THE standoff between India and China on the Doklam Plateau, adjoining the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan is now a month-old. There have been periodical instances of disagreement on the border in the past years; but this time the Doklam issue has assumed more serious proportions. This is because of the deterioration in the overall relations between the two countries.
In the past instances, the two sides have accused each other of crossing into each other’s territories, or, the Line of Actual Control. However, this time there is a difference. The dispute does not pertain to any border area between China and India (on the Sikkim border).
The issue is between China and Bhutan regarding the Doklam Plateau which measures 269 sq. kms. As per the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention, Doklam is in the Tibetan side but Bhutan was not party to that agreement and claims it as part of its territory. The strategic importance of Doklam for India is that it is at the tip of the Chumbi valley which constitutes the tri-junction between India (Sikkim), China and Bhutan.
Indian army personnel had gone to Doklam to ask a Chinese road construction party to stop building the road. China claims this was an intrusion into its territory by the Indian troops while India states that it responded to a complaint of the Royal Bhutan Army and stands by the government of Bhutan in the matter.
India and China have evolved a mechanism to deal with such issues when they arise on the border between the two countries. In 1993, the two countries signed the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement. By this agreement, the two countries agreed to respect the status quo and to settle whatever differences they have through peaceful negotiations. Subsequently, the appointment of Special Representatives from both sides became an additional forum to discuss and resolve such issues.
Both countries had wisely decided that while the border issue would be negotiated and may take time, this should not come in the way of developing cooperation and relations in other spheres. This pragmatic approach has yielded results. The bilateral trade between India and China stands at over $70 billion currently.
The present border fracas has assumed greater salience given the growing number of issues on which the two countries have differences. After the Modi government came to power, such differences have aggravated. The prime factor contributing to this divergence is India’s strategic alliance with the United States. India has joined the United States in its strategic designs in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region which is aimed at containing China. India has openly sided with the United States positions on the South China Sea; India has opposed the Belt and Road Initiative.
Within the country, the Modi government has increased the profile of the Dalai Lama and the so-called Tibetan provisional government. The visit of the Dalai Lama accompanied by a union minister to Arunachal Pradesh and the recent unfurling of the Tibetan flag of the provisional government in Ladakh are serious irritants for China.
India has been seeking to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group on a priority basis and considers China as the stumbling block for this goal. Nor has China obliged in the effort to get Masood Azhar on the terrorist list notified by the United Nations. The erosion of trust and mutual confidence has contributed to the present tensions related to Doklam.
The Modi government must realise that there is no alternative to settling the recurring disagreements on the border except through negotiations which have a time tested framework. It is also important to keep in mind that Bhutan is the main party in the dispute. Bhutan is not a “protectorate” of India. The revised 1949 Treaty of Friendship has dropped the clause of Bhutan seeking India’s guidance on foreign policy and obtaining permission for import of arms. The present treaty only states that India and Bhutan “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”.
It must be underlined that Bhutan has been negotiating with China directly on its border issues since the year 1984. It is better that, India let Bhutan take the lead in negotiating with China on the Doklam Plateau and other disputed territories. India can lend support to Bhutan’s position.
The foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, has stated in Singapore that India and China must not allow differences to become disputes and he said that “How you handle it is a test of our maturity”.
It will be good if this approach is put into practice by the Modi government. What is required is a new round of dialogue between the two countries which will cover all strategic issues which are of concern to them. Extraneous factors must not be allowed to interfere in the quest for better relations between the two giant neighbours in Asia.
(July 12, 2017)