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Why Doklam is emerging as a flashpoint between India and China

Doklam is a trijunction of India-China-Bhutan Photograph: (Facebook)

Delhi, India Jul 03, 2017, 10.14 AM (IST) Jagannath P. Panda

Yet another tension point has arisen along the India-China border, this time in the Doklam area, involving Bhutan. Doklam is a trijunction of India-China-Bhutan, which complicates the issue more than the usual flashpoints along the India-China border. The earlier tension points have mostly been in the Western Sector of the boundary, primarily around Ladakh. The attempt by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to escalate tension in the trijunction of the India-China Middle Sector of the boundary is a new development. It brings Bhutan into the boundary matrix between India and China. The Doklam border tension involves bilateral, trilateral and geopolitical facets.

The current tension started with the PLA’s reported entry into Doklam on 16 June 2017 and with the PLA’s road construction in this area. This is Bhutanese territory. The Royal Bhutanese Army attempted to dissuade the road construction, to no avail. The Chinese attempt to construct the road is against the spirit of the 1988 and 1998 agreements between China and Bhutan, and Bhutan has protested to China accordingly. 

Indian personnel present at Doka La also tried to dissuade the PLA construction brigade. India decided to involve itself in the process since the Doklam plateau region is a tri-juncture point. As per the 2012 agreement between India and China, the two sides have agreed that the tri-juncture boundary points need trilateral consultation.

The tension has deepened further between China and India as the Chinese objected to Indian pilgrims visiting Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet through the Nathula border post in Sikkim.
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Its presence in Doklam will allow the PLA to come closer to India, having an intimate access to Sikkim border. The tension has deepened further between China and India as the Chinese objected to Indian pilgrims visiting Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet through the Nathula border post in Sikkim. 

Blaming India for the entire episode of the Doklam border row, China’s Foreign Ministry has sternly warned on 28 June that the pilgrimage route will be reopened after correction is made by the Indian side. Expressing deep concern over the matter, India also officially stated on 30 June that such road construction and decision not to allow Indian pilgrims to visit through Nathula will alter the “status quo” of the boundary, posing serious security implications for India. The matter was discussed earlier on 20 June at the Border Personnel Meeting at Nathula between China and India.

Doklam is a fresh attempt by Beijing to exert pressure on India to reframe India-China relations under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping.
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Doklam is a fresh attempt by Beijing to exert pressure on India to reframe India-China relations under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping. India-China relations have not been the best under the current leaderships in the two countries. The vision of crafting an economic-oriented India-China relation was lost during Xi’s visit to India in 2014 when the PLA troops created tension in the Ladakh region. 

Even though Prime Minister Modi visited China in 2015, the bilateral relationship has remained lukewarm. Modi and Xi have met at a few international forums, such as during the BRICS summit and SCO summit but they are yet to develop a personal understanding where the relationship will be strengthened by their chemistry. The Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh has further complicated the relationship, with China adversely reacting to the visit. What has not particularly gone down well with the Chinese government is the bold China policy that India has currently decided to pursue.

India’s current China policy has been an astute and a resolute one, where Modi has developed a foreign policy context to demand clarity in China’s India policy. During his visit to China, Modi had expressed the view that China must take a serious long-term and comprehensive view on its relationship with India. India’s astute China policy was evident when India decided not to attend China’s Belt and Road Initiative Forum (BRF) meeting that was held in Beijing in May this year. Rejecting the Chinese invitation, New Delhi rather stated that China should first provide the details of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) and must engage with India to have a ‘dialogue’ on the subject. 

The message from China to New Delhi is that India must not go too far in its relationship with the US or with Japan, and should not neglect its relations with China.
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India’s stance on BRI has been a standout reference for the wider regional and international community. India announced its decision to partner with Japan in the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) in and with Africa, immediately after the BRF meeting. The timing of this border tension also points to the fact that this tension was premeditated by China just before Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US. The message from China to New Delhi is that India must not go too far in its relationship with the US or with Japan, and should not neglect its relations with China.

