India’s standoff with China is not about helping Bhutan – but in its own national interest

The two countries need to pause and think through every step they take, lest they get caught in an unending cycle of conflict.

 Doklam, Bhutan, Tri-junction, Manoj Joshi

China has insisted that the Doklam stand-off is unlike any other India-China border dispute. Responding to Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s remark that the two countries had peacefully resolved such border issues in the past, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang reiterated, on July 12, that this problem was different.

Does this mean Beijing’s response to the current stand-off will also be different than in the past?

It is difficult to predict just what the Chinese might do. Geng did give an indication, though, remarking, in the context of Kashmir, that China “stands to play a constructive role to improve the relations between Pakistan and India”.

On July 13, India politely declined the offer.

A few days ago, a Chinese scholar suggested that Beijing could respond to India’s intervention in Doklam plateau by stepping into Jammu and Kashmir on behalf of Pakistan. Many in India may be surprised to know this but the official Chinese position on Kashmir is that it’s a dispute that needs to be resolved by India and Pakistan. As recently as May this year, the Chinese foreign ministry declared, “China’s position on the issue of Kashmir is clear and consistent. It is an issue left over from history between India and Pakistan, and shall be properly addressed by India and Pakistan through consultation and negotiation.”

China shares this stand with most countries, including the United States. Abandoning it could be a serious setback for India since China is a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council. Any possible escalation, however, may not be so much military as political.

Another casualty could be the Sikkim-Tibet border agreement. China maintains that the border has been settled by the Convention of 1890. India has not said much – and that is significant. Referring to the Indian foreign ministry’s June 30 statement on the Doklam stand-off, a Chinese spokesman complained that it “completely left out the Convention Between Great Britain and China Relating to Sikkim and Tibet of 1890 which clearly defined the China-India boundary alignment in areas where the incident happened”.

Indeed, the June 30 statement does not mention the convention. It merely refers to an “agreement that the trijunction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalised in consultation with third countries”.

In an interview earlier this month, former National Security Adviser and Special Representative for talks with China Shivshankar Menon said, “In 2012 the SRs [Special Representatives] had a broad understanding that trijunctions will be finalised in consultation with the third country concerned. This latest incident and statements saying this is Chinese territory are contrary to that understanding.” He was referring to the Special Representatives appointed by both countries to help resolve the border disputes.

In other words, India does not accept China’s contention that the Sikkim-Tibet border is settled. Perhaps, Indian strategists reckon that since much of the 4,000-km China-India border is disputed anyway, why not add this 220-km stretch to it, especially since this encompasses the strategically important trijunction.

Actually, there is a great deal of difference in the place names and understandings of the border. The location of the trijunction itself is disputed. India believes it is at Batangla, while China and the 1890 Convention put it at Mount Gipmochi, 8 km to the south-east as the crow flies. Compounding the problem is that even the location of Gipmochi is under question, with the confusion about a place called Gymochen: some databases identify them as the same place and others as different places about five kilometres apart.

Getting back

And when it comes to the question of borders, there’s a clear possibility that the war of words will not stop at the Sikkim and Kashmir issues, and may go all the way to the mother of them all – India’s recognition of Tibet as a part of China.

Tibet, the Sino-Indian border negotiations, the defeat of 1962, are all linked with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s sworn enemy – Jawaharlal Nehru. There is nothing that the party would like more than to upend Nehru’s legacy to the country, be it good or bad. The recognition of China’s sovereignty over Tibet, the border negotiations that yielded nothing, are all in the minds of the party faithful, linked to the malign influence of Nehru on India.

Is it a coincidence that ever since it came to power, the Modi government has encouraged the Tibetan government-in-exile? The Sikyong (Prime Minister) of the government-in-exile Lobsang Sangay was invited to attend Modi’s swearing in as prime minister. More recently and, indeed, in the middle of the Doklam crisis, a photograph surfaced of Sangay hoisting a Tibetan flag on the shores of the Pangong Lake which is on the border between Ladakh and Tibet.

So if Beijing can abandon its old position on Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi may well riposte by “de-recognising” its acceptance, most recently in 2003 by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that the Tibet Autonomous Region is a part of China.

Such an eventuality could well lock India and China in an unending cycle of conflict. Thus, it is imperative that the two countries pause and think through every step they take to deal with the current stand-off.

Historical grievances

It is difficult to apportion blame for this turn of events for they are layered upon a sense of historical grievances.

In Beijing’s case, there is the exaggerated narrative of the so-called century of humiliation, when it was overcome by western powers. However, even as China was reeling from western aggression in late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was imposing its will on states such as Tibet and Xinjiang. Today, China speaks of its “ancient” claim to the Doklam region. The claim is fictitious because there were no Chinese in the Indo-Tibetan frontier region until recently.

The Indian grievances relate to the manner in which they were played on the Sino-Indian border. The Chinese have kept shifting the goalposts at will, sometimes making one set of claims, sometimes another. And overlaying this is the Sino-Indian war of 1962 which, the noted scholar John Garver said was about teaching India to respect the power of “new China.” But, he observed, as a commentary and warning on Chinese policy, that had war not occurred, “‘China’s Tibet’ would today face less threat from India”. As it is, Britain forced India’s hand on Tibet by acknowledging Chinese “suzerainty” over it through their agreement of 1906, then undid this by signing the 1914 convention that gave rise to the McMahon Line. Finally in 2008, Britain junked its fictitious “suzerainty” formulation and accepting that Tibet was, indeed, a part of China.

And while we ponder over these imponderables, let’s get one thing clear. The Indian action in the Doklam plateau is not about helping little Bhutan, but in protecting its own national interest. The contentious ridge, which lies roughly at a right angle to the Sikkim-Bhutan border, is also called Zomperi or Jampheri. In the past, Chinese patrols have visited it regularly, on foot after parking their vehicles near Doka La. What triggered the current stand-off was China’s attempt to lay a road towards a Bhutanese outpost on the ridge, which overlooks a sliver of Bhutanese territory, and beyond to the Siliguri Corridor. Bhutan’s security will not be affected if it gives away Doklam in an exchange of territory with China. India, however, will find it difficult to live with the Chinese overlooking a sensitive part of its territory.

This commentary originally appeared in Scroll.

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