External Affairs

Neither Win Nor Loss, the End of the Doklam Standoff is an Opportunity

Today, the standoff has opened a route to the resolution of the long simmering boundary question. Can Modi turn the present draw into a victory for both India and China?

China and India have been engaged in a standoff in the Doklam area near the Bhutan tri-junction for past 19 days. Credit: Reuters

The standoff between China and India on the Doklam plateau ended with India withdrawing its 40 troops and one bulldozer from it. Credit: Reuters

Even before news that the standoff between China and India on the Doklam plateau was ending with India withdrawing its 40 troops and one bulldozer was an hour old, the BJP’s spin doctors had begun to paint it as “certainly India’s win over a bullying neighbour”. In an unsourced opinion piece posted by the Economic Times the writer/s claimed that “China tried every threat to bully India – from starting a war to sponsoring insurgency within India. These threats make the Chinese climbdown very significant … The message that goes to smaller countries is that China might not back its threats with substantial action. While the Chinese retreat can encourage smaller countries to look it in the eye, it will also give India an aura of a regional power … Effectively, disengagement means China has been beaten back by India.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Indian withdrawal is an admission by New Delhi that it had no legal justification for its military presence in Doklam. For while there was a dispute over ownership of the plateau, it was between Bhutan and China and there is no record in the public domain of Bhutan asking for India’s help in dealing with the Chinese incursion. Beijing had warned India that it regarded the presence of Indian troops in Doklam as an act of aggression, not once, but four times in the past six weeks – in a 15 page statement of its legal position issued in July, in a formal demand by foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on August 22 that said India must remove its troops from the Doklam side of the watershed as a prerequisite for peace, and in two categorical statements by its ambassador in Delhi following these declarations.

What is more, China has hastened to puncture the balloon of Indian hyper-nationalism by stating categorically that while Indian troops have already withdrawn from the disputed area, this fulfilling China’s precondition for a stand down, Chinese troops will “continue fulfilling [China’s] sovereign rights to safeguard territorial sovereignty in compliance with the stipulations of the border-related historical treaty.”

What, then, is the compromise that has enabled both countries to back off?  Could it be that the two sides have reached an understanding on the one subject that neither country has mentioned in its statements – the road that China was building towards the Doklam plateau. Or that there is no agreement on this issue at all but that both sides thought it best to end the standoff anyway. If this is so, then Monday’s redeployment is neither a victory nor a defeat for either country. It is, at best, a draw.

Also read: The Bhutan Stand-Off Is an Opportunity, Not a Threat

Only time will tell whether this surmise is correct, but what cannot be denied is that the Chinese have seen the full extent of India’s  paranoia about the vulnerability of the Chicken’s Neck stretch of territory between Bangladesh and Sikkim and will not hesitate to use it in future to put pressure upon New Delhi when the need arises. On the other hand, should Delhi ever overcome it, Nathu La can become a major asset in building a durable relationship of mutual benefit with China.

The first step in overcoming India’s paranoia is for Delhi to recognise that the vulnerability of the Chicken’s Neck is a cartographic illusion that has been taken advantage of by armchair strategists to create their stock-in-trade – fear. To start with, Nathu La is at an altitude of 4310 metres, almost 14,500 feet above sea level and is snow-bound for at least four months of the year. This means that any force that crosses it to the Indian side, runs the risk of getting stuck there for up to four months at the mercy of whatever India chooses to throw at it.

Second, the Chicken’s Neck itself is not all that narrow – its narrowest part is actually between Nepal and Bangladesh and that is more than 200 km as the crow flies, from Nathu La.

Third, the distance from Nathu La to Kalimpong on the West Bengal border is 136 kms and an estimated five hours in a passenger car. There are innumerable bridges, culverts and tunnels on this road that can easily be blown up. So how would an invading force from China be able to get to the Chicken’s Neck in the first place and how would it maintain its supply lines?

The alarmists’ memories are also extremely short. In the early 1980s, it was India that drove the Chinese out of the Chumbi valley, using its newly acquired Bofors guns to fire over the Himalayan ridges down into it from distances of 40 kms and more. India is far stronger now than it was in the ’80s and China has far more to lose in the Chumbi valley, which has become a hub of economic activity after it became a rail head, than it had 30 years ago. If anything, China has had more to fear from the worsening of relations between it and India, than India does.

Today, the Doklam standoff has opened a route to the resolution of the long simmering Himalayan border dispute that had been closed by the failure of Chinese premier Chou Enlai to establish common ground with Jawaharlal Nehru during his visit to India in 1960 and the 1962 war. For to establish the illegality of India’s incursion into Doklam, it has emphasised its acceptance (in the 1890 treaty) of the watershed principle of boundary demarcation that was the basis, however hastily and casually delineated, of the MacMahon line. By re-opening this possibility within a framework of increased intra-BRICS cooperation at Xiamen next week, Narendra Modi can turn the present draw into victory for both countries. Whether he has the sagacity to do so remains to be seen.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and the author of several books including Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India Dominate the West?

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  • alok asthana

    Doklam is evidence of Modi’s mastery in picking topics where he can impress Indian people without much risk to himself. He confronted the Chinese over a non issue, created a great issue of it within India ( the non existent importance of Siliguri corridor), and withdrew JIT ( just in time). Now BJP will paint the town red with Modi’s muscularity. This one stroke should be able to counter the stigma of some of his inevitable administrative screw-ups in future. I assess this one stroke should be able to counter at least 50 -60 muslims to be lynched in future, death of about 100-120 children in hospitals for want of oxygen/medicines, death of about 400 in flood which are due to mismanagement of water, 1-2 more policy screw-ups in economics.

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Let’s congratulate Prem Shankar Jha on his demystification of the Modi government’s claims – propagated by a super-patriotic Indian media subservient to the government – about India triumphing over China. The settlement over the Doklam dispute, actually confirms Beijing’s earlier complaint that the Indian army was occupying a foreign territory (Bhutan), and its demand for its withdrawal – a demand to which New Delhi has now finally submitted, as evident from its troops retreating from that contested area. China, while withdrawing its road-building equipment from the area, has however affirmed its intention to maintain its presence there. This latest Sino-Indian agreement has put an arrogant Modi government in its place. Thankfully, it has been brought about through the peaceful diplomatic dialogue – unlike the military confrontation of 1962, when China snubbed the then Indian government’s ambitious `forward policy, ‘ by pushing out the Indian troops from contested inter-border territories.

  • alok asthana

    This is interesting. PM will not take the blame for death of kids, muslims being lynched and train accidents ( all in BJP states/department) but will take credit for gas cylinders reaching some women, some people opening bank accounts, Supreme court ordering that privacy is a fundamental right ( BJP chief formally thanked PM for that) and, to top it all, Air India having a Bihu dance logo on its aircrafts ( CM of Assam has thanked PM for it, despite it being on AI planes decades now)!
    It has nothing to do with Congress, which has deplorable performance without a doubt. It is a point being raised by a citizen. Are we citizens totally out of the dialogue? Not me, surely.

  • alok asthana

    If the PM focusses only on national issues, he can avoid the blame of local screwups. But when he puts on a huge flowing pug and appears in full regalia even in election of MLAs in Delhi, UP or Bihar or even corporators, he loses that excuse.
    As for his national achievements, today’s Indian Express is full of what he achieved at national level – Demonetisation. Guy doesn’t know where to hide.