Just how the Doklam crisis plays out is still a matter of speculation. Nearly two months into the stand-off, the Chinese verbal bombardment has not abated. The Bhutanese and Indian responses have remained low key after their respective press releases of June 29 and 30.
One important consequence of the stand-off is already evident – the parallel processes of negotiating China’s border with India and Bhutan seems to have reached a logical dead-end. The three countries now urgently need to come up with a new format if they wish to continue their conversation. Such talks are not merely technical discussions on the border, but since they are handled at a senior level, they are also a means of managing the relationship in depth and over a wide range of areas.
Since the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993, India’s relations with China had been stable and even predictable. The two countries managed their border issues well and have created layers of confidence building measures that aided the process.
Yet, in fact, they did not manage to actually settle their border dispute.
There have been two distinct cycles here, the first between 1993 and 2002 when the official level joint working groups sought to stabilise and work out a mutually agreed Line of Actual Control (LAC) – as per the agreement of 1993 – as a prelude to resolving the dispute itself. This process came to a grinding halt when the Chinese refused to exchange maps of the western sector. They came to believe that finalising a mutually agreed LAC could solidify it as a border and, as we have seen since the mid-1980s, they have been insistently making major claims in the eastern sector, which they now call southern Tibet.
Special representatives to deal with border issues
The two sides thus decided in 2003 that a political dimension needed to be added to the border settlement process and nominated a special representative each to deal with the issue.
The process was at a ministerial level, the current Chinese special representative, Yang Jichei, is a state councillor and senior even to the foreign minister Wang Yi. The special representatives have had 19 rounds of talks till April 2016 and, in 2005, they had signed what was hoped to be a far reaching agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles of a border settlement.
This agreement baldly stated that “the two sides are seeking a political settlement of the boundary question ….” In 2014, the Indian special representative, Shivshankar Menon, acknowledged that all the technical work relating to the border settlement had been done, now all that was needed was a political go-ahead from the leaders of the two countries.
But more than a decade later, they are no nearer towards clinching a deal. In 2012, Dai Bingguo, the Chinese special representative, and his Indian counterpart Menon, drew up a 18-point consensus document on the eve of the former’s retirement, summing up the work they had done. The disclosure of some portions of this document and some earlier understanding, in the current war of words over Doklam, could well be the clearest signal that the special representative process has run out of steam. This is not surprising, the moment the Chinese stepped back from the political parameters agreement, sometime around 2007, this had probably happened.
China, Bhutan peace agreement
Parallel to this, China and Bhutan have had 24 rounds of border talks. According to reports, the two sides came close to a settlement in 1996-2001, based on China agreeing to concede two parcels of land in northern Bhutan for three lots, including Doklam in the western part of the country. But thereafter Bhutan revised its claims and the process has not moved much. Yet, like the process of the special representatives, the Chinese and the Bhutanese continue to hold talks.
However, in the case of the Bhutanese, the peace and tranquillity agreement they signed with the Chinese in 1998 barely worked. This agreement committing both sides to maintain status quo as of 1959 has most obviously been violated in the Doklam area. The reason for this is that while India has steadily enhanced its border management capacities along the LAC, the Bhutanese simply lack the population or resources to police their 470 km border with the Chinese. The present crisis has shown that as of now, any resolution of Bhutan’s boundary issue is likely to be embedded in a Sino-Indian border settlement, unless Bhutan takes the drastic decision of making a deal without taking India into confidence.
With the Sino-Indian and the China-Bhutan processes at a dead end, the time has come for the countries to explore new institutional mechanisms of resolving their border dispute and maintaining “peace and tranquillity” on their border.
Rising frictions between the two Asian giants
There is also a larger view of the friction between a rising China and a rising India.
From the 1970s, India has seen the manner in which Beijing has sought to limit India to South Asia by using Pakistan. Now, a much richer and militarily more powerful China is pushing into not only South Asia but also the Indian Ocean Region in an unprecedented fashion. It is not that Bhutan will become a new platform for Chinese forays into South Asia like Pakistan, but that it will neutralise an important South Asian friend of India and add to Beijing self-worth as a regional power without compare. As it is, in Nepal and Sri Lanka, India must now compete directly with China for influence.
In response, New Delhi is intensifying cooperation with the US and Japan. India’s actions are still constrained by its self image as an independent player in the international system. It, therefore, does not have a military alliance with the US and will therefore not be privileged to receive US assistance in the event of a conflict with China. In a recent article, historian John Garver suggested that Beijing may be seeing India as “the weakest link in the chain of ‘anti-China containment’ being built” in Asia.
India’s military modernisation is delayed by a decade and a half, and there is nothing to suggest that it is doing anything about it.
That China has become more assertive since 2008-2009 is well known, but Modi’s India also sets a value by adopting an assertive stance in the South Asian and Indian Ocean region. And, unlike the smaller countries of the region, India does have the capacity to deal with China on its own terms. And almost everyone is agreed that in the coming decade, this capacity will only increase. As the more powerful party, China is the one that needs to figure out how it must deal with India because whether India becomes more powerful, or, for that matter flounders, it can still cause a lot of trouble for Beijing.
Conflict between the two Asian giants will act as a drag on their rise. It was famously said that there is enough room for both of them to grow at the same time. As of now, unfortunately, their simultaneous growth is causing dangerous friction and their unsettled border can always provide the spark for conflict.
With their dispute resolution processes not working, the two giant neighbours urgently need to devise a newer mechanism. And this must be done in a larger framework of engagement to promote what Xi Jinping says is a “win win” relationship. It does not take much imagination to predict what will happen otherwise.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.