Needs Deft Han­dling

India Strategic - - CONTENTS -

THE STAND- off be­tween China and In­dia in the tri-junc­tion area of Ti­betBhutan- Sikkim bor­der has en­tered into sec­ond month with­out any so­lu­tion in sight. The en­su­ing dead­lock has cre­ated a lot of noise, mainly from the Chi­nese side, ex­pos­ing yet again its ag­gres­sive and bel­liger­ent at­ti­tude in han­dling bor­der is­sues with its neigh­bours. The lat­est Chi­nese provoca­tive ac­tion also adds to an al­ready long and grow­ing list of its dis­dain­ful con­duct against In­dia in re­cent years.

China has shown scant re­spect for In­dia’s sen­si­tiv­i­ties even though In­dia has han­dled each Chi­nese provo­ca­tion at the LAC (Line of Ac­tual Con­trol) with ex­em­plary re­straint. This time how­ever, China has crossed another red­line by in­volv­ing the tiny state of Bhutan into the imbroglio.

The lat­est in­ci­dent in­volves un­law­ful in­tru­sion by the Chi­nese troops into the Dokalam area which be­longs to Bhutan but con­tested as dis­puted area by the Chi­nese. China had first claimed Dok­lam plateau (Chi­nese Donglang re­gion) as its own in 1950s much be­fore its bor­der war with In­dia in 1962. In pur­suance of its by now well known ne­far­i­ous pol­icy of ‘Nee­dle and Nib­ble’, since 1988, PLA troops have been slowly cut­ting past Sinche La ridge in Bhutanese ter­ri­tory via a network of dirt tracks lead­ing to Chele La post, Bhutan’s per­ma­nent po­si­tion on the Zom­pelri ridge, which leads to­wards In­dia’s Doka La post in the west.

The present stand-off started on June 16 when PLA moved a large earth­mov­ing sec­tion on to the Dok­lam plateau and, brush­ing aside Bhutanese Army protests, started con­struct­ing a road to­wards Doka La. On be­ing ap­proached by the Bhutanese Army for help, In­dian troops in the tri-junc­tion area moved down the ridge to stop the con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity, lead­ing to the present con­fronta­tion. Bhutan, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, is­sued a de­marche to China on diplo­matic chan­nels over the con­struc­tion of a road to­wards its Army camp in Zom­pelri area of Dok­lam, ask­ing China to re­store sta­tus quo by stop­ping the con­struc­tion work.

The stand-off has led to a vir­tual diplo­matic war of words, with ma­jor salvos be­ing fired by the Chi­nese, ac­cus­ing In­dia of wrong­fully in­ter­fer­ing in China-Bhutan bound­ary is­sues, em­pha­sis­ing that the “ball is in In­dia’s court” to end the stand-off. The ground re­al­ity how­ever is that the tri-junc­tion is like a Chi­nese dag­ger jut­ting deep into Bhutan and Sikkim ter­ri­to­ries and woe­fully close to the strate­gi­cally vul­ner­a­ble “chicken-neck” Silig­uri cor­ri­dor that con­nects main­land In­dia with its north-east­erly states. Chi­nese oc­cu­pa­tion of the Dok­lam plateau will give it strate­gic dom­i­nance over the slen­der cor­ri­dor – so close that even the lights of Silig­uri are clearly vis­i­ble from Dok­lam heights at night.

Un­ques­tion­ably, a Chi­nese road in the neigh­bour­hood would be strate­gi­cally un­set­tling for In­dia’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment. But, more im­por­tantly, in its role as a se­cu­rity guar­an­tor, it would be nat­u­ral for In­dia to come to the as­sis­tance of Bhutan when the lat­ter’s ter­ri­to­rial sovereignty is vi­o­lated by a bel­liger­ent and un­car­ing neigh­bour.

The grave Chi­nese provo­ca­tion in Bhutan’s Dok­lam plateau is con­sis­tent with Chi­nese tac­tics of re­ject­ing any con­tention that the ter­ri­tory it wrong­fully oc­cu­pies is dis­puted while, at the same time, treat­ing those ar­eas as dis­puted where it wants to lay a claim. Also, China doesn’t hes­i­tate to uni­lat­er­ally go back into his­tory (real or myth­i­cal) as much as it chooses to, in lay­ing its ter­ri­to­rial claims. It doesn’t bother China that in want­ing to con­struct a road in Dok­lam changes the sta­tus quo which goes against the agree­ments of 1988 and 1998 that call upon both coun­tries to main­tain peace and tran­quil­ity un­til a fi­nal set­tle­ment is reached on the bound­ary. China also for­gets that as per a 2012 agree­ment with In­dia, the tri-junc­tion bound­ary is­sue can only be set­tled through tri­lat­eral con­sul­ta­tions be­tween the three coun­tries.

It is quite ev­i­dent that Dok­lam is of crit­i­cal im­por­tance to all three coun­tries. But, de­spite the clear cut in­stru­ments of un­der­stand­ing and CBMs (Con­fi­dence Build­ing Mea­sures) in place, China keeps try­ing to pe­ri­od­i­cally up the ante and change the ex­ist­ing sta­tus quo. Apart from its ‘Nee­dle and Nib­ble’ poli­cies as de­scribed ear­lier, China seems to have also mas­tered the art of a ‘Max­i­mal­ist” ap­proach in its bor­der dis­putes with neigh­bours wherein, it claims much more ter­ri­tory than it ac­tu­ally wants and then tries to por­tray it­self as a gen­er­ous neigb­hour by set­tling for the ter­ri­tory that it wanted in the very first place. China’s stand on ‘Tawang Tract’ be­ing non-ne­go­tiable in its claim over Arunachal Pradesh could very well prove to be a case in point. By cre­at­ing trou­ble in Dok­lam plateau, apart from dis­turb­ing the ter­ri­to­rial sta­tus quo, China could well be test­ing the In­dia-Bhutan ‘Special Re­la­tion­ship’. Were In­dia to fal­ter in Dok­lam, China would be more than happy to em­brace Bhutan in or­der to forge a solid strate­gic pres­ence en­cir­cling In­dia.

Un­der the cir­cum­stances, it would be im­per­a­tive for In­dia to han­dle the sit­u­a­tion deftly but with­out the usual and avoid­able rhetoric. In­dia’s stance must be to stead­fastly hold ground in Dok­lam till China backs off and the sta­tus quo is re­stored.

Clearly, China must un­der­stand that in to­day’s world ag­gres­sion can­not re­place di­a­logue to re­solve dif­fer­ences be­tween neigh­bours.

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