As Indian and Chinese armies continue to confront each other on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan, instructions have gone from New Delhi that it will not back down until the issue is resolved diplomatically.
New Delhi’s stand on the confrontation at the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China near Sikkim comes after detailed assessments by the various wings of the Indian government. These assessments are clear that the Chinese leadership will not back down on the ground. Though New Delhi is aware that China will use the presence of the Indian Army in Bhutan to portray India in a negative light and accuse it of interfering in bilateral issues between Beijing and Thimphu, it is determined to continue to hold its position until a diplomatic solution is found.
The Doklam dispute
Bhutan considers Doklam to be part of its territory, while China claims it as part of its Donglang region. Both countries have held 23 rounds of talks to resolve their boundary disputes, and the 24th round is slated for later this year. However, China had made it clear to Bhutan that while it was prepared to discuss all other sectors of the border dispute between the two countries, the Doklam plateau would remain off limits.
The contested area sticks like a dagger into the chicken’s neck or the Siliguri corridor – the narrow strip of land that connects India to the North East. A military thrust by China into this area could cut off the North East from the rest of India.
In June, Bhutan reached out to India, seeking its help to push back road construction by the Chinese in Doklam, which would lead right up to one of the camps of the Royal Bhutanese Army. New Delhi reacted with willingness and sent across Indian troops to help the Bhutanese Royal Army in holding ground.
It is believed that China began to build a road in this sector in the belief that India would not intervene. But as Defence Minister Arun Jaitley said on June 30, India has an agreement with Bhutan “for giving protection in the border region”.
In the first week of July, China issued a statement alleging that Indian troops had crossed into Chinese territory to interfere with the road construction. The statement also pointed out that the Indian position on the ground violated a treaty signed in 1890 between the Qing Dynasty in China and the British Indian colonial government, which earmarked India’s border with Sikkim. The Chinese also pointed to letters from India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru accepting the agreement as the last word on the India-China border in this sector.
China continued its verbal offensive. In a recent interview to news agency PTI, the Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, did not mince words, saying that the ball was in India’s court. Reacting to a specific question about opinion pieces in Chinese publications that the situation could lead to war, he responded rather ominously: “There has been talk about this option, that option. It is up to your government policy [whether to exercise military option].”
Protecting strategic interests
However, New Delhi has been working with Thimphu to reject any concessions to Beijing in this sector. It is convinced that any backing down from its position in Sikkim or Bhutan would be a serious setback to Indian interests.
Nearly two divisions (about 24,000 soldiers) have already been alerted in the area to provide any support required. While New Delhi is also confident that the situation on the ground will not escalate, it continues to take precautionary measures. The fact that Army Chief Bipin Rawat rushed to Sikkim on June 29 to personally review the situation is also an indication that India is preparing for any escalation.
According to reliable insiders in the military, the two Army divisions will continue to be positioned at their current peace-time locations, but advance parties and the logistics needed to move them rapidly have been set in motion. The Director General of Military Operations has also briefed the Royal Bhutanese Army leadership for any eventuality, said an insider with knowledge of the matter.
This standoff is the latest among incidents in the past that have seen ties between India and China deteriorate.
China’s refusal to support India in its bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and its successful blocking of India’s efforts to have Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar listed on the United Nations list of designated terrorists have troubled the relationship between the two countries. The latest blow came when New Delhi spurned Beijing’s grand plans for its ambitious One Border One Road initiative, which is key to China’s plans to strengthen its manufacturing base and find new markets for its goods.
In the months leading up to the One Belt One Road summit in May, Chinese diplomats urged their Indian counterparts to work on New Delhi to sign up for the initiative. According to insiders in the Ministry of External Affairs, Beijing also offered to work towards resolving some of issues that had come in between the relationship between the two countries, such as the Masood Azhar case and India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But New Delhi was clear from the beginning that it would not accede to Beijing’s request.
A special briefing that the Chinese Defence Ministry’s Office of international Cooperation gave to foreign defence attaches in the first week of July indicated how important the One Belt One Road initiative is for China from a strategic point of view. But Indian analysts had already factored this in earlier, which helped New Delhi firm up its position on not participating in the initiative.
Indian analysts believe that the Chinese strategy was to manoeuvre India into joining the grand One Belt One Road summit at the last minute. As India remained steadfast, Chinese diplomats began to indicate that things would turn messy subsequently.