Event ReportsPublished on Jul 31, 2017
Doklam standoff: China should go back to maintain status quo

The conflict between India and China on the Doklam Plateau has now entered the second month, with neither side willing to back down. Ever since the dispute broke out, rhetoric from China and its media has been shrill and jingoistic, even going so far as to remind India of its defeat in the 1962 war. Against this backdrop, Observer Research Foundation hosted a workshop on the causes and implications of the standoff on Doklam plateau.

Chairing the discussion, Dr. Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, began by highlighting that no map was attached to the 1890 convention between China and imperial Britain, which China relies on to legitimise its claim over the region. He said that that the dispute has emerged in an area where there is significant cartographic confusion as 19th century maps were largely inaccurate and unreliable. Further, he pointed out that China essentially violated a 2012 agreement which stated that India and China would resolve their boundary dispute in consultation with third countries and also sought to highlight how China had violated a 1998 Sino-Bhutan agreement which provided that until the issue is resolved both parties would maintain the status quo.

Dr Joshi stressed on the importance of accounting for Bhutan’s history and role in the ongoing conflict. He argues that Chinese claims rest primarily on its annexation of Tibet and the consequent historical relations it had with other outlying territories. While Bhutan has attempted to negotiate the terms of a boundary settlement with China, there was considerable anxiety in Bhutanese political circles about China’s creeping encroachment across all its borders. Dr. Joshi emphasized however, that India’s actions are largely in its own self interest, as allowing the Chinese to extend infrastructure would make the Siliguri corridor vulnerable.

The second speaker Lt. Gen. (retd.) S. L. Narasimhan, who was a former Commandant of the Army War College and a member of the National Security Advisory Board, began by emphasising on the challenges of deployment and operations at high altitudes in the Himalayas. Going through the geography of the area, he highlighted how the Chinese have constructed roads and tracks across the Line of Actual Control. The events leading up to the standoff  he says were cause as a result of China destroying Indian bunkers in the area followed by attempts to extend the track down towards a Bhutanese army outpost. He also noted that China’s claims which rest on ‘historical grazing’ grounds and tax receipts are part of its hybrid warfare strategy to gain territory inch by inch.

According to Lt. Gen. Narasimhan, there were several differences between the current standoff and past confrontations along the border. The first is that this is the only dispute between China and India that has involved a third country, essentially making it a trilateral dispute. The second  was an uncharacteristically swift Indian response. While past responses from the Indian military have been muted and slow, this is the first time India has so aggressively responded to Chinese provocations along the border. Third, while on past occasions it was the Indian media which was shrill in its rhetoric, this time around it is the Chinese media which is bellicose and belligerent. Finally, he highlighted that while the Chinese sought to unilaterally alter the status quo, it was not clear if their actions where part of a larger strategy by the political leadership or if local actions have spiraled out of control.

Lt. Gen. Narasimhan also sought to contextualise the ongoing dispute in terms of the larger Sino-Indian relationship which has increasingly been turning sour. However, he noted that while political engagement has been woefully shortcoming, there have been fewer tactical face-offs between the two nation’s militaries in the Himalayas. He cautioned however that events at Doklam might force China to ratchet up the pressure on Bhutan to open up diplomatic channels and that Beijing might prove to be more intransigent on issues of global governance vis-à-vis India, such as membership to the Nuclear Supplier Group and the designation on Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

The third speaker, Ms. Devirupa Mitra, a deputy editor at The Wire, offered her insights on the aspects of how the media has reacted on both sides. This issue is of great importance considering the pivotal role the media can play in diffusing tensions or potentially aggravate the situation further. She began by tracing how the story first broke out in the media. Initially, news spread about China’s refusal to allow Indians to take part in the Mansarovar Yatra on the Bhutanese social media. The first response from the Indian MEA was diminutive and did not hint at a larger border confrontation. Towards the end of June, both the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs and ministry of defence issued simultaneous statements alleging that India had violated its sovereignty. This was followed by a statement from Bhutan alleging that China sought to unilaterally alter the border situation and subsequently the Indian MEA clarified that India was bound to come to Bhutan’s aid as per their friendship treaty.

She expressed shock at the unusual silence on the part of the Indian TV media and felt that the issue was being analysed far better by the print media.  She believed this might be largely because the Indian government do not want to cause worry in Bhutan and also to give space for both the Chinese and the Indians to deescalate the issue in a face saving manner. Her belief was supported by repeated statements emanating from the Indian ministry of external affairs calling for a peaceful resolution to the border dispute.

When asked what the ideal scenario would be for the Indian government, Lt. Gen. Narasimhan stated that the Chinese troops should withdraw from the disputed area and maintain their positions as per the 2012 understanding until a final resolution regarding the border is reached. There was a general consensus amongst the participants of the workshop that India cannot make concessions or back down from the position, considering both the military implications and the larger political ramifications of being seen as unable to withstand Chinese pressure.

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