the reactions:

Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat in a bid to keep the troop morale high was quoted as saying "India was ready for a two-and-a-half front war." Perhaps that kind of aggressive posture as expected didn't go down well among the Chinese circle and was rebutted with equal aggression.

Wu Qian, Chinese Defence Ministry Spokesman was quoted while addressing the media. "India Should not leave things to luck and harbor any unrealistic illusions over Dokhlam standoff. Shaking a mountain is easy but shaking the People's Liberation Army is hard." Wu also added that China's ability to defend its territory and sovereignty had constantly strengthened.

The Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui told Press Trust of India news agency that "India had to unconditionally pull back troops for peace to prevail."

Addressing a press conference Indian Defence and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said, "India of 2017 is not India of 1962 and it's well within its right to defend its territorial integrity."

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj made an official statement that "both sides must pull back troops to discuss a solution. She also said that "all other nation's back India's action and feel China is trying to bully Bhutan into surrendering a part of its territory. China was trying to change the status quo at the tri-junction which hosts the borders of Bhutan, India and China.

"It is a long border, as you know no part of the border has been agreed upon on the ground. It is likely that from time to time there are differences," Mr. Jaishankar (India's Foreign Secretary) said.

While making a speech at the event marking 90 years of the foundation of the People’s Liberation Army, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping said, "I firmly believe that our gallant military has both confidence and ability to defeat all invading enemies,"


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What Next?

A pertinent question perhaps, what if this gets further escalated or is not resolved in an appropriate and timely manner. Both sides have refused to budge as China remains firm on its stand of India's unconditional withdrawal from the region. In the latest act of transgression (15th August 2017) Chinese troops crossed the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at the banks of Pangong Lake in Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir leading to a scuffle among the troops eventually resulting in stone pelting. This certainly cannot be considered trivial and business as usual because it does reflect on the state of mind of the troops. The fact that they are getting increasingly jittery in this 'no peace no war situation'.

Experts also believe that a trade-war could be looming as a fall-out. China has already been playing its card pretty well so far. While it has been supporting and arming India's arch rival Pakistan (also the major exporter of Chinese weapons) on one hand, it has also simultaneously been increasing its presence and strengthening its foothold in the Indian-subcontinent by investing heavily in development projects, market expansion/trade or simply through hefty line of credit. It's ambitious one belt one road initiative is completely in line with the vision that it seeks for itself not just in Asia but on the global platform.

India, on the other hand, has been gradually adopting a somewhat similar counter-strategy by strengthening defence ties with Vietnam. Choking the Chinese supply-line via the Indian Ocean is also being carefully studied and worked upon and at the same time, defence ties with Japan and US too are being bolstered to give India the much needed support. Although it isn't substantial to curtail the aggresive Chinese expansion but India certainly has up the ante.

My Two Cents

The simultaneous growth and ambitions of the two fastest growing major economies are causing dangerous friction in their relation. India's snub to Chinese ambitious OBOR (One Belt One Road Initiative) could have been the trigger. Although one may also conclude that the growing Indian influence in the region could also have prompted the Chinese action. Besides Bhutan is equally strategically important for China and making India withdraw support will deal a massive blow to Indo-Bhutan relations, which only would help China.

Anyways, I don't think either side would be able to make concessions without angering their domestic audience and perhaps that's why both the involved parties are standing firm in their respective positions. The hyper-nationalism seems fuming on both sides and the jingoistic buffoonery is quite evident on social media and elsewhere. The media as it is has left no stone unturned to further vitiate the atmosphere. Warmongering is on full throttle with denigrating views for each-others armed forces and constant raking of past conflicts. In a way, they have been active and busy than the nation's defence apparatus itself. This being the similar story on both sides. Although the Chinese have taken a more aggressive posture and have been constantly issuing blatant threats and all kinds of reminders. Chinese nationalist tabloids like Global Times even went a step ahead stating the 'the final countdown had begun'.

India has meanwhile dug its heel at Doklam and as far as I see it, by doing so it has succeeded in sending a clear and stern message. As for China, time to really introspect its bully-attitude that it has adopted vis-a-vis its neighbors. That's where the actual conflict is. The road to being a Super-Power is never going to be 'my way or highway' stuff, at least not in the current context. 'Keep your friends close and your enemies (even if perceived) closer'. The expansionist policy at some point may prove futile.

For peace and reconciliation, dialogue through different channels are need of the hour. I don't think any sane mind on either side wants a war. We simply can't afford it, unless we are willing to go back to the stone age. In all likelihood, if the two nuclear-armed nations collide, the conflict would not just be restricted to mountain warfare or a limited Skirmish but a full-blown war, that will eventually seal the fate of nearly three billion people.

Latest Developements

As of August 28, 2017, both sides have reached a consensus ending the two month long standoff at Doklam. India has already withdrawn it's border troops from the disputed site and China has reciprocated the same. Though some of China's border personell would continue patrolling the area like before.

Despite extensive propaganda and warmongering this is certainly a big win for all the peace lovers not just on both sides of the borders but around the globe. More so a bigger diplomatic win for India in being able to restore the staus quo at Doklam and safeguarding the interests of its ally(Bhutan). Beyond doubt India has displayed commitment and resilience by not bowing down to the aggression and bullying tactics of a mightier opponent. A euphoric moment for India as it proves its diplomatic prowess and pits itself as a worthy opponent in South Asian geo politics.

This could be a sign of better things to come or could there be more than meets the eye! Was there something more important on the negotiating table, that China couldn't resist? Well! There are plenty of questions at this moment and hopefully we will have some answers in the coming days. As of now we can only hope for a more trustworthy and stronger Sino-Indian relationship, that is in the best of the interests of everyone.

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