On July 12, China signalled its intent to end the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the Dokalam area at an early date, if Indian forces withdraw to what it called the “Indian side of the boundary”. The standoff has been continuing since first week of June 2017, adding tension to the Sino-Indian relations.
Dokalam is the Bhutanese name of the region which is recognised by India as Doka La. China claims it as part of its Donglang region.
Doka La is also India’s last military post on the tri-junction of its boundary with Bhutan and China.
The present standoff started in June 2017 when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China started constructing a road towards Doka La. The Royal Bhutan Army tried to intervene but they were pushed back.
Bhutan maintains no formal diplomatic ties with China and depends on military and diplomatic support from India. The Bhutanese Army thus approached the Indian troops for help.
India has officially accepted that its troops blocked PLA road construction inside Dokalam as it would “represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.”
Until 1959, China made no claims on Dokalam, asserting in one official communication that there were no discrepancies in its maps and those of Bhutan at that time. But now, China cites the 1890 China-Britain treaty, which states that the border runs west from Doka-La along the ridgeline — that is, south of the Dokalam plateau.
Bhutan disputes this, noting that the 1890 convention applies to the borders of India and China, not Bhutan and China.
Bhutan knows it is taking a risk but it is counting on the fact that China would be loath to be seen as a bully — and that India would stand by it militarily.
Why is India involved in China-Bhutan territorial issue?
India and Bhutan signed a Friendship Treaty in 1949, according to which Bhutan was to hold diplomatic relations with rest of the world with the guidance of India.
The treaty was revised in 2007 and under the new terms, the mandatory consultation with India on foreign affairs is no longer binding on Bhutan. But the treaty makes defence of Bhutan against any aggression an obligation on India.
It was under this obligation the Indian Army stopped China from constructing road in the Dokalam region.
The Dokalam area is dangerously close to the narrow Siliguri Corridor (or the Chicken’s Neck) that connects the northeastern states with the rest of India. Undisputed control over Dokalam will give China tactical and strategic advantage in the region.
The corridor is extremely important for India because rail and road networks towards the North East run through it. This allows it to sustain the armed forces posted in the North East which will form an important piece of the puzzle should a conflict arise between India and China.
Proximity to the region through road near the Siliguri corridor gives China two-fold benefit – India’s north-eastern troops fall in disarray and India’s gets another headache of maintaining order in the North East.
Since 1998, China has been developing infrastructure in the region. Reports suggest that it has already built a crisscross of basic roads there. China now intends to build all-weather highway in the region to gain strategic advantage.
What are China’s concerns?
Beijing has been intensely distrustful of its two economically powerful neighbours – Japan across the sea and India across the mountains.
Since it has surged way ahead of India in terms of economic development, China wants to zealously guard the advantage, pricking India from time to time to register its military superiority.
India, however, is also a huge market for Chinese consumer goods. And that is an opportunity Beijing does not want to forgo. But India’s growing economic and diplomatic clout ruffles China.
India’s unflinching opposition to China’s grandiose One Belt One Road (OBOR) idea marks a setback for Beijing’s strategic, economic and political pursuits.
In Beijing’s view, India is a critical ‘swing State’ that increasingly is moving to the U.S. camp, undercutting China’s ambition to establish a Sino-centric Asia.
As big economic and military powers, India and China are key strategic players in the world. But there is an in-built economic conflict between the two countries that is bound to spill over into active hostility, spurred mainly by China.
India has to both compete and, in many cases, cooperate with China and cannot afford permanent hostility. Given Pakistan’s unabated proxy conflict in Kashmir, an escalation with China will bring the two-front situation back into play after decades.
India needs to tread cautiously without escalating tensions. Even if India were requested to defend Bhutan’s territory, this could only be limited to its established territory, not the disputed area (The same logic invites third party interference in Kashmir issue disputed by India and Pakistan).
China, given its global ambitions, would want to maintain a certain image. It can then hardly get into conflicts with its neighbours. Further the India-China trade cooperation means that any military conflict will result in massive loss of revenue to both.
Thus, India needs to bolster its border defence and boost its nuclear and missile deterrent capabilities while at the same time using diplomatic channels to resolve the border issues with China for peace and stability in the region.