External Affairs

India-China Face-Off: Watch Manoj Joshi and M.K. Venu Discuss

Manoj Joshi, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and founding editor of The Wire, M.K. Venu, discuss India’s recent standoff with China.

M.K. Venu: I am M.K. Venu from The Wire, and today we will discuss something that has been bothering our countrymen for, now, three weeks. The India-China standoff at the tri-junction – well that’s what we are calling it, that’s what our government is calling it – tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China. Essentially it’s a territory between Bhutan and China, and India has moved to the territory to kind of support or defend Bhutan’s claim on a certain plateau called Doklam Plateau, where the Chinese are building a road. Now there’s a lot of confusion as to what this territory represents, whether it’s a tri-junction at all and whether it is actually Chinese territory. The Chinese have responded yesterday saying that it is clearly their territory, Doklam Plateau, whereas Bhutan has claimed that it’s disputed territory. India, obviously, going with Bhutan, saying that it is disputed, therefore India is trying to help Bhutan, as it were. So what exactly is happening there?

To discuss that we have with us an expert, Dr. Manoj Joshi. He is a strategic affairs expert, a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, under the UPA, and he is currently a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a leading think-tank, and he is also a columnist. He writes for The Wire also, and in the last one week he has written authoritative articles in the media on this tricky issue. Welcome to our show, Manoj Joshi. Now please tell us, for the benefit of our readers – our viewers and readers, of course, of The Wire – what exactly is happening there? Because not much clarity has come from our side, form the Bhutanese side. The Chinese has been very belligerent. They have used words like, “India will be kicked out if it does not withdraw in a dignified way.” And India, on its part, is a bit quiet. Even the big, aggressive, nationalist TV channels have not said anything, they have not declared war on behalf of the Indian regime, which they are prone to doing when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. So, what exactly is happening?

Manoj Joshi: Well, the thing is, as the word goes, this is the tri-junction of Sikkim, a state of India, Tibet province, an autonomous region of China and Bhutan. And the issue is exactly where the tri-junction lies. Now you know, Bhutan, until 1961, didn’t even have a map of its own. And so it was the Indian survey of India which helped them, and then we got a map and now they’ve got their own survey, this thing, survey system. We — the Indian and Bhutanese — show the tri-junction at a place called Batang La. But actually, it cannot be there because the tri-junction, because we, being the successors of the British, in India, are party to what is called the Anglo-Chinese Convention –

MKV: of 1890?

MJ: Of 1890, which decided, pins down very accurately where the tri-junction is. And it says that the tri-junction is at the Bhutan border, at Mount Gipmochi. And from Gipmochi, it then goes to Gaimochin and then goes to Doka La and then it goes to Batang La, okay? Now what has happened is that, if it is at Gipmochi, then this Doklam Plateau is under China.

MKV: Which is what China has claimed.

MJ: Which is what they are now claiming.

MKV: Doklam Plateau is clearly Chinese territory.

MJ: That’s what they say. Now, the thing is, when it comes to India, we are bound by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890.

MKV: Ok.

MJ: Because it defines the entire Sikkim border. You can’t pick and choose, you can’t say I’ll choose this part and not that part.

MKV: It’s a package.

MJ: Package.

MKV: As per that, Doklam Plateau is Chinese.

MJ: As per that. But, the thing is, the Bhutanese were not party to that convention. The Bhutanese were not party to the convention, so they simply told that “This is your border.” So the Bhutanese now say, no, Doklam –

MKV: They also have a claim.

MJ: They also have a claim on it, which is legitimate because their entire border with China is disputed. So you can say that there is a China-Bhutan dispute over Doklam Plateau.

MKV: Next question is, if India has gone there, what should India do next?

MJ: What India did was, while the Chinese were building a road, in the Dolkam area towards a Royal Bhutan army camp at Zompelri Ridge. There’s a ridge there and the Chinese road was approaching there, and the Bhutanese probably might have approached us. And so we sent in a group of military people to sort of, cut-off the Chinese road-building team.

MKV: Ok.

MJ: We sent them from Doka La. Now, Doka La is where the Indian and Chinese borders are supposed to separate. On one side is India, on the other side is the Doklam Plateau. Now the Chinese are saying, “You have entered our territory, and you have violated the convention of 1890” – because that defines the border very clearly.

MKV: And they are saying this internationally now, they’re taking this –

MJ: Yeah, but it’s true. Meaning that the point is, as far as India and China are concerned, there is no doubt as to where the border lies.

