External Affairs

Six Expert Views on How India Should Look at the Latest Border Stand-Off With China

The Wire spoke to experts about whether a major border incident between the two countries was expected and how India should deal with the situation since it involves ally Bhutan.

 There is largely consensus among experts that Chinese action was dictated to change the status quo on the tri-junction. Credit: Reuters

There is largely consensus among experts that Chinese action was dictated to change the status quo on the tri-junction. Credit: Reuters

China and India have been engaged in a standoff in the Doklam area near the Bhutan tri-junction for about 20 days now after a Chinese army’s construction party came to build a road. While the Chinese have asked India to withdraw its troops from the area as a pre-condition for any resolution, India has accused the Chinese of directly violating an agreement between the two countries.

The Wire contacted experts on China who have either dealt directly with the relationship or are prominent academics. Most agree that the Chinese action is aimed at changing the status quo at the tri-junction, a point indicated in the official Indian statement. At the same time, there is also consensus on the need to carefully handle the situation, since it involves Bhutan, India’s closest ally in the neighbourhood. 


‘Good relations can only be maintained on the basis of mutual sensitivity’

Nirupama Rao. Credit: Reuters

Nirupama Rao. Credit: Reuters

Nirupama Rao
Former foreign secretary and
former Indian ambassador to China

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Was a major border incident between India and China expected?

The last few months have exposed the fragilities and strains in the India-China relationship. The equilibrium is already pitched at a low level. There has been no visible attempt to defuse tensions as the temperature has risen steadily. India has some genuine grievances which China has shown little understanding of. The Chinese handling of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor issue is one example. Another is the Masood Azhar UN listing. These are issues that affect us in a very real and tangible way. Good relations can only be maintained on the basis of mutual sensitivity.

Why has China roped in Bhutan into its dispute with India?

The dispute in the Doklam area is known. It is not a new phenomenon. But China’s road construction is a deliberate move to trigger a response from Bhutan and from India. Through its actions, China seeks to impose its own definition of the tri-junction point of the boundary between Bhutan, China and India (Sikkim). The move has serious security ramifications for both Bhutan and India’s defence interests.

With Bhutan now part of the India-China stand-off, how should India handle Bhutanese sensitivities?

Bhutan and India enjoy the closest relationship of mutual trust and confidence and enduring friendship. There is absolutely no controversy about military-to-military cooperation and understanding between our two countries. India holds Bhutanese sovereignty as sacred and inviolable. Article 2 of the Friendship Treaty signed by India and Bhutan in 2007 states: “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.”

India and Bhutan have a common perception of their strategic concerns and cooperate closely on defence and security issues and border management including in capacity building and training of Bhutanese personnel.

Does the reference to the 1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty by China portend a more difficult situation with regard to Sikkim?

My own impression is that the present stand-off has more to do with the Doklam plateau and with Chinese moves to alter the tri-junction point. But tensions of this sort must be managed and defused carefully. Otherwise, they tend to spread to other disputed pockets of the border and this is obviously not beneficial for the overall bilateral relationship.

Can we assume that border incidents are sanctioned directly from Beijing?

Local PLA commanders work according to the template handed down by their superiors in terms of definition of what areas are disputed. In the Doklam area it is difficult to believe that they are behaving thus on their own initiative. There is a structure and pattern to Chinese military activity especially when it comes to these sensitive border pockets. The commandments are handed down, in my view.

Are there domestic motivations for China escalating the issue this time?

China’s assertiveness and muscular behaviour on territorial questions today draws strength from its newfound economic and military capabilities and its imaging as a near-superpower. The leadership and the party have kept memories of past “humiliations” at the hand of foreign powers in previous centuries alive in the minds of the population, and this in turn triggers hyper-nationalistic reactions that make it all the more difficult to work for reasonable and fair solutions to border problems with neighbours.