The tension in Doklam points to a new stream of thinking in the Chinese strategic thought towards India. This needs careful monitoring. Beijing is preparing for the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CPC) Congress, where new leaders will assume power, strengthening Xi Jinping’s overall foreign policy decision-making process. Fan Changlong’s retirement from the first Vice-Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in the 19th CPC might witness the elevation of General Xu Qiliang to that post. 

Against the backdrop of the 19th CPC, the military decision-making process in China is gradually preparing to start focusing on neighborhood issues more intently. Donald Trump’s relaxed attitude towards the Asia-Pacific region, pursuing an America First domestic approach, has encouraged Beijing to reassess the regional security situation afresh.

The Doklam tension point has been smartly promulgated by China to convey that Beijing can complicate the India-China boundary dispute whenever it wants. The PLA reform and restructuring that took place at the beginning of 2016 have adequately increased China’s confidence level. The immediate neighborhood, including India, is under serious observation by the PLA. The Tibet military command’s rank was elevated to one level higher than the other counterpart provincial military commands. It was placed directly under the leadership of the PLA Army to offer relative functional autonomy. 

China has also been watchful of India’s infrastructural development in Northeast India, especially in Arunachal Pradesh. When India’s newly constructed bridge of approximately 9.3 km in Northeast India, connecting Dhola in Arunachal Pradesh to Sadiya in Assam, was inaugurated, the Chinese Foreign Ministry pointed out that Arunachal Pradesh is a disputed region and that India must “restrain” itself. China urged India to have a “measured attitude” to the boundary dispute before developing infrastructure in the region.

China and Bhutan have approximately 470 km of unresolved border, where the Chinese have been exerting pressure on Bhutan for a long time to resolve this issue.
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Where does Bhutan figure in this dispute? To India, the Sino-Bhutanese unresolved border is strategically important. China and Bhutan have approximately 470 km of unresolved border, where the Chinese have been exerting pressure on Bhutan for a long time to resolve this issue. Bhutan’s north-western region is close to Chumbi Valley and to the Tibetan region bordering the Indian state of Sikkim. A settlement between China and Bhutan in this area will have an obvious impact on Indian security. Chumbi Valley is located in the Yadong county of Tibetan Autonomous Region, which is geographically near the Siliguri corridor of northeast India. Bhutan’s border talks with China have always been historically associated with the India-China boundary discourse.

The Chinese attempt at creating this tension in Bhutanese territory is a complicated story that is less technical and strategically more momentous. To Beijing’s advantage, the India-Bhutan relationship has evolved more in separate sovereign terms, wherein Bhutan does not have to depend on or consult India on every matter. Based originally on the 1949 Treaty of Friendship, India-Bhutan relations witnessed a change with the 2007 Treaty, which encouraged both countries to think more independently. As per the 1949 Treaty, the Bhutanese government was supposed to be “guided by the advice of the Government of India in its external relations”; whereas the 2007 Treaty states that both governments will “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests”. The 2007 Treaty has set a new context where Bhutan enjoys a more independent international standing. Since then, Beijing has preferred to engage with Thimphu more intently to develop a comprehensive Sino-Bhutanese relation.

After settling the boundary dispute with Bhutan, Beijing is aiming to have a diplomatic relation with Thimphu, which will allow China to influence the strategic and security environment in the region in its favor.
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By creating the Doklam border tension, Beijing is working towards gradually weaning Bhutan away from India. China has shown much interest to resolve the boundary dispute with Bhutan in recent years, particularly since 2007. The two countries have already conducted 24 rounds of boundary talks. After settling the boundary dispute with Bhutan, Beijing is aiming to have a diplomatic relation with Thimphu, which will allow China to influence the strategic and security environment in the region in its favor.

Jagannath P. Panda

Jagannath Panda Coordinator of the East Asia Centre in IDSA. He is the author of India-China Relations: Politics of Resources, Identity and Authority in a Multipolar World Order

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