MKV: Ok. As per the 1890 treaty, it’s clearly in Chinese territory.

MJ: Well, this is where the problem lies.

MKV: Bhutan may claim something different.

MJ: Let me put it another way. It’s not in Indian territory.

MKV: It’s not in Indian territory, ok.

MJ: It is in a territory disputed by, between, China and Bhutan, to be accurate. The Chinese claim that territory, the Bhutanese claim that territory. The thing is that the Bhutanese have been very quiet on this, and the Chinese have been very voluble on this.

MKV: And India?

MJ: India, also, there have been – there’s a tendency to fudge issues, because in a sense, like I told, Mount Gipmochi is the tri-junction, I don’t think anyone will question. But India is saying that subsequently Nehru at one point affirmed the Anglo-Chinese Convention, and then subsequently resigned from it and said, “No, no, no, where the tri-junction is, there is some problem.” And then they are saying that in 2012, when the special representatives were meeting, the Indian side put in a caveat saying that wherever there are tri-junctions we still need to to decide where the border is. But I’m not sure about the 2012 thing, because the special representatives’ meetings’ records are not public, and this is something that was said in a background briefing.

MKV: You have said that you have written this, that Bhutan started claiming, laying claim to Doklam Plateau, which is the main bone of contention, where the Chinese are building a road. Bhutan’s claim was made only in 2010?

MJ: 2000.

MKV: So it’s a very recent event.

MJ: It’s a recent event, in the sense that in the late nineties – see, I told you, Bhutan didn’t even have a map. So for a long time, even for example, the India-Bhutan border has only been settled as of 2006. You know, because there was no border. But when Bhutan went for the 14th round of talks with China, the Chinese, in 2000 –

MKV: They’ve had 24 rounds so far.

MJ: Yeah. But when they went for the 14th round in 2000 – November 2000 – that’s the first they said ki, “Look, we also claim Dolkam.”

MKV: So what do you make, Manoj, of India’s position as of now. A lot of strategic experts say that this is the most serious face-off between India and China in, maybe, the last 20 years. So how do you see this unfolding? Who blinks first?

MJ: The thing is, there are many people in India who are getting worked up on the issue because this Doklam Plateau – maybe 40 square km to the south of where India believes the tri-junction is and is close to Siliguri corridor, which is a kind of a very vulnerable area for India. My point is, militarily, it doesn’t make much of a difference. We have strong defences in Sikkim, we have very strong defences in the Siliguri corridor. So it’s not as though the Chinese can come walking down. It’s a mountainous terrain. So this is something I think we should encourage China and Bhutan to settle.

MKV: Ok.

MJ: Bhutan is a friend of ours –

MKV: For that to happen, do you think we’ll have to withdraw first, or what?

MJ: I think we will have to.

MKV: In any case, it’s not our territory. It’s a dispute between Bhutan and China.

MJ: Yeah, yeah. As I said, it’s certainly not Indian territory. It’s disputed between China and Bhutan. So the best course would be that the Chinese and the Bhutanese resolve this as quickly as possible but I think the Chinese have put their prestige into – they have refused the Bhutanese once, when the Bhutanese requested them. They wanted to swap their other claims, the Chinese have other claims in Western Bhutan as well, so they said, “We will concede those claims if you give us this Doklam Plateau.”

MKV: Yeah, I read yesterday in The Hindu that the Chinese spokesperson has said that China is trying to do a swap with Bhutan, willing to give them a larger area north of this territory and take much less in this area where they are building a road. Basically China is doing that to gain an advantage vis-à-vis India, to be closer to the Siliguri corridor, which, from an Indian standpoint, has a big security implication.

MJ: Yeah, but my point is that an advance of 20-30 km, let’s say as the crow flies, the distance between Batang La to Gipmochi is about seven km, you know. When you’re taking about a mountain trail, it might be 20 km. It will become 20 km less, let’s say. The Chumbi Valley is 150 km from Siliguri, from the corridor it is closer, then a difference of 15-20 km does not make much of a difference. So I think we are overstating the military aspects because don’t forget one thing. If we think that the Siliguri corridor is vulnerable, equally the Chinese think the Chumbi Valley is vulnerable. Because on one side of Chumbi Valley, we have strong forces in Sikkim. And in northern Sikkim, we have even the – in 1986–87, General Sundarji placed armoury, tanks –

MKV: So essentially what you’re saying is that this is a package deal, the boundary between India and China as determined by the 1890 treaty, you’re saying that so if status quo is disturbed in one place, across the entire, anywhere across the larger border, right?