As China has consolidated its hold on peripheral areas like Tibet, its approach to old border disputes has only grown more rigid and unyielding. In the early years of the People’s Republic, I believe that Chinese leaders were less rigid in their approach since this was still an active phase of nation-building and China was inclined to take a more realistic and pragmatic position on the issue of border settlements. Unfortunately for us, we did not read sufficiently between the lines in that formative period of our bilateral relations. The rest is history.


‘The Chinese are unilaterally changing the tri-junction point’

Ashok Kantha. Credit: Institute of Chinese Studies

Ashok Kantha. Credit: Institute of Chinese Studies

Ashok Kantha
Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies and
former Indian ambassador to China (2014-2016)

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Was a major border incident between India and China expected?

We can only speculate on the Chinese motives. However, China’s action in the Doklam plateau can be seen as part of its assertive behaviour of pursuing its contested territorial claims through muscular action. You can see a certain pattern in what is happening in the South China Sea, East China Sea and elsewhere, in Chinese pronouncements that it will not surrender an inch of its territory and its characterisation of those territorial claims as its core interests. The Chinese are stating that their claims over Doklam plateau are ‘indisputable’, though they are fully aware that Bhutan believes that this area belongs to them. We should look at the Chinese action in this light, rather than merely ascribing it to other developments in India-China relations, though those developments do provide the context.

Why has China roped Bhutan into its dispute with India?

China has certain territorial claims in Bhutan. There have been creeping encroachments since 1988. But there is no permanent presence of the PLA or of Chinese graziers in Doklam. For the first time, the Chinese are constructing a motorable road from Dokola towards the Bhutan army camp at Zompelri. It might be their assessment that Bhutan would not be able to resist. Clearly, the Bhutanese are not in position to make the PLA troops stop construction, even though they have conveyed to the Chinese side, both on the ground and through diplomatic channels, that the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory was in violation of earlier agreements. The Chinese might also have assessed that India will not step into this situation. They want to change the facts on the ground through unilateral action, which they have done elsewhere as well.

For us, there are two other issues which cause direct concern to India. The Chinese are unilaterally changing the tri-junction point. This is in violation of the understanding we have reached with them in 2012. As the MEA statement has noted, the construction of the road will involve a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.

With Bhutan now part of the India-China stand-off, how should India handle Bhutanese sensitivities?

The Bhutanese government has made it clear, through the démarche made by the Bhutanese ambassador in New Delhi, their communications on the ground and then the statement issued by the Royal Government of Bhutan on June 29, that what the Chinese are doing by constructing a road inside Bhutanese territory is in direct violation of the agreements of 1988 and 1998, which required China to maintain the status quo as before March 1959, pending a final boundary settlement. They have also expressed the hope that China will restore the status quo ante of June 16, 2017. The Bhutanese position is very clear.

On our side, we have a military presence in Bhutan through IMTRAT, etc. This is under bilateral understandings between India and Bhutan. It is not new. Second, there is very close coordination and consultation between India and Bhutan on the current issue.

At the same time, you would have noticed that the tone and contents of the MEA statement are very measured and balanced. I believe it takes into account Bhutan’s sensitivities as a small country which does not want to take on its giant northern neighbour. The government of India is seeking amicable resolution of the present stand-off situation, eschewing any polemics. This is despite the strong language of statements emanating from the Chinese Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence and China’s decision to expand differences by suspending the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra through Nathu La, even though they are aware of how the issue of yatra resonates at the popular level.


Also read: No Scope for ‘Compromise,’ Withdraw Your Troops, China Tells India As Sikkim Stand-Off Continues


Does the reference to the 1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty by China portend a more difficult situation with regard to Sikkim?

India and China are broadly in agreement on the boundary in the Sikkim sector. We agree on the basis of alignment, which is the highest watershed in the area, but both sides are fully aware that more negotiations are required among the special representatives to fix the alignment of the boundary on maps and also demarcate it on the ground. The Chinese side is cognizant of significant differences with regard to the tri-junction point, as can also be seen from the maps of India, China and Bhutan. As the MEA statement has pointed out, the Chinese have specifically agreed that the tri-junction point will be finalised through consultations among the concerned countries. There are also differences on interpreting the watershed boundary between India and China in the Sikkim sector. There have been incidents in the past due to different interpretations of the boundary in northern and eastern Sikkim.

