Doklam standoff: How India should handle China

The Chinese may not understand English, but they certainly understand military and economic strength.

 |  5-minute read |   27-07-2017
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National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, in Beijing today for the BRICS security conference beginning July 27, will have to mix toughness with tact. The standoff near the Doklam plateau at the tri-junction between India, Bhutan, and China is now in its second month. Doval has no illusions about China. It jails dissidents. It has no press freedom. It props up international pariah North Korea. It protects Pakistan-sponsored terrorist Masood Azhar.


China's state-controlled media is malevolent. By calling external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj a liar, Global Times, the Chinese government's English-language mouthpiece, has crossed the red line into yellow journalism. But make no mistake: Global Times and newspapers like The People's Daily as well as the Chinese news agency Xinhua reflect Beijing's official policy.

Swaraj was right to call China's bluff in her statement to Parliament last week. Till then the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) had used timid bureaucratese in the face of war-mongering rhetoric by China's foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang.

Global Times was cruder: "India's invasion of Chinese territory is a plain fact. New Delhi's impetuous action stuns the international community. No other country will support India's aggression. Second, India's military strength is far behind that of China. If the conflict between China and India escalates to the intensity where their row has to be resolved through military means, India will surely lose."

In sharp contrast, India's timorous MEA establishment, citing the sensitivity of the Doklam standoff, spoke as if treading on eggshells. It took Swaraj - who is no pushover as her strong riposte to Sartaj Aziz, the de facto foreign minister of Pakistan, on PoK showed - to put the Chinese in their place.

Used to dealing with the supine Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi government, Beijing expected India to stay silent after its troops occupied Bhutanese territory at the key tri-junction between India, Bhutan, and China. The tri-junction overlooks Chicken's Neck, the narrow Siliguri corridor in West Bengal that connects India with its northeastern states. Doklam is, therefore, critical to India's security interests.

China's foreign ministry has lied about three pieces of "evidence" that Beijing says it produced before the international community. Doval will have to counter these untruths while keeping open the door for negotiations. The first evidence presented is the 1890 treaty between the British colonial government and China on Sikkim and Tibet. Bhutan is not a signatory to this Sino-British agreement. Its validity in the current dispute over Doklam is questionable, a fact Beijing hid in its presentation to diplomats of over 20 countries in the Chinese capital.

The second piece of evidence Beijing proffered to stake its claim on Doklam was the exchange of letters between then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959. Again China did not disclose that Nehru had in that correspondence expressed reservations over the 1890 Sino-British treaty on Sikkim and Tibet, saying the matter was far from settled.



Nehru, in fact, wrote that the 1890 treaty "defined only the northern part of the Sikkim border and not the tri-junction area" encompassing Bhutan. This is what Nehru wrote in his two letters to Zhou: "Rectification of errors in Chinese maps regarding the boundary of Bhutan with Tibet is, therefore, a matter which has to be discussed along with the boundary of India with the Tibet region of China in the same sector."

The third sleight of hand by the Chinese while placing its evidence over the Doklam standoff in public was ignoring the 2012 agreement between India and China to not unilaterally change tri-junction points at borders with third countries without full consultation with all parties concerned. By moving troops near the Doklam plateau in disputed Bhutanese-Chinese territory to build roads and infrastructure which tanks and artillery could later use, China has violated the 2012 agreement.

Despite being on the right side of history, India's MEA has not been able to make its case on Doklam with the same force as China - an old MEA failing disguised as "sensitive diplomacy". It is nothing of the sort. It is pusillanimous diplomacy that has long been India's bane.


By openly threatening to "interfere" in PoK, China is now additionally complicit in Pakistan's policy of using terror as state policy. If a state harbours terrorists, as Pakistan does, it needs to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. If another state is complicit with a state sponsor of terrorism - as China now clearly is with Pakistan - it too must fall within the same definition. Abetting terrorism is as serious a crime as terrorism. China's complicity will carry a heavy cost.

Will China attack India militarily over Doklam? No. Indian troops have the mountain heights, the equipment, and the numbers. Besides, the Chinese don't want to get sucked into a war which could end in a bloody nose of the kind tiny Vietnam gave it in 1979 when Beijing attacked its southern neighbour. Recognising reality, Xinhua put out this conciliatory release on the eve of Doval's visit to Beijing: "India and China need to enhance communication and nurture trust between them."

India's diplomacy with China must now be both robust and rational. India must focus on building its economic strength and conventional military capability. It has already established a nuclear triad - air, sea, and land. The Chinese may not understand English, but they certainly understand military and economic strength.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: There is a simple solution to India-China Sikkim standoff, but it’s not easy


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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