By Indrani Bagchi
China had a reasonably successful week – Beijing ordered Vietnam to stop drilling for oil in the South China Sea, or bad things would happen. The country that delivered a crushing blow to the Chinese in 1979 reportedly stood down. If only these obstinate Indians would learn a lesson.
The India-China standoff in the Doklam area, which is Bhutanese territory that China wants, is almost 40 days old. During this time, the official Chinese rhetoric has been a lot like that nursery rhyme. China has “huff’d and puff’d” to blow this house down – reminded us of the humiliation of 1962, described the PLA as a mountain and warned that “time was running out for India to blink”.
On this side of the Himalayas, the Indian government has held its nerve and the media has, by and large, held its tongue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi smiled and chatted with President Xi Jinping in Hamburg, did not forget either Xi’s or Premier Li’s birthdays, and now NSA Ajit Doval is travelling to Beijing to talk with Chinese counterpart Yang Jieche later this week for a diplomatic solution. Despite this, Indian troops are prepping for a longish sit-in on that desolate plateau.
The Sumdorong Chu/ Wangdung standoff, starting from 1986, was fully resolved only in 1995. Doklam has a long way to go before it attains that kind of notoriety.
Levity aside, this is the toughest foreign policy test for the Modi government yet. India has to demonstrate steel on the ground, but play with a soft touch in New Delhi; protect Bhutan but ensure Thimphu emerges with its dignity and sovereignty intact. It has to keep the door open for negotiations and discussions while showing that it is prepared to do everything to ensure its security, negotiate hard but try to keep things from spilling over into the military domain.
Beijing miscalculated about India’s response to its sly road project, then proceeded to paint itself in a corner with its statements. The inherent dangers, the possibility of a wrong step sending this Jenga pile crashing down is there for all to see. We know. We’ve been there.
Disregard all silly commentary that says India is the reason China behaves like a spoilt brat. Let’s also leave aside dissection of the 1890 convention and whether the second sentence in Article 1 is at cross-purposes with the first. China encroaches on sea and land because it believes it can. It’s been doing so successfully in the South China Sea. Why not here?
It isn’t just in 2017 that Chinese have been encroaching on Bhutanese territory. In 1966, India protested to China on behalf of Bhutan about Chinese troops, using graziers as a front, setting up heaps of loose stones “with a view presumably to establishing a claim south of the traditional frontier”. Many villages in western Tibet were administered by Bhutan, China robbed them of these when it overran Tibet.
China has a long and distinguished history of walking into others’ lands, claiming territory by changing the ground positions, and then citing ancient historical claims. China’s approach to maps and cartography in general is different from everyone else’s because they are all about Beijing’s ambitions. Therefore Chinese diplomacy is about pressure and coercion, threats and intimidation.
The first detailed discussions on the boundary question between Indian and Chinese officials in 1960 are instructive. The Chinese side refused to exchange maps until the sixth meeting because they didn’t consider it important. In the discussions, the Indians found to their dismay that the Chinese refused to adhere to any geographical principles for their boundary claims. Even though in a letter to Nehru on December 17, 1959, Zhou Enlai said, “Chinese maps published in 1956 correctly show the boundary between the two countries,” the first authenticated map provided during the 1960 discussions differed from the 1956 map.
Nothing demonstrates Chinese inconsistency more than an incident in 1959 – India needed to para-drop a doctor at the Longju checkpost to attend to a sick officer. They informed the Chinese government with exact coordinates in case the aircraft flew inadvertently over the traditional boundary. China said India did not need to tell them of movement within Indian territory. Five weeks later, China accused India of violating Chinese territory at that very place!
So, no amount of poring over grid references and ancient maps will help. The standoff at Doklam is more than Batang La or Mt Gipmochi. This is power play. If there is a negotiation, the trijunction will be where they agree it is. At this point, Doval should limit himself to China’s violation of a 2012 agreement on trijunctions. That would be progress.
The optics for Beijing is cringeworthy – Big China stealing land from tiny Himalayan paradise, by extension OBOR as an exercise in coercion and land grab, not connectivity – not for nothing is Indonesia renaming its sea. PLA can escalate, but a military conflict is unwinnable and everyone knows it. They can open another front against India on the LAC. Bye bye, “peaceful rise”. It’s a tough call when party congress, North Korea and Trump are clamouring for attention.
Yes, China will instigate Pakistan to ramp up its terror game. It will show itself more aggressively in the Indian Ocean. It will thwart India in international fora. It will squeeze us in new and improved ways. But none of this is new. What is new is India has physically blocked China to protect a third country. For better or for worse.
Times of India, July 27, 2017