Are there domestic motivations for China escalating the issue this time?

I would not like to speculate on the motives behind this specific event, but we can look at patterns and drivers of behaviour in general. Nationalism has clearly emerged as a strong force in both the domestic politics of China and its external behaviour. In domestic polity, it is one of the main planks giving legitimacy to the Communist Party of China. In the external domain, I have earlier referred to the narrative of not giving up a single inch of territory.

I am hopeful that the stand-off situation will be resolved, though I do not know how long it will take. Look at Depsang in 2013 and Chumar and Demchok in 2014, we did manage to sort out tricky situations. It took some three-four weeks, but a solution was found. The present situation is, of course, different as it also involves a third country, Bhutan. China should pay heed to Bhutan’s request to restore the status quo as before June 16, 2017 and seek to find a solution through dialogue.

I believe that the Chinese are also interested in maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border areas. So they would not like to escalate the situation beyond a point. The Indian side has no desire to engage in polemics or step up tension. There are a number of mechanisms available – border personnel meetings and continuous and fairly close dialogue at the diplomatic level. So there is no communication gap. Hopefully, it can be resolved at the working level. I believe bilateral talks are underway between India and China, Bhutan and China and India and Bhutan.

With regard to Chinese statement demanding Indian troop withdrawal in exchange for talks, I will put that as an opening gambit. Dialogue is already going on.


‘Main Chinese motive seems to be to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan’

R. S. Kalha. Credit: Twitter

R. S. Kalha. Credit: Twitter

R.S. Kalha
Former secretary (West), MEA

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Was a major border incident between India and China expected?

I do not think that there is a link between the present incident and our other issues with China on which we have differences, sometimes rather acute; although it must be admitted that these other differences do vitiate the atmosphere and foster general distrust.

Why has China roped Bhutan into its border dispute with India?

We have an understanding with Bhutan that any attack on Bhutanese sovereignty will be considered as an attack on India. Indian troops in Bhutan are basically on a training mission. Naturally, we have to be careful to respect Bhutanese sentiments and its sensitivities. Small countries have to be treated with extra care.

With Bhutan now part of the India-China stand-off, how should India handle Bhutanese sensitivities?

Bhutan is a small country sandwiched between two giants. It cannot sustain or withstand Chinese pressure alone. The main motive of the Chinese seems to be to drive a wedge between India and Bhutan, with whom we have excellent bilateral relations. Do recall Bhutan was the only South Asian country that stood by India when we decided to boycott the BRI summit in Beijing. From time to time, Bhutan has received Chinese blandishments to de-link from India and thus receive not only extensive economic help but also a better deal on the Sino-Bhutan boundary. Bhutan has steadfastly refused.

Does reference to 1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty by China portend a more difficult situation with regard to Sikkim?

Way back on March 22, 1959, (Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal) Nehru wrote to (Chinese Premier) Zhou Enlai that some parts of the Sino-Indian boundary was settled by the treaty. He cited the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Convention on the Sikkim-Tibet boundary as an example and urged the Chinese to honour it. Zhou in reply on  September 8 refused to discuss the Sikkim-Tibet boundary, saying that it was outside the scope of present discussions. Subsequently, the Chinese in a note on December 26, 1959 confirmed the validity of the 1890 convention and stated that there was no dispute in this sector.


Also read: Construction at Bhutanese Tri-Junction Will Harm Our Security Interests, India tells China


Can we always assume that border incidents are sanctioned directly from Beijing?

In my experience of dealing with the Chinese for over 15 years, including leading the Indian side for the crucial boundary sub group, I have never experienced a situation where the Chinese PLA takes steps without approval.

