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Doka La border standoff: Mutual disengagement of forces amounts to capitulation for China, says historian VC Bhutani

Delhi University historian Dr VC Bhutani is a well-established expert on China, having extensively researched official records at the National Archives of India, the Assam government's records – of which the North-East Frontier Agency was a part – the Tibetan archives at Dharamsala and at the India Office Library in London. His extensive research shaped a book titled History and Politics of the Northern Frontiers of India.

Following the disengagement of Indian and Chinese forces in Doka La, many are now asking why Indian troops were deployed there in the first place. Especially since experts believe that New Delhi had no legal justification to do so as the dispute was primarily between Bhutan and China. Firstpost spoke to Bhutani to find out how much of this perception is correct.

Edited excerpts follow:

Do you think India was justified in its actions at Doka La?
Indian obligations under the India-Bhutan treaty are sufficient justification for military action. India did not have to wait for a requisition from Bhutan before moving its troops to Doka La. It is not clear what kind of withdrawal has taken place, whether it is by India only or by the Chinese or by both.

If it is by India alone, then it can be seen as complete Indian capitulation. There seems to be little likelihood that China alone would have withdrawn. Withdrawal by both would be seen by the Chinese as capitulation because China has all along led its people to believe that Doka La was part of its territory.

Since this is a tri-junction, can the dispute only be defined by a trilateral agreement?
Yes, unquestionably, the coordinates of a tri-junction can only be determined by action jointly by the three countries. This applies equally to every other tri-junction on the northern frontiers.

Doka La. Representational image.AFP

Representational image.AFP

Some analysts feel that even a mutual withdrawal is a climb down for India, as it is still not clear whether China will continue with its road building activity...
I disagree with the intent of this question. It is not clear that India has made a unilateral withdrawal. If it has, then it is capitulation. If it is a mutual withdrawal by both, then it is a capitulation by China.

How has this agreement come about?
It is difficult to answer this question in the absence of definite information. We will have to wait for clarification from the MEA.

Is there a possibility that the India-China boundary dispute can be resolved in the wake of Doka La?
No. I do not think that the India-China boundary question can or will be resolved in the foreseeable future. There needs to be a political decision by China for the boundary question to be resolved. Until that decision is made, nothing will happen in the direction of resolving the boundary dispute.

India and China have had several rounds of bilateral discussions on resolving the border dispute for over a decade now but seem to have made little headway. What could be the possible reasons for such an impasse? Do you see any possibility of a consensus emerging on the eastern sectors, including Tawang?
Bilateral discussions on the boundary question have been going on for a very long time. By now, both sides would have understood the questions involved and the constraints within which a solution will have to be found. There has been an enormous amount of writing on this subject by Indian, Chinese, and other scholars from around the world.

Further discussions are unlikely to throw light on the question. India is keen for a boundary settlement for a long time and has said so repeatedly. On China's side, however, I do not see a similar readiness. What is needed is a political decision by the Chinese to arrive at a boundary settlement.

It may be said that if officials on both sides, unhampered by nationalistic instructions by their governments, were left alone to formulate a boundary agreement, they would do so without taking too much time, especially since all the details on the subject of where the boundary should be are known to both sides. If there is no boundary agreement, it is likely that China wants to keep India jumping and to have a ready means of exerting pressure on India whenever China wants.

China has gone a step further and is building Pakistan as a restraining factor for India. In effective terms, Pakistan does not count but if India had to fight 'a two-and-a-half-front war', then surely Indian forces will give a good account of themselves. In spite of China’s economic and military power, it may not achieve a resounding victory over India. India is capable of causing unacceptable damage to China. Besides, an India-China war will make nonsense of Chinese aspirations to be acknowledged as a superpower on par with the United States.

It behoves India to keep the powder dry and build alliances, if possible, with the US, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Australia on the question of an adequate riposte to Chinese assertiveness which has been greatly in evidence during President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Indian policy formulations must take into account the fact that China is not a friend to India.

Nonalignment by now is an obsolete idea. China still recommends nonalignment for India because China does not want that India should have friends who might make things difficult for China. For exactly the same reasons, India needs to have friends and allies. China is unlikely to see virtue in being anything other than a bully and a candidate for colonial exploitation.

The issue in the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction seems to be unprecedented due to several reasons. India sent across troops to Bhutan to aid the Royal Bhutanese Army to resist Chinese moves to build a road that altered the nature of the territory under dispute because this was also in violation of the bilateral talks between Bhutan and China. Was India right in sending across such help?
India was within its rights and obligations to send its troops to Doka La because of the India-Bhutan bilateral treaty. China building itself up in areas close to the Chicken's Neck is a matter of concern for India for its own security. India is vulnerable in this area. If China came anywhere near controlling Chicken’s Neck even for a short time, the Indian response will have to be a massive air attack on Chinese forces there. In this day and age, issues of war are more likely to be decided by air force action than by operations of land armies.

There are China-Bhutan agreements and an India-China agreement that the status quo shall not be altered by military action by either side while discussions are in progress to settle the China-Bhutan boundary. Indian action in sending its forces was in support of Bhutan's position on the subject.

The Chinese reaction to the move was very sharp and some media columns have claimed that this will pave the way for China to intervene in the bilateral dispute between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. Is this a credible perception?
China did not need to be in Doka La to try to intervene in the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. China is very much a part of the Kashmir dispute because, under the China-Pakistan agreement of March 1963, Pakistan has handed them property which did not belong to them. Pakistan handed over Sarikol strip in northern Kashmir to China -  even though this is a provisional arrangement pending decisions about who eventually will control all of Kashmir.