MJ: If you reopen the treaty, if you say that we don’t agree with that convention, then of course, you even have voices in China saying we’ll question the accession of Sikkim to India. I have even heard that kind of stuff. So I’m saying, you know, when some part of the border is settled, and demarcated, with pillars on the ground that lay out where it is supposed to be, I think it would be a bit hazardous to open it up. Because the Chinese have, for example, in the northern Sikkim, what is called the Finger Area, there they have some issues. So they may also have issues, we have issues. So I think, as I said, the best solution is to let Bhutan and China resolves it amongst themselves. But it is true, of course, that Bhutan is a very small country. And the Chinese are prone to bullying tactics. They push and the they create facts on the ground. They build a road and –

MKV: So, Manoj, what could have been India’s motivation to do this? Strategic motivation?

MJ: Strategic motivation is two. Number one is to help a very close friend in South Asia, and the second is this whole issue, the belief that Doklam Plateau will give China some kind of advantage in the Siliguri corridor, which, as I told you, I’m not particularly –

MKV: So you say it’s a bit exaggerated.

MJ: Yeah I think it’s a bit exaggerated because, you know, the thing is, if we are vulnerable there, the Chinese are vulnerable in the Chumbi Valley. We can occupy the Chumbi Valley if you have a commander who is bold. We have very strong forces in Sikkim.

MKV: Why has this got so serious? So serious that the Chinese, from the other side, every second day are making threatening statements. And of the statements, of course, one was that if we don’t withdraw with dignity, we might be kicked out. One before that was, India should learn lessons from 1962. What do you make of the Chinese rhetoric? They are not normally given to escalating their rhetoric in this manner.

MJ: I think that in this case, they feel that we have violated a – what should I say – key principle with regard to this, it’s an international border, it’s a settled border.

MKV: In fact, they have said that we are violating our own principles.

MJ: See, it’s like the India-Pakistan border. Now if things happen on the Line of Control there is no problem. But if a similar thing happens in the international border, people cross it or we go and occupy that territory, then there are repercussions on that. And don’t forget, the Pakistanis crossed the LOC in Kargil and we went to war on that. So countries do feel sensitive about this and for the Chinese, we may see Chumbi Valley as a threat to India, but the Chinese feel threatened that Chumbi Valley could be occupied suddenly. And don’t forget the, what was it now, 1904 I think, Chumbi Valley was the route which Sir Francis Younghusband took to attack Lhasa and Tibet. So this route, it’s the easiest route between Lhasa and Kolkata, via Chumbi Valley. They have a sense of vulnerability as well out there. When you look at the forces on the ground, we are much stronger there. In Sikkim, as well as the Siliguri corridor, India has very strong forces there.

MKV: So tell me, what are the implications for India-China relations? How do you see this particular event, this episode impacting –

MJ: India-China relations have been deteriorating ever since Mr. Modi –

MKV: Would you regard this particular episode as an important marker in the deterioration of India-China relations?

MJ: Definitely, because you know in the sense that ever since Mr. Modi came to power, I don’t think the government has handled its Chinese relationship very well. They have taken up issues like, inconsequential issues, like the nuclear suppliers group, or have taken up the issue of Masood Azhar and hyped it up in a public campaign against China.

MKV: NSG issue was hyped up up to a point. Now it seems like the Indian government is not talking about it. Talking about China’s role and denying membership, I mean.

MJ: See, what was the point in hyping it up to that level to start with?

MKV: What purpose has this served, that’s what you are asking.

MJ: Yeah. Last year, when Mr. Modi met Xi Jinping at Asthana, he requested a one-on-one meeting. They had a one-on-one meeting, and he spent 45 minutes just trying to convince Xi that they should support us on NSG. The point is, the Chinese have taken a policy decision, they are not going to support you. So there’s was little point in Modi talking to him on that issue. There have been a lot of missteps.

MKV: Would you say that we have mishandled our relationship with China in the last three years?