Are there domestic motivations for China escalating the issue this time?

I am sure that there would be someone within the party who would question why a small country like Bhutan or even India is still not accepting China’s version of the border. If you have adopted the platform of nationalism, then there will always be the temptation to make others toe your line by taking a tougher stance.


‘China misjudged India’s response to road building at Doklam’

Claude Arpi. Credit: Twitter

Claude Arpi. Credit: Twitter

Claude Arpi,
India-based French expert on India, China and Tibet

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Was a major border incident between India and China expected?

China just ‘tried her luck’ and started building a road on a territory which is disputed, thinking that India would not defend Bhutan. It was a wrong judgment from Beijing’s part.

Why has China roped Bhutan into its border dispute with India?

It is not a border dispute with India. It is the dispute between Bhutan and China for which 24 rounds of talks have already been conducted. Joint surveys have been done. China broke her undertaking not to change the status quo.

With Bhutan now part of the India-China stand-off, how should India protect Bhutanese sensitivities?

What is the problem of Bhutan seeking India’s help to stop China to change the status quo? The entry of Indian troops was done in consultation with the Bhutanese government. For India, it had too important strategic implications to let go.

Does the reference to the 1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty by China portend a more difficult situation with regard to Sikkim?

The 1890 was an ‘unequal treaty’. It dealt with the borders of Tibet and Bhutan who were not even informed that the issue was discussed. It was the time of the Great Game, China conveniently forgets that treaties/discussions/correspondence since then.

Can we automatically assume now that border incidents are sanctioned directly by Beijing and not the stand-alone actions of border commanders?

Perhaps it happened in Chumar in 2014, but not this time. The decision to enter in a disputed territory came from Beijing.

Are there domestic motivations for China escalating the issue this time?

Yes, (Chinese President) Xi is visiting Hong Kong, and the 19th Congress is coming (and the 90th anniversary of the PLA on August 1 in between). The declarations of the spokespersons of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defence show that it was for national consumption. Why to insult the Indian army chief because he spoke of two-and-a-half fronts, which is a fact. China too has an ‘Indian front’ which is being reinforced, i.e. new tanks north of the Chumbi Valley.


‘China is making a big issue about India acting on Bhutan’s behalf’

Alka Acharya. Credit: Institute of Chinese Studies

Alka Acharya. Credit: Institute of Chinese Studies

Alka Acharya
Former director, Institute of Chinese Studies

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Was a major border incident between India and China expected due to recent differences?

I would not go to that extent. Indian government’s Dalai Lama patronage is not new – and India is not the only country which has reservations over the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). The Chinese have been clearly irked – and they have conveyed it fairly strongly in the past. The extension of the road is also part of their ongoing infrastructure development, which will be linked to the BRI. The question is, who gains what from this episode.

Why has China roped Bhutan into its dispute with India?

This is less than clear. China has avoided mentioning Bhutan by name but is making a big issue about India acting on a sovereign country’s behalf. So the question is, if there has not been an intrusion into Indian territory, and if India’s problem is that the road changes the status quo and poses security threats (but the Chinese infrastructure all along our border has already changed the status quo quite drastically), then are the Chinese correct in saying that India has intruded into the territory claimed by them (and contested by Bhutan)? Did the Bhutanese government formally request India to assist them?

The signal to Bhutan clearly is – do you want to be caught in the crossfire between the two big ones or cut a deal with us and sort out the issue soonest? And to India – nothing will be allowed to come in the way of their connectivity/BRI plans.

With Bhutan now part of the India-China stand-off, how should India protect Bhutanese sensitivities?

Did the Bhutanese government formally request India to assist them? Or was it a decision taken at the local level in response to a situation? Are the local officials authorised/empowered to take such decisions which involve intervention by a foreign country?

Does the reference to the 1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty by China portend a more difficult situation with regard to Sikkim?

