China and India have again locked horns along parts of their 3,500km-long border — over a plateau called Doklam in India and Donglang in China. It lies at the junction between China, the Indian state of Sikkim and Bhutan. Both China and Bhutan claim the plateau. Since Bhutan has a treaty agreement with India, New Delhi supports Bhutan’s claim.
While border skirmishes between the two are a regular feature, the current standoff, the longest since the 1962 war, began on June 16 when Indian troops attempted to prevent the Chinese from building a border road through the plateau. The construction, said India’s Ministry of External Affairs “would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India”.
Once completed, the road can give China easier access to India’s strategically vulnerable 20km-wide corridor, known as “Chicken’s neck” that links India’s main landmass with its seven northeastern states. India is afraid that China’s road-building close to the border could be part of a long-term strategic plan that would help Beijing cut off India at one of its most vulnerable points. The Chinese understand that control over this area offers them a huge advantage on the ground.
As both countries rushed additional troops to the area Mr Luo Zhaohui, the Chinese Ambassador to India, told the Press Trust of India that for peace to prevail, India would have to “unconditionally pull back troops”. India is now calling for talks to end the impasse.
Both sides lay their claims based on different sets of agreements. In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated that the border with Sikkim has been settled in 1890 after an agreement with the British. Bhutan claims that China’s road construction is “in violation of an agreement between the two countries”. The Chinese seem to be pushing Bhutan to move away from India and deal directly with China.
India argues that in 2012, Beijing and New Delhi had agreed that the tri-junction boundary between China-India-Bhutan would be decided through mutual consultation, till which time, status quo should prevail. The complicating question is that it is Bhutan with whom the Chinese are in contest and India has intervened in support of Bhutan. So all three must agree on a solution.
The present Sino-Indian standoff appears to be most serious in recent years and comes within weeks of Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. Since China claims the state, it had repeatedly warned India against this visit.
Although there is a general desire to settle the border question, the talks have reached an impasse due to lack of trust between India and China. The chauvinistic domestic policies prevent either side to make concessions.
The Sino-Indian relations, troubled since the 1962 war over the disputed boundary regions, have become more complicated due to several factors. China’s phenomenal economic growth during the last 30 years has given it a new confidence where it can back its claims by enhanced military power. The growth in India’s economy, following its own reforms and India’s quest for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, blocked by China for now, has provided anti-China hawks a louder voice amongst Indian think tanks and media.
More importantly, from the time when India chose to align with America’s scheme of things, any standoff between China and India becomes a part of a larger China-United States worldview. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal and now its attempt to get India admitted into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which China vetoes, gives a lot of ammunition to anti-China rhetoric in India. More recently, the signing of the Indo-US Logistics Exchange Memoranda of Agreement (Lemoa) in 2016 has the potential of affecting the balance of power in the Indian Ocean region. The LEMOA allows the militaries to use each other’s land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply facilities. China believes that India has joined US in seeking to contain China’s growing maritime reach.
A faceoff between two of the largest and nuclear-armed militaries is always of considerable concern. Even a minor miscalculation can cause serious conflict, which can draw other powers in.
With both sides aggressively pursuing strategic goals, China-India periodic logjams are assuming wider proportions. While the latest flare-up is likely to be resolved diplomatically, it adds to an increasingly fraught relationship between the nuclear powers as they jostle for influence in the Indian Ocean region and beyond.
Reports over time indicate that China has of late has been talking of early harvest in solving least controversial issues. India, on the other hand is keen to aim for a comprehensive solution. Various ideas on territorial swap have also been floated like India giving up claims on Aksai Chin and China giving up Arunachal Pradesh.
In Asia’s interest it is incumbent upon the Asia’s two leading powers to keep the outsiders out and resolve their differences through mutual accommodation so that Asia reverts to its historic primacy soon.
Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973-2008 and served as Pakistan’s Consul General in Dubai during the mid 1990s.