Xi and Modi must lean on diplomacy amid Doklam border flare-up
Neeta Lal says the latest Himalayan stand-off crowns a rough patch in China-India ties, compounded by Delhi’s attempts to boost military ties with the US, but hopes are that diplomacy, and reason, will prevail
As Indian prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) prepare to cross paths at the G20 summit in Hamburg, the optics back home are not too good.
China and India have been locked in a bitter face-off since early June along the strategic 269 sq km Doklam plateau in Bhutan, that is claimed by China, over road construction by the People’s Liberation Army. The narrow plateau is where Tibet meets Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim.
India opposes the road-building, and has positioned troops close to the tri-junction, as it feels China’s actions violate a 2012 Sino-Indianagreement. China has harshly denounced Delhi for violating Chinese sovereignty through “illegal trespass” by the Indian army into the plateau to halt the construction as well as “obstruct[ing] Chinese border troops’ normal activities”.
Beijing has also blocked access to Indian pilgrims, headed for the Tibetan region holy sites of Kailash and Mansarovar through the Nathu La pass from Sikkim, until India unconditionally withdraws forces from Doklam. The state-run Global Times also ominously reminded India that the latter “cannot afford a showdown with China on border issues” because it “lags far behind China in terms of national strength” and “the so-called strategic support for it from the US is superficial”.
The stand-off has triggered one of the worst crises in bilateral relations since a flare-up along the 4,057 km Line of Actual Control in Ladakh in 2013.
The Global Times urged Beijing to “teach New Delhi a bitter lesson”, stronger than the brief but bitter war of 1962, which India lost.
Referring to comments made by Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley that India of 2017 was not the same as in 1962, the editorial said: “If New Delhi believes that its military might can be used as leverage in the Donglang area [Doklam], and it’s ready for a 2½ front war, we have to tell India that the Chinese look down on their military power.”
It went on to add: “Jaitley is right that the India of 2017 is different from that of 1962 – India will suffer greater losses than in 1962 if it incites conflict.”
Watch: Chinese foreign ministry says border situation is serious
Many feel Beijing has upped the ante because the Indian army is supporting the cause of tiny Bhutan, which has come under increasing Chinese pressure to concede territory in Doklam. A statement from the Himlayan kingdom’s Foreign Affairs Ministry protested at the PLA’s “unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo of the boundary” in Doklam.
With positions hardening on both sides along the sensitive border, China has made the withdrawal of Indian troops a precondition for dialogue. India has retaliated by stating that this won’t happen unless the PLA also withdraws its troops and road-building stops.
Delhi feels Beijing is being insensitive to the special relationship that India and Bhutan have shared since 1947, when India became independent, as well as the friendship treaty of 2007 that commits India to protecting Bhutan’s interests.
Many feel that the PLA’s manoeuvres at the border are being orchestrated to teach New Delhi a lesson, and constantly keep it under military and diplomatic pressure.
The idea is also to personally embarrass Modi who was in the US when the border issue erupted.
Notably, on May 26, Modi inaugurated the 9.15km Dhola-Sadiya Bridge, India’s longest, connecting upper Assam to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing claims as its territory. Modi described the opening of the bridge as a “a strategic move to militarily counter China”. The bridge will provide Indian defence forces with easy and quicker access to the remote border.
The current stand-off over Doklam comes after a particularly rough patch in bilateral ties. Delhi is frustrated over China’s repeated rejection of its concerns on sovereignty issues, refusal to endorse its bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and blocking of India’s efforts to have the head of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, added to a UN Security Council blacklist of groups linked to al-Qaeda. India blames Jaish-e-Mohammed for several deadly attacks on its military bases.
China, for its part, is smarting from India’s boycott of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May, blocking its attempts to build a Sino-centric Asia.
China is also wary of India’s tight strategic embrace of the US. Modi’s recent visit to Washington resulted in President Donald Trump agreeing to carry forward the US-India strategic maritime partnership begun under president Barack Obama. Under new defence deals struck with the US, India is set to acquire 22 aerial surveillance Guardian drones worth US$2 billion to augment its naval monitoring capabilities in the Indian Ocean and beyond, where the PLA Navy has been alarmingly augmenting its presence with submarines and aircraft carriers.
Specific mention in the Modi-Trump joint statement of the two countries expanding “engagements on shared maritime objectives” and reiteration of their joint call for “respecting freedom of navigation” in the Indo-Pacific are being interpreted by China as a move to contain it.
Be that as it may, both China and India need to use diplomacy – and not confrontation – to contain the current slide in ties. An agreement that addresses mutual interests and concerns, while building on discussions between Xi and Modi in May 2015, can provide a good template on which to base such efforts.
At a time when Asian geopolitics is already going through turbulence, we need an approach that marries strategic vision with diplomatic maturity.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist