The current standoff between China and India in Doklam plateau at the trijunction between China, Bhutan and India has now entered sixth week. There are no indications about the row between the two countries ending any time soon. Both India and China have held firmly their respective stated positions. With the escalation of the border issue it has become unlikely that any of the two countries will back off from their stated positions fearing a risk of denting their credibility in international community and especially among the smaller countries in the neighborhood.
The Sino-India border stretches to about 3500 kms and the two countries have been having border disputes in many areas. But in the area of Doklam, the border between India and China has seldom been contested by either side. What is though disputed is the Sino-Bhutan border. As per the reports that have emerged after the standoff, India and China have also agreed that Sino-Indian border line would be permanently settled after China and Bhutan agree upon the demarcation of their border. In the light of this, one would have least expected the two armies to stand eyeball to eyeball in this usually calm stretch of land.
The standoff began when Indian troops stopped Chinese from constructing a road through the Doklam plateau, known as Donglang in China. Apart from supporting Bhutan’s claim over the area, India has also expressed concern that the road once it is built will give China strategic control over crucial “chicken’s neck”, a 20km wide corridor that connects India to its north-eastern states. The Chinese have reacted very strongly to this development. The Chinese have said that Indian troops have trespassed into Chinese territory and by opposing the road construction, India has obstructed in “normal activities” on the Chinese side of the border. Chinese officials have been calling on India to withdraw troops from the area, “before any talks can take place between the two countries”. Since the time standoff started, the two sides have reinforced their troops at the plateau.
The war of words between two countries has since intensified. After the standoff, China didn’t allow Indian pilgrimage to Manas Sarovar Lake in Tibet, via Nathu La Pass in Sikkim. The Chinese official media has been upping the ante asking India to withdraw troops from the area. Chinese newspaper Global Times, in its recent editorial while reacting to Times of India report that “the Indian security establishment is reasonably sure China will not risk a war or even a small-scale military operation despite all its belligerent rhetoric," wrote “If the Narendra Modi government continues ignoring the warning coming from a situation spiraling out of control, countermeasures from China will be unavoidable.” The Global Times editorial which focuses on international issues from Chinese official perspective, while drawing a parallel with 1962 Sino-India war to present situation wrote, “India made constant provocations at the China-India border in 1962. The government of Jawaharlal Nehru at that time firmly believed China would not strike back. China had just undergone domestic turmoil and natural disasters; Beijing and Washington were engaged in hostility and China's relations with the Soviet Union had begun to chill.” What the editorial was indicating was Chinese willingness to go to war over the issue. Like many other editorials, the recent editorial in Global Times also expressed “Chinese determination to safeguard its territorial integrity despite the country facing many challenges on other fronts.”
Last week, a retired Indian Army major general and now defense commentator, Ashok Mehta, accused Beijing of running aggressive campaign against Delhi on a news show on China Global Television Network (CGTN). He drew a strong response from the Chinese Defense Ministry’s Center for International Security Cooperation, director who said “Indian troops must leave the contested Doklam area if they do not want war”.
The media on India side has been non-combative in comparison to Chinese media. Earlier while reacting to India Today’s cover story, “China’s New Chick,” with an illustration of China’s map looking like a chicken, with a Pakistani map below looking like its chick, called it “hysterical geopolitical imagination”. The editorial ended by saying “India may continue to live in an illusion, but China is bound to resume the order of its border”.
In such a highly charged atmosphere, India has also refused to budge from its stand. India wants troop withdrawal from both the sides. Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj on August 3, while speaking in Upper House of Parliament said that both the US and Russia stand with India (over the issue). She said: “Our stand is that we maintain restraint in language and keep patience and engage in diplomacy. No solution will be gained out of war because even after war, talks are required. A solution cannot be derived out of war.” Keeping in view China’s growing military and economic might, the Indian stand vis-à-vis Doklam standoff cannot be seen in isolation. India has been cozying up to the US ever since the new NDA government assumed power. And the new Trump administration has reciprocated India’s overtures towards it. US President Donald Trump while welcoming PM Modi in White House in June this year said, “India has a true friend in White House”. The defense cooperation between the US and India is witnessing upward trajectory. After Malabar naval war exercises, as per media reports, India and the US are again set to conduct “Yudh Abhyas” involving the two armies. The US is backing India in its efforts to contain China that it sees is emerging as a bigger player in world economics and military might. And China well might be aware of this.
It is difficult to say how things will shape up in coming days between India and China over Doklam faceoff. The two countries though will certainly try to outmaneuver each other and not play by each other’s scripts. China has also indicated that “it can intervene in Kashmir on Pakistan’s request as India did in Doklam on Bhutan’s request”. China is also reported to have mobilized troops in many border areas and carried out military exercises in Tibet, amid the Doklam standoff.
Stakes have been raised so much that any country backing off from its position now will risk its credibility and military prowess. And no matter how the current standoff between India and China at Doklam shapes up in coming days, the Sino-India relations have further taken a nosedive and will remain so for a long period of time.