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Mainstream, VOL LV No 32 New Delhi July 29, 2017

Doklam Standoff: Beyond Border Dispute

Saturday 29 July 2017

by Ramakrushna Pradhan

The recent border standoff between arch rival China and India has been further escalated with Beijing holding live fire drills in the Tibet-Qinghai plateau at a height of 5000 feet. The telecast of the drill by the Chinese Central Television suggesting China is well prepared for a war in the high altitude Himalayan region adds further fuel to the already tense situation. Training with the T-96 tanks suggests an all-out war in the entire disputed border between the two neighbours and indicates Chinese pressure-exerting tactic on India to withdraw from Doklam. Although the situation is more than regular border skirmishes, India must not back down; rather it should harden its stand against the dragon as the standoff is beyond the border dispute.

To understand the gravity of the issue and the reason why India shouldn’t withdraw from Doklam needs further elaboration of the case in hand. Let’s try to understand the genesis of the Doklam standoff and why it holds importance for India’s territorial sovereignty. This article further focuses on the psychological and strategic implication of the Doklam crisis for New Delhi in any loosening of the stand in the trilateral junction.

What is the Doklam Standoff?

Doklam, known as Zhoglam in standard Tibetan language, is a narrow plateau lying in the tri-junction region of Bhutan, India and China. Geopolitically located close to the Yadong region of the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Ha valley of Bhutan, it is a disputed territory claimed both by Bhutan and China. It is critically linked to India’s territorial sovereignty as well.

Doklam is situated roughly 15 kilometers southeast of the Nathu La pass that separates India and China in the Sikkim border. On the western edge of the Doklam plateau lies the Dok La pass connecting the Indian State of Sikkim with either Tibet in China or western Bhutan. The tri-junction, where the border standoof is taking place, between India and China is not even a line or an area; rather it is a point which is 2000 metres away from Mount Gipmochi marking the terminus at the Indian border of what New Delhi regards as a strategic red line: the Jhamperi ridge, the starting point of descent into the foothills of southern Bhutan leading on to India’s strategically vital Siliguri Corridor. Therefore it holds geostrategic importance for India’s territorial sovereignty.

Genesis of the Doklam Crisis 

A series of talks were held and agreements were signed between Bhutan and China over the border dispute since 1984. Almost 24 boundary talks were held leading to agreements signed by both the sides in 1988 and 1998 with an agreement to maintain the status-quo in the disputed area. It was also agreed by both the parties to prohibit the use of force and to strictly adhere to the use of peaceful means for negotiation.

The present position of China, according to Bhutan, is a violation of the 1988 and 1998 border agreements and unilateral change of the disputed boundary in the Doklam area where China is constructing a road as part of its One Belt One Road Initiative. Therefore, the issue is not just limited to a border confrontation; rather it has implications far beyond this. It is in fact a hidden intent of the Chinese grand imperial design of making the ‘Chinese Dream’ a success in creating vassal states and to implement the colonial project of the One Belt One Road without any hindrance leading to the present state of affairs in the India-China border. This will be discussed later in detail.

How is India linked to the Issue? 

Dok La became the site of a standoff between India and China since June 2017 following an attempt by Beijing to construct a road from Yadong on the Doklam plateau to which Bhutan has objected. Unlike China and Bhutan, India doesn’t have any claim over the region in crisis. However, India supports the claim of Bhutan over the territory. As per the 1949 Treaty between India and Bhutan, Thimpu agreed to let New Delhi guide its foreign policy with border sovereignty. Furthering this agreement both Bhutan and India signed a Freindship Treaty in 2007 stating to abide close friendship and cooperation with each other on issues relating to their national interests.

Since India holds Bhutan’s sovereignty as sacred and inviolable on June 18 Indian troops crossed into the disputed territory between Bhutan and China in an attempt to prevent the illegal construction of the road leading to the longest standoff between New Delhi and Beijing since 1962.

The Chinese Design 

The present border crisis shouldn’t be seen merely as a border skirmish; rather it is the product of an all-out Chinese strategy to dominate over Asia by creating vassal states through its policy of ‘Chinese Dream’ and ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ launched recently in May 2017 by Xi Jinping, the President of China. The highly ambitious Chinese Dream is a pet project of President Jinping and this he cannot allow to fail. Hence China cannot back off from Doklam.

Let’s know about this Chinese Dream Project. This project unequivocally states that China should return to its imperial glory led by the son of heaven in Beijing. (Roy 2017) The implicit message is Chinese expansionism and creation of vassal states along its border. Until the arrival of the British, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan had been vassal states of the Qing Empire from 1644-1911. (San 2017) The Britishers then took over the control of these countries to expand its influence in Tibet and India wanted to inherit these assets. (Global Times, 2017) As part of its grand strategy, China is using the past to serve the present and trying to reconstruct the history by creating vassal states around its border. Like the way it cowed down its South China Sea neighbours, China attempted the same strategy in Bhutan as well without even imagining that India will jump in to protect the territorial sovereignty of Bhutan.

