As National Security Adviser Ajit Doval travels to Beijing to lay the groundwork for the BRICS Summit in September, the border stand-off in Doklam is set to dominate his agenda. Doval is expected to meet his counterpart, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, a seasoned diplomat regarded as one of the key people shaping China’s current foreign policy.
The run-up to the meeting has been soured by some belligerent voices in Beijing, coming from the political establishment and the state-controlled media. The latest salvo was fired by the defence ministry spokesperson Wu Qian, who warned: “India should not leave things to luck and not harbour any unrealistic illusions.” He added for good measure that China had already taken measures to counter any threat from India. Reports that China moved troops to Doklam Plateau under the guise of a military exercise seem to give credence to Wu’s threat.
The meeting between Doval and Yang will be crucial as both also serve as Special Representatives to address the border dispute. The two have met and discussed the matter earlier but have not achieved much, according to sources in the External Affairs Ministry familiar with the ongoing discussions.
The impending meeting, though, is likely to be dominated by the deadlock at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction, now in its second month. India considers Batang La as the trijunction point – the patch of land south of which is the contested terrain, as China claims it as its territory while Bhutan contests it, staking claim over it. The Chinese base their claim on the 1890 agreement between the British and the Qing dynasty that settled the border between Sikkim and Tibet. While the British represented Sikkim’s interests, the Qings’ position was that Tibet was historically a part of China.
The proximate trigger for the stand-off was China’s construction of a road that could significantly change the nature of the border area. Bhutan opposed the construction, and on its request, India sent troops to help the Royal Bhutanese Army defend its positions.
At his meeting with Yang, Doval is expected to argue that any Chinese attempt to alter the border until the dispute is mutually resolved will be taken as a violation of the earlier agreements. According to Indian officials familiar with the dispute, a 1993 bilateral agreement lays down that any change in the status quo on either side of the disputed border will require mutual consultation.
As China began to build the road that seemed to head, after a sharp turn, towards the Bhutanese Army’s camp on the Jampheri ridge, it was seen by India and Bhutan as a violation of the agreements forbidding the parties from unilaterally changing the status quo at the trijunction.
Yang is expected to seek withdrawal of Indian troops from the area, but Doval will counter that they are in their legitimate positions and will only leave once China agrees to stop further road building.
Doval will also seek withdrawal of Chinese troops in return for similar reduction on the Indian and Bhutanese sides.
According to Indian officials, Doval’s brief is to ensure that both sides find a face-saver that will allow them to pull back their troops.
Doval is also expected to explain India’s concerns over China’s Belt Road Initiative, in which it has refused to participate. Indian analysts believe that New Delhi’s refusal to participate in the BRI led to the the current stand off.
Meanwhile, on the eve of Doval’s visit, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi upped the ante and asked for a “withdrawal” of Indian troops. However, Wang is junior to Doval’s counterpart, Yang. It is also interesting to note that the outcome also depends on the two Special Representatives – while one was a career intelligence officer, the other one is a dyed-in-the-wool diplomat. Yang served as China’s ambassador to the United States and has been a part of several delicate diplomatic negotiations. Doval, on the other hand, may be new to diplomacy, but has his share of negotiating tricky deals, such as ending the Mizo insurgency or the release of Indian hostages from Kandahar during the IC 814 hijacking crisis.
New Delhi has decided, after discussions involving the foreign ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Security Adviser, to ignore the belligerent voices coming from Beijing and hold its ground on Bhutan and Sikkim. It will, however, not make any provocative statements.
According to an assessment by the Indian intelligence agencies, Beijing is upset that India has not only stayed away from the One Belt One Road, but also sent troops to Bhutan. “Our assessment is that the Chinese usually like to keep things quiet,” a top official told Scroll.in. “The belligerence that we see right now may look unprecedented, but in our assessment this is being done to draw us out. We prefer to keep things quiet and leave it to the Special Representatives to sort out behind closed doors. That might have also upset the Chinese, but we believe that will eventually deliver results that are mutually acceptable.”
Old assessments, new realities
Senior officials refuted reports that India has sent two army brigades to Bhutan, saying it only maintains the Indian Military Training Team, or IMTRAT, headed by a major general, in that country.
“There is no brigade and the IMTRAT is a small establishment that only looks at training the Royal Bhutanese Army,” said a former commander of IMTRAT. “IMTRAT has no fighting capabilities and is there mostly in an advisory capacity. If required, India can move troops to strengthen the Siliguri corridor or launch a counter-offensive from Bhutan, but these are extreme scenarios based on old assessments.”
The old assessments, though, are insightful. One such assessment carried out in the 1980s on the instructions of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is quite telling.Broadly, it touched upon three key points.
- The Indian military position at Batang La on the Sikkim border was strategically crucial. In the event of a conflict, Batang La would help keep a Chinese advance at bay and serve as the Launchpad for a counterattack. Studies also showed that Gymochen, about 12 km southeast of Batang La, could also be defended well – and this was a position the Chinese could never claim as theirs.
- India would push for a border settlement before Bhutan was forced to do so. However, in the decades since the assessment was made, the lack of progress by India and China on resolving the boundary dispute has compelled Bhutan to settle its 400-km border with China. Doko La and the trijunction are among the few areas that remain unresolved, mainly because of India’s worries about the Siliguri corridor.
- For Bhutan, the most crucial stretch of its border was the northernmost. That is where areas of great religious importance for the Bhutanese lie and they wanted it resolved quickly. Its eastern and western borders, where India has major strategic interests, have never been a priority for the Bhutanese negotiators. However, while China stepped up its bid to resolve the dispute with Bhutan, the problem with India has continued to languish. This, too, has contributed to the current stand-off, according to government officials.
While efforts by the political leadership to resolve the deadlock continue, the military is closely watching the events on the ground. Senior military officials are clear that any conflict with China in this sector will lead to heavy casualties. But they are working to ensure that the Army has enough strategic leeway to inflict equally heavy damage on the Chinese. At least two army divisions are on alert and two battalions have been moved up to beef up the sectors facing the trijunction.
The Doklam stand-off is the lowest point in the India-China relationship in over 20 years.The Doval-Yang meeting could pave the way to peace, or it could worsen the situation. Either way, much is riding on it.