The Doklam dilemma

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The two-month border standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in the disputed Doklam area near the Bhutan, China and India tri-junction is yet to show signs of ending anytime soon. Instead of de-escalation of tensions, there has been a rise in the rhetoric from both the sides as well as bolstering of arms and armies along the border. The dispute started when the Indian Army stopped the People’s Liberation Army of China from building roads in the area. The dispute not only invites a prospect of war between the two nuclear rivals but threatens to shatter peace and harmony in the whole of South Asia. As a war can have devastating consequences, both the countries should settle the dispute amicably through diplomatic negotiations.

History shows that China and India have been rivals and have already fought a bitter war in 1962. The difference today is that both have become strong militarily and economically. While they did not have economic relations during that era, the trade between them today amounts to billions of dollars annually. Considering this fact, it is logical to presume that the situation will not boil down to a war. However, the realist viewpoint of international relations argues that if the situation demands, the economic aspect will take a backseat when the issues of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity come up. Both the countries have their own versions of the dispute. Beijing maintains that the construction is within its own territory and the trespassing of Indian Army inside its territory is a blatant violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. New Delhi, on the other hand, considers that the construction of roads in this area is a strategic move by China to ease its access near the famous Chicken’s Neck corridor that joins rest of the India to its North Eastern states thereby posing a tremendous security threat.

Geopolitical Balance of Power

Geopolitics plays an important role in the sphere of global politics. India has been the dominant player in South Asia. After the start of Xi Jinping’s presidency, China abandoned the policy of confinement to domestic affairs and started seeking a role in international affairs. As a result, it started strengthening its relations with South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The foray of China into South Asia, which India considers to be its own backyard, heightened skepticism in India. China and Pakistan have entered into a strategic partnership through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which opens the door to China for access into the Indian Ocean. India has vehemently opposed the CPEC calling it a strategic alliance against it rather than an economic one as the proposed route passes through the disputed territory of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India’s relationship with the US is strengthening by the day. China is well aware that US will try its best to limit Chinese influence in the region in collaboration with India. As China, Pakistan and India are all nuclear-armed nations, the geopolitics of South Asia is very complex and volatile in which tensions can escalate in a flash even over minor disputes and skirmishes.

It needs to be noted, however, that despite being a tri-junction, Doklam is an area where there is a border dispute between Bhutan and China, and not China and India. The fact that India is actively involved in managing the foreign policy and defense related matters of Bhutan is the reason why the Indian Army got engaged in this matter instead of the Royal Bhutanese Army even though theoretically the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007 has omitted the provision of India guiding the external relations of Bhutan which was in place earlier in the 1949 Treaty of Friendship between India and Bhutan. Construction of roads by China in Doklam area would make it easy for it to mobilize its troops to Sikkim and beyond in case of any eventuality and pose a major security threat to India. This was the major reason why India destroyed the roads constructed by the Chinese PLA.

Domestic Dimensions

The rise of Xi Jinping in 2013 and Narendra Modi in 2014 brought a strong and proactive leadership with a nationalistic sentiment in China and India respectively. Both the leaders rose to power promising to fight corruption and enhancing the image of their countries in the regional and global arena. Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as his major foreign policy initiative in 2013 which plans to promote China’s economic and strategic interests globally. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the other hand, is aware that India needs to rapidly advance its economy in order to become a major power. India has made it clear that it has got no intentions of joining the BRI. This broad picture of international politics portrays that the rivalry between these two countries is bound to create frictions at various points of time as their interests are going to clash. The current situation in Doklam is an example.

The Doklam dispute has taken place ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China scheduled for October. It will elect a new politiburo standing committee which is expected to further cement President Xi’s absolute control over the party, government and armed forces. In this run up, the Chinese government would not want to take a conciliatory and compromising position regarding the dispute and thus de-escalation of the situation from the Chinese side is highly unlikely. China and Bhutan do not have diplomatic relations and all correspondence between them takes place through the Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi. China is well aware that despite India’s active involvement in the economic and other affairs of Bhutan, not everyone there is happy about it. China has been adopting psychological tactics and even mentioned that Bhutan had acknowledged Doklam being a part of China. However, this claim was refuted by Bhutan.

Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Modi is riding on a domestic wave of popularity with election victories in key Indian states and is keen on carrying the momentum in the upcoming elections in some of the states. Retreating the troops at this juncture, which has been the precondition of China for sitting down for any sort of negotiation to resolve the dispute, would not go down well with the Indian public and hence Modi is staying put. Lately, India has also been reeling under demonstrations in Darjeeling region with a demand for creation of a separate state of Gorkhaland. Sikkim and Darjeeling are located at a crucial geostrategic location between Nepal, Bhutan and China. Therefore, the presence of Chinese PLA in Doklam is highly undesirable and dangerous from the Indian viewpoint.

Nepal’s Position

After a much delayed and unwarranted silence, Nepal finally expressed its official position on the issue on August 7. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Krishna Bahadur Mahara, during a press conference organized at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declared that Nepal would remain neutral on the matter, and urged both China and India to resolve the issue peacefully through negotiations. As non-alignment is one of the key elements of Nepal’s foreign policy, the decision taken by the government on this issue is obvious and natural. Nepal had also maintained a neutral position during the 1962 Sino-Indian war without taking any side.

Being a buffer state between the two giant neighbors, Nepal should conduct its foreign policy vis-à-vis China and India in a very sensitive manner. Nepal has always maintained that it would not allow its soil to be used against any neighbor. At the same time, Nepal should make sure that its own national interests are never compromised. There is every chance that the disputed territory of Lipulekh in Kalapani area, a similar tri-junction between Nepal, India and China in far western Nepal, could turn out to be another flashpoint for Sino-Indian dispute in the near future. If such a scenario unfolds in which Nepal might be the victim of rivalry between these two rising powers, it needs to be assessed what foreign policy initiatives and diplomatic measures Nepal should adopt to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Way Forward

India has proposed simultaneous withdrawal of the troops from the Doklam plateau, but China has flatly rejected the proposal and demanded that any meaningful negotiation can be held only when the Indian Army retreats unconditionally. As India is also in no mood to budge from its position, the situation is in a near deadlock, and an end to the dispute seems farfetched. The stakes of war are too high, and the consequences may be detrimental to both the sides. Therefore, the only solution of this impasse can be through meaningful negotiations.

China has maintained a really aggressive rhetoric and has lambasted the Indian action on a regular basis. It has not ruled out even the possibility of a war as the last resort. The Indian response has been defensive in nature as it is aware that the territorial dispute in Doklam is actually between China and Bhutan, and it is actually getting involved on Bhutan’s behalf. Theoretically, Bhutan is not bound to be guided by India on foreign policy matters as per its new Friendship Treaty with India, but in reality it does not seem to be the case as witnessed in this dispute. The Indian action might be a hint to Bhutan that it should not try to cozy up to China in any way. Bhutan is party to the dispute and should therefore play an active role in trying to find an amicable solution instead of lying back and playing a second fiddle to India. Similarly, the Chinese and Indian leaderships at the highest levels should exhibit maturity, and work toward normalizing the situation at the earliest because a conflict between these two countries can have an adverse effect on the peace and stability of the South Asian region as a whole. Considering China’s unusually strong and aggressive stance on the matter, it appears that the dispute is going to end only when the Indian Army is the first one to retreat from the Doklam area.

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