India-China standoff over Doka La: Border tensions on the rise, but history shows war isn't the only option

The battle of nerves between India and China continues with neither side willing to blink and preparing for the long haul in Doka La.

Seema Guha July 24, 2017 07:34:30 IST
India-China standoff over Doka La: Border tensions on the rise, but history shows war isn't the only option

The battle of nerves between India and China continues with neither side willing to blink and preparing for the long haul in Doka La.

Will this mean that India-China bilateral ties will come to a halt? Unlikely. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval will be in Beijing on 27-28 July for a BRICS security meet. Whether Doval and China’s state councilor Yang Jiechi, who is hosting the event, will sit down to resolve the current face-off is not known. Another possibility is that both sides will merely reiterate their position.

IndiaChina standoff over Doka La Border tensions on the rise but history shows war isnt the only option

Representational image. Reuters

All through the Doka La crisis, which began on 16 June, no visits have been cancelled. At one time, there were five senior BJP leaders in China. So concerns about the BRICS summit to be held in China or any other major event is, for now, redundant.

Ties have not been hit at that level. However, there is always the possibility that things could turn ugly, as a powerful China now is much more assertive in its neighbourhood than it was ten or twenty years ago. Pressure by the US government — for both nations to resolve the dispute quickly through talks — will not make much of a difference as both consider this a strategic issue.

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran recalled the India-China face-off in Sumdorong Chu/Wangdung area, which began in 1986 and continued for a decade. When India responded in kind to China’s aggressive posture, matters cooled down. During this period, despite tension on the border, Rajiv Gandhi undertook a historic trip to China in 1988, the first by an Indian prime minister since relations went into deep freeze in 1962. The trip was hugely successful and began the process of normalisation.

But in June 1986, the situation was tense. People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers were seen building permanent structures in Sumdorong Chu. The Chinese, in their usual style, claimed the area in the North East Frontier Agency (Arunachal) as their territory. Despite Delhi’s protests, China went one step further and built a helipad there. India too rushed forces to the area and there was subsequent build-up on both sides of the border. A new war between India and China seemed to on the horizon as Beijing took a tough stance.

India reinforced its positions and was able to establish a post by going around the Thagla range. This was just around 10 meters from the position taken up by the Chinese. Army chief General Sundarji was in charge. He airlifted an army brigade to Zimithang, an Indian helipad. Operation Falcon as it was called, surprised the Chinese. However, while the situation at the border remained tense, relations between India and China continued to improve.

Whether history will repeat itself is difficult to predict. Shyam Saran said that China had earlier too "been nibbling at the Doka La plateau" sending in graziers to the disputed area, and Chinese soldiers were making repeated forays.  However, past incursions did not result in a stand-off because the PLA patrols would leave after some time. "What is new this time is that the Chinese have now made their intention clear of establishing a permanent presence in the area. PLA construction teams are engaged in building a road.’’ He added, "China was surprised by India’s unanticipated action.’’

The PLA did not think that India would go into Bhutanese territory to stop them. Beijing’s intentions, according to the Shyam Saran, is to further shrink India’s periphery. By going into Bhutanese territory, China wanted to tell Thimphu that it was time to recognise China’s status as a big power. Bhutan’s reliance on India goes against Beijing’s ongoing plans to play footsie with Delhi’s neighbours. It is doing so in Nepal, Sri Lanka and even Bangladesh.

Both countries have dug in their heels. China now is making noise about Bhutanese sovereignty and questioning India’s stand on behalf of another country. China is possibly irritated that Bhutan is the only country in the neighbourhood which has stood steadfastly with India. The Himalayan kingdom also boycotted the mega meet hosted by President Xi Jinping on the One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR).

According to the former foreign secretary, it would not be easy to wean Bhutan away from India as the two countries have excellent political, economic and strategic relations. The red lines have been drawn. China made its position clear from the outset. Indian soldiers had to return to the Indian side of the boundary. China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, reiterated the Chinese position by saying: “The first priority is that the Indian troops unconditionally pull back to the Indian side of the boundary. That is the precondition for any meaningful dialogue between China and India.”

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj spelled out Delhi’s views in Parliament. "If China unilaterally changes the status quo at the tri-junction point, then that is a direct challenge to our security. Their demand is that we should withdraw our troops from there. We want that, if we are having a conversation, if we want to have talks, then both should withdraw their armies. From our side, there is no unreasonable demand.”

Who will blink first remains to be seen.

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