Besides, China is not lacking in occasions or causes for intervening in India-Pakistan relations as it has shown in United Nations Space Command and Nuclear Suppliers Group, even if no other country has shown support for Pakistan. India, incidentally, has said it has no objection to Pakistan being a member of NSG. Secondly, by its occupation of parts of Aksai Chin, China is very much a participant in the Kashmir dispute.

Why was the standoff on the Doka La plateau allowed to escalate given that from 2006 both countries helped to set up BRICS and have been coming closer economically?
Things like Russia-India-China Trilateral, Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), and BRICS are mere affectations which do not add up to much. Policy coordination between China and India on international affairs shall not be achieved as long as they remain embroiled in bilateral disputes and additionally as long as China goes on building up Pakistan against India in every possible manner.

We should not entertain great hopes from any of these groupings, although for diplomatic reasons India can go on making friendly noises. China has been keen about membership of SAARC, and Pakistan has been much keener in this respect – for obvious reasons. On the contrary, SAARC has been losing its appeal in India.

Russia today hardly has an international standing worth a mention and certainly, between the Russia-China duo, there is no doubt who leads and who follows. SCO is inherently a Chinese outfit which will never operate to India's advantage; BRICS has no importance for China while the others are members aspiring to permanent seats in the UNSC where China already has a seat.

It is not accurate to say that China and India have been coming closer in economic matters. Greater trade between them is more to China’s advantage because the balance of trade is largely in China’s favour. Chinese investments in India are not much to write home about and Indian entrepreneurs operating in China are at best marginal operators, without much weight in economic terms.

In fact, economic relations can be an albatross around India’s neck because China does not allow economics to dictate its politics. It is only in India that some people are enamoured of economic relations with China, doubtless because some of them earn profits from their China operations.

Beyond a point, such economic relations can be a constraining factor on the Indian policy making and decision making. Economic ties with China without a basis in political relations remains an inhibiting factor. The idea of China and India building economic relations from 2006 onwards is chimerical.

But bilateral trade between the two countries is on the rise. Presently, India has a trade deficit of over $47 billion with China. Will a continued standoff put an end to the dream of this being an Asian century?
No one seriously thought about an Asian Century in which China and India shall pull in the same direction. They are essentially antagonistic and for India, there is no possibility of better relations with China as long as the boundary question remains unresolved and China keeps on bolstering Pakistan against India, regardless of actual Chinese protestations in this behalf that China-Pakistan relations are not directed against any third country. In fact, the entire raison d’être of China-Pakistan relations is their shared anti-Indian attitude.

Doka La. File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Reuters

It seemed as though after Narendra Modi came to power, both he and President Xi Jinping were keen to establish close relations...
This is nonsense. While Xi was sitting with Modi on a swing in Surat, PLA troops were making inroads into Indian territory in the Western Sector. It is a favourite practice of the Chinese that they choose the moment of a Chinese leader’s visit to India or an Indian leader’s visit to China as an occasion for actions of this kind. No one in India should have formed great hopes that Xi and Modi would be able to achieve anything together. This is not for want of effort by Modi.

Did India’s commander-in-chief General Bipin Rawat’s remark that India was ready to fight a 'two-and-a-half front war' add to the hysteria and overreaction from both sides?
An Indian army chief will not speak without clearance with the government. Obviously, Rawat represented the government’s thinking on the subject. Chinese action in building a road in Doka La was not a response but the cause of Indian response as offered by the Indian Army chief. If China pushed matters to an armed showdown between China and India, then China should not expect a walkover.

India needs to work seriously to gather support from world powers and regional powers that may be willing to join in an armed coalition against China. There is no doubt that the rest of the world is not filled with admiration for the manner of bullying and flaunting of military power by China on its land frontiers and in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

China should know that it cannot hope to eat up India or nibble at its limbs. There seems to be some thinking in China that the US had been withdrawing from its role of being a world power during Barrack Obama's last years and President Donald Trump has gone further in that direction. This seems to have been seen in China as an occasion for China to assert itself and come forward as its successor.

However, China is acting like a bully and an upstart, a state that came late on the world stage and sought to make up for lost time by adumbrating new instruments of colonialism in the shape of new roads and routes to connect continents but there has been no effort by China to convince the rest of the world that these are really trade facilitating measures and not means of territorial aggrandisement and colonial exploitation. It was wholly right that India did not participate in China’s last international effort Belt and Road Initiative to propagate its ideas.

China has accused India of forging an anti-China coalition with US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam to counter Beijing’s military, economic and diplomatic assertiveness. Did India’s absence from the Belt and Road Initiative strain relations further between the two nations?
China should act in a more responsible manner. There was no attempt by China to convince India that OBOR was indeed a measure or plan for furtherance of trade between continents. China has to thank itself for India’s absence at the OBOR consultation in China. It is axiomatic that India’s absence at the said occasion would have been taken note of in China. For two months, however, Chinese media have been speaking in a manner that was calculated to further aggravate tension between China and India.

India must make sustained efforts to build an armed coalition with the US, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Australia to counter Chinese readiness to start expatiating on the economic and military power. The rest of the world is not waiting hat in hand for the pleasure of a new candidate for world leadership position.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) sees the Karakoram Highway cutting through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This has created a great deal of apprehension in India...
The CPEC, the New Silk Route and Maritime Silk Route are without doubt intended as sinews of Chinese power. China will doubtlessly stand with Pakistan in everything, right or wrong, and ipso facto against India. India's policy makers should think afresh about how they are going to meet the Chinese challenge.

Updated Date: Aug 31, 2017 12:03 PM

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