MJ: Yes. We have certainly mishandled our relationship with China. We have focused on, as I said, this inconsequential things, whereas we should have focused on things – you have a strong leader in China, Xi Jinping, you have a strong leader in India. This is an opportunity where you could have actually gone in for a border settlement. On the other hand, very distinctly, Mr. Modi titled towards the United States. He signed the joint strategic vision on Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean. When Obama came here, he joined the LEMOA. The Chinese are definitely spooked by all this, because definitely the joint strategic vision on Asia Pacific really relates to the South China Sea, and we mention the South China Sea navigation issues in those joint statements with the United States. The Chinese had kind of been seeing the Indians drifting towards the United States but in the Modi period, the movement has been sharper.

MKV: Sharper.

MJ: The Chinese say, well, these guys say they are non-aligned, but it doesn’t look like it. They look like they are tilting towards the United States.

MKV: Coming back to this episode, the Doklam Plateau episode, Manoj, you rightly said that this is between Bhutan and China to sort out, to resolve, right. Now, how to describe Bhutan’s psychology at this moment. They are a very small state, they would be very insecure. Do you think they have enough confidence that India would go all the way backing them militarily? Because you said that India doesn’t have a military alliance with Bhutan.

MJ: That’s the thing. Bhutan is extremely vulnerable. It lacks the capacity. All across its borders, the Chinese are building roads, they enter their territory, Tibetan grazers come in Bhutanese territory and they are unable to do anything about it. Now in this case, of course, when they saw something serious happening I think they asked for Indian help and that is what has triggered this off. But the Chinese have already built roads in the Doklam area. There are already roads there, I mean, if you go into the Google Earth you can see those roads. They don’t have the capacity and the military to constantly police the area. We have a brigade-size training mission in Bhutan but all that the 2007 treaty does is to say that we will – earlier, India used to guide their foreign policy. But we have had a new India-Bhutan friendship treaty. All that is says is, we are committed to cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interest.

MKV: That’s a very broad-brush statement.

MJ: Absolutely. That ‘we are committed to coordinate on issues relating to our national interests’ doesn’t really have any automatic clause that gets into the situation.

MKV: That triggers military assistance.

MJ: So this is something which Bhutan has to consider, how vulnerable its feeling. And of course, the Chinese, who have a tendency to push around people, they have to ask themselves, “How do we play this?”

MKV: Manoj, what are the chances of a limited military conflict? Because there are some strategic experts who say that India will not withdraw. And this face-off will continue for while. How do you see this going forward.

MJ: Relative to China, I think we are in a stronger position there.

MKV: In that tri-junction, you’re talking about.

MJ: In the Doklam area. So the Chinese would have to build up forces, and that would become pretty obvious.

MKV: But suppose, as you said, that the Chinese open up another area along the border where they are stronger.

MJ: That’s true.

MKV: We have a 4,000-km border with China.

MJ: There are many places where it can happen.

MJ: And India has jumped into this situation. All three parties, they have, what should I say, done things they shouldn’t have and they are being very opaque about it. There’s not much clarity. Of course, the Chinese are making many statements and things like that, but they are not referring to the fact that they have the 1998 agreement, that there should be no alteration of status quo. So in those circumstances I think all sides need to calm down.

MKV: Do you think, Manoj, that there are some backroom, kind of, discussions going on between India and China? Because by all accounts, this has been on and off for more than 20 days, three weeks plus, and Prime Minister, NSA, all the key players have been travelling to the US, to other countries, now to Israel. Do you think there is some kind of war room or something like that, back here that is monitoring the situation?

MJ: The prime minister was briefed by the NSA and the foreign secretary the other day. So I’m sure they are, kind of monitoring the situation closely and keeping an eye on it. So, if sense prevails, people will build this down.

MKV: India withdrawing, will it be seen as a kind of loss of face, given the kind of the nationalistic fervour that is getting created domestically?

MJ: See, that’s the thing. You can withdraw without saying you are withdrawing. Meaning, in the sense that, all the government has to do, is to stop leaking to the media. And they and the Chinese can agree that neither side will speak to the media. Then you do your withdrawal and know one know whether you have withdrawn or not withdrawn. We have gone through this before, in 1986-87, in the Sumdorong Chu crisis and the armies were mobilised.

MKV: It matters how you manage your domestic politics, because it’s often your domestic politics which escalates and triggers these kinds of situations.

MJ: I think it would be foolish if domestic politics is used for this. I think what is really required is managing the narrative, effectively, managing it in such a way that it doesn’t put you on a course towards war.

MKV: Ok. So thank you very much, Dr. Manoj Joshi, for talking to us. That’s all we have for now, but we’ll stay with this issue in the coming days and we’ll bring updates.