The Bigger Picture

Doklam standoff: China can no longer corner India

The decision to disturb the status quo was done with particular end in view, which has probably come unstuck by the Indian action.

 |  The Bigger Picture  |  4-minute read |   14-08-2017
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In my past visits to China going back to the early 1990s, India was mostly a peripheral issue, unless, the stay was part of a prime ministerial or presidential visit. But this time around, things are different.

For four consecutive days last week, China Daily, the country’s only English broadsheet, carried articles on the Doklam issue, with two lead editorials, one of which was titled “New Delhi should come to its senses while it has time”.

As for Global Times, its commentaries are too well known in India to be repeated. On Friday, the state-owned tabloid headlined “Bhutan under India pressure”. The border dispute, the strap said, was “proof of New Delhi’s hegemony in South Asia.”

Nervousness showing

The journalistic tour, organised after the crisis had erupted was expected to have subtle messaging aimed at pushing China’s point of view. But there was nothing subtle about the briefings from top foreign ministry and ministry of defense officials. The briefings were harsh, and uncompromising, as the new chief spokesman Senior Colonel Ren Guoqing declared, that China had legal proof of its territory and to resolve crisis, India needed “to withdraw immediately and unconditionally”.

joshi_081417095503.jpgChina claims the border was set by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 and India had “invaded” Chinese territory. [Photo: Mail Today]

Perhaps there was a message hidden in the visit organised to the 3rd Garrison Force in the Huairou district of Beiing, where the crack division displayed its tactical skills with small arms in a range which was clearly aimed at impressing foreign audience.

The message from a visit to the CNS Yulin, a 054 frigate at the headquarters of the South Sea Fleet at Zhangjiang, 2,500 miles to the south Beijing was vintage Chinese as Capt Liang Tiajun, an officer at the fleet headquarters blandly remarked that India and China could cooperate in Indian Ocean security. It is no secret that the PLAN lacks the ability to take on the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean Region.

More dramatic was a “seminar” in which two top officers known to represent the PLA’s point of view in international gatherings participated. The meeting was moderated by Senior Colonel Zhou Bo. The British educated officer is well known to those who attend the Shangrila Dialogue.

The director of the Centre for Security Cooperation professed to be “pained” by the developments since he had served in the border regions with India. He set the tone of the meeting by waxing indignant about India’s allegedly changing stance, and attacked this writer for changing his positions “perhaps under pressure”.

It was difficult to assure the Senior Colonel that positions evolve more and more privileged information is divulged. For example, it was only on June 30, when the Indian press release came out that it was known that there was, to use a word often used by the Chinese, “consensus” that the trijunctions be worked out in conjunction with all three countries.

No clear border

Another Senior Colonel, Zhao Xiaozhuo, also a well-known face of the PLA, said he had served in the area and had no doubt that India had “invaded” Chinese territory. Zhao, who is at the Research Centre for China-US Defence Relations said the border was set by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 and claimed there was no dispute between China and Bhutan over Doklam.

There was little answer from the Chinese side that there had been no map attached to the 1890 Convention and hence the border was not even properly delimited, leave alone demarcated. The Chinese official position is that the border has been delimited, whereas India has maintained that as of now, there is only agreement on the “basis of alignment” of the border, viz the watershed, and that further work is needed to translate it into a full-fledged border.

Impressing the media

It was clear, however, that the discussion was aimed at the Chinese media, which was also present. Indeed, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the high-pitched campaign and the torrent of words are aimed at the Chinese audience primarily. So, there is no hesitation in blandly asserting palpably false things, as China’s top border official Wang Wenli did, that India was twice notified about the road construction, or that Bhutan had agreed that the Doklam region belongs to China. Or, for that matter, the insistent claim that India had “invaded” Chinese territory.

There are too many variables in play to predict how the Doklam issue will turn out. Clearly, it not about some piece of land 7x5sqkm. For years the Chinese have patrolled the area, after parking their trucks in plain sight of the Indian positions in Doka La. The decision to disturb the status quo, in violation of their solemn commitments to Bhutan, was done with particular end in view which has probably come unstuck by the Indian action.

(Courtesy: Mail Today.)

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Manoj Joshi Manoj Joshi

Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.

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