Hence after the trespassing of the Indian soldiers into the disputed area on June 19 China has renewed its call for India to withdraw its troops from Doklam and issued veiled threats through its state-controlled media by warning of repetition of the consequences of 1962. It has further followed with fire drills, high altitude training programmes, tank rolling and gathering arms and ammunitions in Tibet and addressing the diplomats of different countries located in Beijing about the Chinese position literally threatening India by media warfare, psychological and legal warfare as well. While border skirmishes are a regular affair, why is this time China so enraged and adamant over the Doklam issue? The answer lies in Beijing’s pet ‘Óne Belt, One Road’ project.

One Belt One Road (OBOR), also known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is another pet project close to Jinping’s heart. In May 2017 Beijing had hosted countries across the world to showcase the Chinese vision of Belt and Road which is also called as the New Silk Road project. (Pantucci 2017) The Belt and Road initiative, officially announced in 2013, is an attempt to revive the historic Eurasian Silk Road that is approximately 2000 years old with a vigour to reconnect Europe with Asia and Africa with the use of modern transportation, in order to boost trade, investments, and economic development, as well as to improve diplomatic relations, scientific progress and cultural exchange for all countries and regions across the Eurasian continent. (Magiri 2017)

India was also invited to this summit. In spite of persistent Chinese requests, New Delhi had prefered not to join the project apprehending Chinese hegemony in the region. The doubt came true when the flagship project, the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor, (CPEC) was initiated through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir—a disputed territory which India claims as her own. The suspicion was further heightened when China transgressed in Doklam unilaterally defying the agreements it had inked with Bhutan over border disputes. With the protest in Balochistan and PoK over the CPEC and scathing criticism from the media and people of Pakistan, the way for China in BRI doesn’t look as smooth as Beijing had expected. After the slow start of the CPEC, China is in no mood to afford another stumbling block in its way of OBOR. Hence, Beijing is hardening its stand in Doklam and trying to make its way anyhow. However, after India’s firm stand on the Doklam issue China is surprised and planning a face-saving formula by waging war through the state-controlled media. It is trying to create a psychological fear in the minds of the Indian soldiers by telecasting the Army drills and training in high altitudes. It is also holding talks with the envoys of different countries placed in Beijing and advancing historical texts to argue the Chinese claims legally.

Reasons of Hardening its Stand 

Although, the rhetoric of armed conflict and media gimmick of putting two Asian neighbours on the brink of war is recent, the disagreement and distrust between the two giant neighbours is age-old. Since 1962 both New Delhi and Beijing didn’t have a normal relationship even though the relationship was slightly moderated under globalisation on economic terms. Nevertheless, the low political interaction between the two was unable able to solve the intricate political disputes. The recent standoff between New Delhi and Beijing is the result of China’s use of Pakistan as a proxy against India; New Delhi’s boycott of the BRI International Forum Summit; China’s objection to Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh; Beijing’s opposition to New Delhi’s aspirations for full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); and Chinese open support to a Pakistan-backed terrorist, Masood Azhar, against the backdrop of UN blacklisting.

What does this mean for Neighbours? 

The intention of China and the hidden agenda of the Belt and Road Initiative are not unknown to countries around China now. The doctrine of Chinese dream is the logic behind China’s BRI project to create vassal states like Nepal, Bhutan and client states like Pakistan around its border. For countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka and importantly Nepal, now the Belt and Road casts a shadow over its realisation. However, many of them are debt-trapped by China and may not be able to come out of the shackle. After the Doklam incident, one country which must be worried most is Nepal. Given the Himalayan state’s geopolitical location between India and China and its feeble military might, Nepal is at the crossroads.

India’s Position

While China is hyperactive in trying to appease Bhutan and hence engaged the Pakistani envoy to India, Abdul Basit, to negotiate with Thimpu with an agenda to dump New Delhi, India, in spite of the veiled threats by the Chinese media of irreparable consequences like 1962, increasing ceasefire violation on the India-Pakistan border by Islamabad at the instance of Beijing and the issuance of warnings from China of an armed conflict of massive scale, India has decided not to exacerbate the situation in Doklam. New Delhi is not wiiling to engage with China in a war. India has made it amply clear that diplomacy is the prefered choice. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s visit to attend the BRICS summit in Beijing may help in breaking the ice. But the Chinses adamancy over troop withdrawal by India first and New Delhi’s stand on Doklam may further complicate the issue.

Dr Ramakrushna Pradhan is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Department of Social Science, Fakir Mohan University, Balasore. A Ph.D from the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, the author can be contacted at: rkpradhanjnu[at]gmail.com

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