When China pokes Indian bear

Bhutan is the only country in the Indian sub-continent that does not have formal diplomatic relations with China.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes his place alongside the world’s leaders at the G20 summit in Hamburg, the pinpricks from Beijing in the run-up to the gathering of the greats is a clear attempt to diminish India’s status as a rising power and keep it bogged down, militarily, on both its western and eastern borders. As PM Modi invests a new energy into revitalizing ties with the Trump administration, with Europe, the Middle East and Japan, talking up the terror threat from Pakistan and taking part in the Malabar naval exercises to showcase India’s maritime power, our strategy to tackle what George Fernandes presciently predicted was our main threat, should top India’s strategic calculus. We ignore China at our peril.

More than 40 days into the border standoff over the Doka La (or Dokalam for Bhutan and Donglang for China) plateau on the tri-junction of India-Bhutan-China, three distinct strands are discernible.

One, China has initiated the latest crisis to intimidate the tiny, but independent Kingdom of Bhutan; two, New Delhi has stood up militarily for Bhutan, its closest ally in the neighbourhood, for its own as well Thimphu’s long-term strategic interests and three, China’s reaction to the latest standoff is belligerent, disproportionate and indeed over-the-top.

Let us examine all the three aspects one by one.
The spot where the faceoff has occurred is the Doka La plateau, an 89-sq km high ground between the tri-junction at Batang La, as perceived by India and Bhutan, (on the map, the green dotted line) and Sinchela (the brown dot near the dotted line on the map). According to China, the tri-junction lies at Gyemochen, south of the tri-junction perceived by Bhutan and India. To claim Gyemochen (marked by blue dot on the map) as the tri-junction, China quotes the 1890 agreement between Great Britain and Tibet.

In doing so, Beijing is using historical pacts and treaties selectively. If it wants India and Bhutan to accept the 1890 treat, then it must also adhere to the 1914 treaty between British India, China and Tibet (which was not under China then). But Beijing refuses to recognise the McMahon line drawn up under the 1914 Shimla Agreement on the grounds that the China had not accepted it, forgetting the Chinese representative had indeed, initialled the agreement.

History apart, Beijing has agreed with both India and Bhutan in the recent past that the tri-junction area is disputed and is subjected to negotiations. As the note from Royal Government of Bhutan said on 28 June: “Boundary talks are ongoing between Bhutan and China and we have written agreements of 1988 and 1998 stating that the two sides agree to maintain peace and tranquility in their border areas pending a final settlement on the boundary question, and to maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959.

The agreements also state that the two sides will refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo of the boundary. Bhutan has conveyed to the Chinese side, both on the ground and through the diplomatic channel, that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between our two countries. Bhutan hopes that the status quo in the Doka La area will be maintained as before 16 June 2017.” Thus China is well aware that the area is disputed.

Beijing also knows that the finalisation of tri-junction alignment is subject to further discussions between India, China and Bhutan. As the Indian press note on 29 June pointed out: “In this context, the Indian side has underlined that the two Governments had in 2012 reached agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries. Any attempt, therefore, to unilaterally determine tri-junction points is in violation of this understanding. Where the boundary in the Sikkim sector is concerned, India and China had reached an understanding also in 2012 reconfirming their mutual agreement on the “basis of the alignment”. Further discussions regarding finalization of the boundary have been taking place under the Special Representatives framework.”

Pressure on Thimpu
That despite such a clear-cut understanding, China has been trying to alter the status quo is indicative of its desire to pressurise Thimphu to come out of India’s influence. Bhutan is the only country in the Indian sub-continent that does not have formal diplomatic relations with China. Beijing not only wants to settle the boundary issue (it has held 24 rounds of talks with Thimphu) but also wants direct diplomatic relations with Bhutan, which it has so far refused to do. By intruding into its territory, China is repeating the bullying tactics it adopted against smaller neighbours in the South China Sea.

That brings us to the second point in this episode. Technically the Dolam plateau is Bhutanese territory but New Delhi, as Bhutan’s closest friend in the region, has an obligation to stand up for Thimphu against the aggressive posturing by China, notwithstanding the subtle change in the language of an updated treaty signed in 2007 at the advent of Parliamentary democracy in Bhutan.

Article 2 in the earlier treaty, signed in 1949 had said: “The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.”

This clause was amended in 2007 to read: “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.”

However, Article 1 remained constant. It reads in both treaties: “There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between India and Bhutan.” India does have an obligation to defend Bhutan from any aggression against the tiny but geographically vital kingdom.

Cut off China
The border, as it stands today between both India and China and between China and Bhutan, affords India a tactical advantage since its forces based in North and North-east Sikkim can easily cut off the Chinese deployment in the narrow Chumbi Valley should China try any misadventure here.

The Chinese have been eyeing the Doka La plateau since any troops stationed there will be away from visible observation and beyond artillery range of Indian forces either based in North or north-east Sikkim. Moreover, once the Chinese gain control of the plateau, they can easily roll down the Zimplri ridge and undermine Indian defences in the Siliguri Corridor that connects rest of India to the seven north-eastern states. That is why India has kept a close watch on Chinese activities around the Dolam plateau since it has anticipated the possibility of the Chinese attempting to get behind Indian defences through Bhutan.

Finally, Beijing, angry at India’s refusal to endorse its attempt to establish a new China-centric order in Asia-Pacific through the One Belt, One Road or Belt and Road Initiative, saw one more opportunity to test New Delhi’s resolve in standing up to China. In the past couple of years, China has blocked India’s effort to gain membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and New Delhi’s desire to get Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar listed as UN-designated terrorist.

Moreover, China sees closer India-US-Japan relations as a containment strategy and consistently rails against such an attempt. On Friday, for instance, the foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said: “We have no objection to the normal bilateral relations and cooperation among relevant countries, but we hope that this kind of relationship and cooperation will not be directed at any third party and will be conducive to the regional peace and stability,” referring to the tri-lateral Naval Exercise Malabar between India, US and Japan, scheduled to begin tomorrow, on Monday.

Thus far, an assured and confident India has reacted to the barrage of intemperate statements by China with a measured statement and offered Beijing a way out. The only Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement on the tri-junction standoff so far, said in conclusion: “India has consistently taken a positive approach to the settlement of its own boundary with China, along with the associated issue of the tri-junctions...India is committed to working with China to find peaceful resolution of all issues in the border areas through dialogue.” The ball is now in Beijing’s court to de-escalate the matter and resume boundary negotiations once tempers cool down.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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