Colombo, July 18: The India-China military and political staff at Doklam on the Bhutan-Tibet border appears to be in for the long haul because both sides seem to have painted themselves into a corner and cannot back out without loss of face, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Mirror.
In an interview to the Times of India, Dr. Hu Shisheng, Director of the Chinese Institute of South, South East Asian and Oceanic Studies, has said that the situation is “alarming” because of the logjam the two sides have got into.
“Neither side can afford to be regarded as the loser,” he said.
Both sides have fundamental interests to be asserted and protected. Hu said that while informal back channel lines of communication might be there, or come up in course of time, formal talks are ruled out until India fulfils China’s basic condition that it must withdraw from its positions in Doklam unilaterally.
The Chinese commentator, who appears to be the most balanced and sober of the lot from China, made it clear that nothing must be expected from the interaction between the Chinese and Indian National Security Advisors (NSAs) which is to take place on the sidelines of the BRICS NSAs’ conference in Beijing on July 26 and 27.
Hu said that on both the Chinese and Indian media, especially the social media, have gone overboard heightening the tension and whipping up public sentiments..
In these circumstances, Hu did not favor open talks between the countries because a “transparent dialogue” will come under public comment and criticism and these could prove to be “disastrous”. By implication he suggested back channel efforts.
However, the onset of the severe Himalayan winter could have a sobering effect because “both sides” may have to withdraw to warmer places, Hu said. However, such a withdrawal would only be temporary as both sides will come back to their original positions when the weather improves, to prove their point, he added.
“It is very difficult to avoid a military conflict,” the Chinese scholar said coldly.
India’s Restrained Stand
Of the two parties to conflict, India is the more restrained in view of its military and economic weakness vis-à-vis China. India hopes that China will stop its threatening rhetoric and agree to talks if its anger is not stoked further by utterances from New Delhi.
While the Indian leadership from Prime Minister Narendra Modi downwards has observed total silence, Foreign Secretary S.Jaishankar has said that India and China should not convert “differences into disputes”.
But the Chinese say that the standoff in Doklam is not a “difference” but a “dispute”. It is about India’s challenging a “settled border” flowing from the treaty of 1890. The border was agreed to by British India and Tibet in 1890 and demarcated on the ground in 1895, they correctly point out.
Very significantly for the first time, India has conceded that the entire India-China border running into more than 3000 km from the West to the East is disputed, thus opening a Panora’s Box. This is a departure from the long standing official Indian position that the McMahon Line (ML) drawn on a map in 1914, but not demarcated on the ground till date, is sacrosanct.
India has been claiming that British India, Tibet and China had agreed to the ML at the Simla Conference in 1914. But Foreign Secretary S.Jaishankar told a seminar at the Lee Kwan Yew Center for Public Policy in Singapore recently, that the entire India-China border is unsettled and therefore conflicts like that over Doklam are only natural and routine and nothing to be unduly worried about.
This strengthens China’s case that the McMahon Line (ML) was an “imperial imposition” which China had not accepted. Neville Maxwell, author of “India’s China War” sides with China on the ML saying that the British did not publish the ML for years hoping that the Chinese would come on board. China had not come on board when it was published in 1929. The British also hid the fact that the Simla Conference was not about the Tibet-British India boundary, but about British India’s establishing “special relations” with Tibet with China’s consent.
Reacting to Jaishankar’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, said that while the earlier frictions (in 2013 and 2014) were over “undefined” sections of the boundary, namely the ML, the standoff over Doklam is over a settled boundary.
India accepts the 1890 pact is valid, but disputes the actual line on the ground. As Neville Maxwell said in an article in South China Morning Post recently, the present controversy is due to the fact that border markers have disappeared due to climatic conditions or local mischief makers. But he argues that the boundary is easy to locate by going back to the detailed description of it in the 1890 pact.
Roots of China’s Belligerence
In this situation, China has increased its belligerence issuing new threats every other day. Beijing began with a threat to crush India militarily as it did in the 1962 war. It then went on to say that India’s control over Sikkim and Bhutan is illegitimate; that it is time Sikkim and Bhutan revolted against Indian rule or hegemony “with Chinese support”; that New Delhi should remember that its hold on the North Eastern states which are bristling with insurgencies, is tenuous; and finally that China can intervene in Kashmir militarily if Pakistan wants.
If India withdraws from Doklam to meet China’s condition, it is tantamount to accepting that it had committed aggression. The other humiliating aspect of the Chinese condition is that the withdrawal should be unilateral. That is, India will withdraw and China will not. This means that India will not have even symbolic parity at the talks table.
India will also have to accept that it has no automatic right to respond to Bhutan’s appeal for help to check China’s attempt to grab its territory. This is tantamount to nullifying the 2007 Indo-Bhutan agreement which says that the two sides “shall cooperate closely on issues relating to their national interest.”
China wants this aspect of Bhutan’s relations with India to be nullified because it facilitates India’s involvement in Bhutan’s affairs to the detriment of China, as in the present case. China has long been trying to disentangle Bhutan from India and making it a Chinese satellite.
The present controversial road being built by China in the Chumbi valley is only 30 kms form the Siliguri corridor in India, which is a “chicken neck” linking mainland India with its troubled North Eastern Indian states. Over the years, China has been claiming parcels of Bhutanese territory for its infrastructure projects and Bhutan has being giving in to China’s demands.
India, which was turning a blind eye to this, woke up to the dangers inherent in China’s moves when the Chinese lengthened the road in Doklam towards the Siliguri corridor.
(The picture at the top shows the Chinese expert on South and South East Asia Dr.Hu Shisheng)