The uneasy military standoff between China and India in the Doklam plateau area of Bhutan, near the tri-junction between the three countries, will enter its third month by mid-August. A modus vivendi appears elusive as of now because the much hoped for breakthrough in the just concluded visit of national security adviser Ajit Doval to Beijing for a Brics-related meeting, did not materialise. But the silver lining to a dark bilateral cloud is that there has been no breakdown between Delhi and Beijing over Doklam. The standoff over Doklam has a complex genealogy and involves a large chunk of colonial history that includes the 1890 Anglo-Chinese convention and a subsequent iteration of 1906. However, Bhutan was not party to this convention at the time. After both India and China became independent in the late 1940s, they engaged in the 1962 border war over an opaque territorial dispute that is still unresolved. A status quo was arrived at over a 4,000 km Line of Actual Control that also acknowledged Bhutan’s claim over the disputed areas in the tri-junction near the Chumbi Valley. Over various meetings, the special representatives of India and China came to an agreement in 2012, that the status quo at the tri-junction would not be disturbed pending final settlement in consultation with the “third country” — in this case, Bhutan.
The Indian narrative on the sequence of events notes that China was engaged in road-building activity in the disputed Doklam plateau — which, if completed, would have altered the tactical military situation in China’s favour. Delhi deemed this to be a serious security concern that would render vulnerable the critical Siliguri Corridor that connects the Indian mainland to the Northeast. India has a special relationship with Bhutan that is detailed in the Friendship Treaty of 2007. As per this, both nations are mandated to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests” and, furthermore, “neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” When Thimphu registered its protest at this Chinese incursion into Bhutanese territory — albeit disputed — and urged Beijing to restore the status quo, India stepped in to prevent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops from continuing their construction activity. Since then the issue has festered, with Beijing claiming that the Doklam area, where they were constructing the road, was indeed Chinese territory; and that, in the event that there was a dispute, it was between China and Bhutan where India had no locus.
The legal claims by all three parties — Bhutan, China and India — lend themselves to detailed interpretation. Depending on where one’s empathy lies on this issue, persuasive arguments have been advanced on both sides to buttress the Chinese claim or, well, that of India. Beijing has often invoked history in a selective manner to strengthen its position (three warfare tenets?) and disparaged other historical claims and international jurisprudence, as was seen in the South China Sea case and the tribunal award that did not go in its favour. However, Doklam cannot be viewed in isolation and it is instructive to review Beijing’s response since mid-June and seek to illuminate what may have fuelled China’s current anxiety and deep insecurity over contested territoriality in relation to India and, by extension, Bhutan. The Doklam incident is distinctive, for it involves a third country and is hence not quite comparable to more recent bilateral events such as Depsang (2013) and Chumar (2014). The other strand about Doklam that goes beyond past precedent is the very angry and disparaging/offensive anti-India turn of phrase used by some media outlets in China. The flip side is that part of the Indian television spectrum which is equally shrill in denouncing China for its muscular assertiveness — and exhorts the Narendra Modi government to stay firm and give the PLA a “bloody nose” — if push comes to shove over Doklam.
Both China and India have been differently convulsed by the vicissitudes of history — both colonial and Cold War — and in the last 25 years they have acquired a self-image about their locus in Asia and, by extension, the world stage. Ironically, this self-image is not shared outside of their own constituencies, much less by each other. China under President Xi Jinping seeks to return to the imagined grandeur of the Middle Kingdom and an equally confident Prime Minister Narendra Modi is determined to steer India towards its destiny as a “leading power”. Mutual and empathetic accommodation of each other’s aspirations and anxieties has remained elusive since the early 1990s. Beijing’s decision to enter into a strategic relationship that included transfer of nuclear weapons and missile technology to Pakistan’s military to assuage its own deeply embedded post-Tiananmen insecurities lies at the core of the current Doklam tension in a non-linear manner. My assessment is that when India was accorded an exceptional nuclear status in the fall of 2008 by a US-led initiative, the seeds of Doklam were sown. Beijing’s Asia policy, it appears, is to constrain both India and Japan till they accept Chinese primacy. A former PM of India had once wryly observed that after the end of this nuclear ostracism, Beijing’s unstated objective has been to “keep India in a state of extended disequilibrium”.
In the last three years since Mr Modi assumed office, both nations have had a contradictory relationship, wherein cooperation in certain issues and fora — for instance climate change, Brics and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — has been leavened with discord over the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, support to certain terror leaders at the United Nations Security Council and, most recently, the One Belt, One Road summit in Beijing. The resolve that Delhi now exudes is new, and Doklam is a case in point. How prudent will it be in the long run to advance India’s comprehensive national interests remains moot. A.G. Noorani, one of India’s most rigorous China-watcher, has cautioned: “At stake is something far more than the immediate crisis over the land in Doklam. What is at stake is the future of India’s relations with China.” Doklam may well turn out to be the bellwether about the texture of the Asian century.