Doklam Dispute is far from Settled

posted by Xi Sun on November 13, 2017 - 8:48am

This article was originally appeared in the Hindu Business Line and co-authored with Faisal Ahmed, a geopolitical expert and associate professor of international business at FORE School of Management, New Delhi.

As President Xi Jinping emerges stronger, his foreign policy pursuits are now likely to be assertive, not merely persuasive. He joins the league of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping with the inclusion of his thoughts on socialism in the party constitution.

With several geo-economic and strategic challenges at hand, Xi enjoys a stronger mandate to experiment with newer economic and diplomatic instruments. He promises a new era for China, a glorious future, and, of course, a show of global might. He has earlier remarked that “we absolutely will not permit any person, any organisation, any political party — at any time, in any form — to separate any piece of Chinese territory from China”.

It is thus most likely that the geopolitical gravity of a host of regional issues strategic to China would be revisited. And the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ which is India’s connecting route to its North-eastern States, won’t be an exception.

The 19th national congress of the CPC highlighted that the expeditious disengagement at Doklam was a peaceful and dialogue-based resolution. Even India has earlier stated that the de-escalation was based on mutual agreement. This reflects a trust factor. Nevertheless, both countries have embraced the disengagement as a diplomatic victory for their own sides.

This resulted in subduing strong public sentiments in both countries. China even termed it as a victory for Asia, as these two big powers definitely have proven reasons to cooperate rather than to engage in conflict. On the political front, whereas Xi will continue for another five years and possibly more, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is getting ready for the 2019 parliamentary elections to seek another five-year term to actualise his ideation of a ‘New India’ by 2022.

Critical factors

The Doklam issue, however, is only dormant, and may haunt Sino-India ties in the near future. And there are at least three critical reasons to believe this.

Firstly, the bilateral politico-legal frameworks are inadequate. With varying connotations and intent, both countries have been referring to the 1890 Convention of Calcutta signed between Great Britain and China. Such boundary disputes involving China, India and Bhutan had also been referred to in the letters exchanged in 1959 between prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai. These letters are frequently interpreted by both countries to justify their contemporary stances.

Whereas India argues that the tri-junction lies near Batang La, China positions it further down south at Mount Gipmochi. Moreover, the 2005 and 2012 India-China bilateral agreements are now miserably failed frameworks. They failed to prevent the recent stand-off. Until a fresh tripartite legal framework is agreed upon, skirmishes can be ignited any time.

Secondly, the region continues to be geopolitically volatile. Persisting claims and counter-claims related to patrolling the disengaged region, widening of the road by China just 10 km from Doklam, and the activity of armed forces is never-ending.

In 1965-66, China complained about the presence of Indian troops in the Doklam region. But Bhutan claimed that the area in question was under Bhutan’s sovereignty. India claimed that Chinese intrusions happened at regular intervals in 1988 as well as in 2000.

A stand-off, similar to the recent one, happened in Sumdorong Chu in 1987. The bilateral relations then could only be largely restored in 1988. Other border areas like Aksai Chin have remained historically vulnerable.

Finally, the Bhutan factor should not be ignored. It cannot be dictated to either by India or China. Both India and China have been trying to make inroads into Bhutan but the post-Doklam scenario clearly suggests that China has the advantage. China and Bhutan entered into a border-related agreement in 1988 and subsequently in 1998 prohibiting unilateral measures. With India too, Bhutan had the friendship treaty to guide its foreign policy. However, since the treaty was amended in 2007, Bhutan is under no obligation to seek such guidance.

The repositioning of Bhutan in the evolving scenario is a critical determinant of the degree of dissension waiting to happen in Doklam. Whether Bhutan will reject China’s position on Doklam or instead prefer to antagonise India should, in fact, drive the discourse of the near future.

Thus, ignoring the Doklam issue at the moment can cost both India and China dear. A concerted effort toward a tripartite resolution is indispensable. Diplomatic channels should be immediately deployed to reinforce a fresh politico-legal framework which is comprehensive in scope and yet unambiguous and utilitarian in intent.