Dragging Out the Doklam Conflict is Futile for Both India and China

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Thimphu, Bhutan © ultramansk

If China doesn’t want its territorial sovereignty breached, it needs to respect that of its neighbors.

Last week, China’s Xinhua News’ The Spark show had a unique guest: A turbaned man, with a visibly Indian accent, appears clueless about India’s seven “sins,” as the video goes on to mock India as a man who is impossible to awaken as he is “pretending to be asleep.” State-owned Xinhua’s visibly racist video was a reaction to ongoing events on the China-Bhutan border that have now escalated to a diplomatic crisis and the longest border stand-off between India and China since 1962.

It all started two months ago, when the Chinese army began constructing a road on the Doklam Plateau — a disputed area between China and the Himalayan country of Bhutan since the 20th century. According to a statement by the Bhutanese government on June 29, construction of the road in Doklam was a direct violation of the 1988 and 1998 border agreements between the two nations. Under these treaties, both countries had agreed to maintain peace in the disputed border areas until a final agreement was reached.

However, China contradicted this statement by saying that Bhutan had communicated through diplomatic channels that this area was not part of its country. China is claiming authority over the Doklam territory on the basis of the 1890 Convention of Calcutta — an agreement signed between the British Empire and the Qing dynasty, demarcating the boundary of Tibet and the state of Sikkim in India. China has a history of adhering to 20th-century treaties to claim territory, a case in point being its inclusion of Hong Kong.

Bhutan is one of India’s closest allies and shares a special relationship with the South Asian country through a 2007 friendship treaty. Under the treaty, both countries have agreed to “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.” The treaty also includes a clause that neither government would allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other. In closed circles in Delhi, it’s hushed that Indian diplomats handle the military and diplomatic affairs of Bhutan. Such is the case that as soon as negotiations with China seemed to be failing, Bhutan looked to India for help.

India had its reasons for interfering in a conflict that is clearly not its own. The Doklam Plateau (or Dong Lang, as the Chinese call it) is within artillery range of the corridor that connects India to its northeastern flank, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. Having a Chinese road and army stationed at the border of one of its most important allies could only spell further trouble, for China and India are already on a lockdown over territorial claims in northeastern India.

China’s entry into Doklam came on the heels of India’s refusal to attend China’s Belt and Road Summit in May, which welcomed representatives from 29 countries. India’s bone of contention is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through Pakistan-administered Kashmir. India still claims the area as its territory. In fact, it is so hell-bent on not accepting it to be an occupied territory that it has made it a federal crime to draw a map showing it being outside India.

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Things between both countries had heated up prior to the summit too, when Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh — India’s easternmost state — upon which China lays territorial claims. Chinese media labeled the visit as a “separatist” move, while India bluntly told China that it was an “internal” matter. India and China have been at loggerheads over the Tibet issue ever since millions have migrated to India to seek refuge from humanitarian crimes against dissidents in Tibet.

A war of words has ensued between China and India, with China threatening consequences similar to the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Arun Jaitley, the erstwhile defense minister of India, responded by saying that the “India of 2017 is different from that of 1962.” Global Times, a state-sponsored daily, retorted by saying that the damage India would incur today by going to war with China would be far greater than that in 1962.

The White House has asked both India and China to take recourse to diplomatic channels to solve the issue, but history has showed that there is little to gain from dialogue between India and China. For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not backing down at Doklam is necessary to show the might of the Indian state under his reign and to protect India’s influence in Himalayan countries such as Bhutan and Nepal. China’s decision to not back down is to send a clear message to South Asia that it still has the power to control the politics of the region. China has decried India’s dominating attitude on Bhutan and sought support for the territorial breach from allies. While Pakistan spared no time in supporting its Chinese foster brother, Beijing went a step further and broached the possibility of entering India through Kashmir to raise a parallel between Doklam and Kashmir.

On August 18, Japan came out in support of India. However, diplomatic support does not necessarily translate into military support in the event of a war. India can’t afford to go to war with China as it doesn’t have the military might to last even a week under attack from its larger neighbor. And a war with China leaves no guarantee that Pakistan would not pitch in to help its ally.

India needs to tread the path of diplomacy extremely carefully. It can’t afford to instigate Chinese soldiers at Doklam and station more troops to anger China. The Royal Bhutanese Army, on the other hand, needs to make its standpoint and allegiance clear. If Bhutan takes a strong stand, it will be easier to negotiate in the international sphere that views India as an outsider to the issue.

Donald Trump’s silence on the standoff and a vague stance toward China has also strengthened its resolve to trouble its neighbors. If China feels that India should withdraw from the Doklam conflict, it first needs to resolve the issue with Bhutan and stick to relevant treaties in its territorial claim. A close proximity to India’s Siliguri Corridor is a breach of India’s security, and no amount of threats and mocking on national media can change that fact. If China doesn’t want its territorial sovereignty breached, it needs to respect that of its neighbors, too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: ultramansk / Shutterstock.com

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