Needs Deft Handling
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.