What is the Indian government’s official stand on this treaty? Why is it that if the border is still not formally and legally agreed, border trading posts are being considered?

Can we abandon the narrative that border incidents on the Chinese border are sometimes the action of an aggressive border commander?

Who believes that narrative in India? Maybe a dozen people.

Are there domestic motivations for China escalating the issue this time?

There is certainly a civil society discourse on China’s propensity to give away its territory too easily – there is public opinion aired in the social media, questioning the leadership determination to protect their sovereign territories. Xi Jinping needs to project his power and control in the run up to the 19th People’s Congress.


‘Both sides seem determined to stick to their position’

Phunchok Stobdan. Credit: YouTube

Phunchok Stobdan
Former Indian ambassador and
Senior Fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses 

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Was a major border incident between India and China expected?

All this actually started after the visit of Dalai Lama to Arunachal. Then, our decision not to attend the OBOR summit and the visit of the prime minister to the United States have really upset the Chinese.

Why has China roped Bhutan into its border dispute with India?

The Chinese wanted to exchange territories in the north-western side with those towards the central border with Bhutan as part of a package deal. We have not let them accept it. This deal was reviewed in 2002 and 2012 during China-Bhutan talks.

We are falling into a trap. Last time, our agencies were accused of interfering in Bhutan elections. There were allegations that this Bhutan government has come to power due to our liking. Since then, China has been finding an opportunity to cause a rift.

There is not enough information coming out from India, except for Chinese side.

If you remember the first bunkers were destroyed in early June and then the motorable road construction started on June 16.

The reaction by the Bhutanese foreign ministry came on June 29. Why did it take such a long time for Bhutanese to react?

With Bhutan now part of the India-China stand-off, how should India protect Bhutanese sensitivities?

Among our neighbours, Bhutan is the only country with which we officially have a normal relationship.

The longer this issue continues, the more Bhutan is likely to become jittery. How can we pressurise Bhutanese? That’s why, we are not making too much of an issue publicly.

This seems to have already gone on for a long time. It seems that both sides are determined to stick to their position and it will drag on till winter.

Does the reference to the 1890 Anglo-Chinese treaty by China portend a more difficult situation with regard to Sikkim?

This is related to the tri-junction and could be a huge and strategic political loss. As compared to this, our problem with Pakistan looks like peanuts.

Compared to our side, there seems to be closer coordination between the Chinese defence ministry and foreign ministry, who have been issuing statements almost daily.

There is confusion on the boundary line, with the Chinese maps giving their side of the claim. But we are not very clear. My guess is that there was some kind of a goof up.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Differences between India and China are not new. But they have increased with the recent controversy of NSG membership and dalai lama visit. The border issues dormant for long, began erupting with India’s adverse reaction to silk route. Moreover, China has become an important power in world politics and is trying to match USSR of yesteryears. India’s proximity to US might also had a role in the dispute. It is hard to imagine the border dispute without remote control of trump government

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Let’s hear the Chinese version – “Regarding the so-called tri-junction…the convention in 1890 said the Sikkim section of the boundary commences east from the Gymochen mountain and the incident (the present face off between Indian and Chinese troops) took place about 2000 metres away from the mountain. So, it has nothing to do with the tri-junction. …In disregard of the (1890) convention, the Indian side (said) that Doklam is located within the tri-junction of the three countries. This is misleading the public.” (Re: Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang’s media briefing, quoted in The Hindu, July 6, 2017). If we are so sure of our stand, let our Defence Ministry take a group of Indian journalists to the site of the confrontation, and allow them to interview the local inhabitants, and verify where exactly Doklam is located. I hope our government is not indulging in the ill-fated `forward policy’ of the 1960s that was initiated by our then army generals with regard to disputed borders with China, and which led to the 1962 war and our humiliating defeat. China has warned the present Modi government against repeating such a mistake. Our half-defence minister Arun Jaitley and our braggart army general Rawat should heed to that warning, and settle for some sort of a compromise to avoid a costly war.