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

If Narendra Modi takes the pressure off Bhutan and instead focuses on the legal arguments China is making, he will find he can resolve the Sino-Indian boundary quickly.

The Chinese don't want a war with us, so Modi has time to change the path India is taking. Credit: Reuters

The Chinese don’t want a war with us, so Modi has time to change the path India is taking. Credit: Reuters

History is in imminent danger of repeating itself, and of doing so with uncanny fidelity. All the conditions that had led to India’s crushing, humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962 have recreated themselves: we have once more an eyeball to eyeball confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops along a disputed border in the Himalayas. We have a prime minister making one provocative move after another towards the dragon in the north, gambling on it not spewing fire and burning us at some point.

We once more have an army unprepared for battle, whose capabilities are being exaggerated by a hand-picked army chief selected for political reasons after superseding two first-class officers who, the prime minister felt, might prove less amenable to obeying orders that went against the army’s code of conduct. We even have another tri-junction between Sikkim, Bhutan and China, as a flash point for the next war as the Dhola post was for the last one.

Repeating a scripted war?

For Jawaharlal Nehru read Narendra Modi; for Dhola post read Doklang; for B.M. Kaul read Bipin Rawat; for General Thimayya read General Praveen Bakshi. For Khinzamane read Gipmochi. The characters are the same, only the cast has changed. Only one final piece of the mosaic was missing. In October 1962, Nehru asked the Indian army to push the Chinese off the Thagla ridge. On Saturday, Lobsang Sangay, the head of the Tibetan ‘government in exile’ as it calls itself, saluted the Tibetan national flag at Pang Gong lake in Ladakh. Sangay may or may not have been given a nod by Modi’s government in New Delhi, but it doesn’t matter. For the Chinese, this is a serious provocation that can have consequences not just in the Doklam plateau but also Indian Ladakh.

So is another conflict now inevitable? Must India lose another thousand jawans, still more territory and put its relationship with China into deep freeze for another 25 years? Not necessarily. A wise leader is one who knows when to back off gracefully from an untenable position. A statesman is one who can not only do this but turn the situation around and make it work in his or her country’s favour. Regrettably, in his three years in power, Modi has so far shown neither wisdom nor statesmanship. But the Chinese don’t want a war with India. So there is still a little time left to make a start.

The first question Modi needs to ask is why the Chinese have chosen the Doklam plateau to build a road now. Several commentators have pointed out that it has done so to provoke India into a misstep. But it is also possible that with China’s infrastructure industries having almost completely run out of orders, and the military having large budgets to spend, the road had been proposed to the military command in Tibet by one of China’s powerfully-connected construction companies to refill its thinning order books.

The road might not have been intended for military use. Much has been made of the threat it could pose to the vulnerable ‘chicken’s neck’ of India, but we shouldn’t forget that we are also trading with China across Nathu La. Most China watchers believe that every major decision there originates in the party’s central committee or politburo. This is very far from being the case. The Three Gorges Dam project, for example, was not a grand central project, but the brainchild of a single private company owned and managed by the family of Li Peng, the former prime minister of the country. The same company, the Three Gorges Dam company, is now asking Beijing to let it build a 40,000 MW hydropower project on the big bend north of Arunachal Pradesh, where the Brahmaputra drops 3,000 metres over a few kilometres.

A series of missteps

Delhi’s first reaction should therefore have been to find out more about who was behind the road project and what China hoped to get from it. Trade through Nathu La apart, the Chinese had to know that in the Himalayas it would take only one well-placed bomb or explosive charge under a bridge to bring all movement on any road to a halt for years. So Modi’s advisors did not have to jump to the conclusion that the only purpose of a road across the Doklam plateau would be to bring tanks down it into the chicken’s neck.

However, even if the project originated in a jumble of motives, after the rapid deterioration in China-India relations in the past two years, Beijing must have seen in the road project a way to provoke Modi into making a serious mistake while also putting pressure on the Bhutan-India relationship –  thereby increasing India’s isolation within South Asia.

Modi has jumped into this trap with the same alacrity that he showed when he announced demonetisation. For Bhutan is a sovereign country. Without an explicit request from it for military help, there would be no legal justification for India to send its troops to confront Chinese road builders on its territory. For, granted that India has close relations with Bhutan, granted that it also has a military agreement with it, the decision to involve Indian soldiers in the attempt to evict the Chinese had to be taken by Bhutan. It could not be taken for Bhutan by India. Of such a request by Thimpu there is, still, not the slightest sign.

Also read: What China Means When It Says India Needs to ‘Remember the Lessons from History’

On the contrary, the studied silence on this issue from Thimphu suggests that India’s hasty defence of Bhutan may not be entirely welcome there. Bhutanese newspapers have reported the stand-off almost entirely in factual terms, without comment. Kuensel, the state-owned newspaper, pointed out that Doklam is only one of four territorial disputes China has with Bhutan. Would it be too far fetched to assume that it is hinting to New Delhi that, since it cannot step in to resolve all of them, it would do better to leave these to Bhutan?

If so, the reason would not be hard to find. Locked between two giant neighbours, Bhutan’s only way of safeguarding its sovereignty is to maintain good relations with both. By sending troops to its aid without any formal request from the government, Modi has put Bhutan in a position where it will have to offend one or the other. India could easily emerge the loser.

A ‘legal’ claim from China

Another notable feature of the current confrontation is that in sharp contrast to its normal practice, Beijing is going to great lengths to prove the legality of its claim to the Doklam plateau. It traces this to an 1890 treaty between the British viceroy in India, Lord Landsdowne, and China’s “Imperial associate Resident in Tibet”. Article 1 of that treaty states:

“The boundary of Sikkim and Tibet shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents, from the waters flowing into the Tibetan Mochu and northwards into other rivers of Tibet. The line commences at Mount Gipmochi, on the Bhutan frontier, and follows the above-mentioned water-parting to the point where it meets Nepal territory.”

This 1890 treaty settled the border between Sikkim and Tibet – or between British India and China – but redrew the boundary between Tibet and Bhutan. For the watershed between the Teesta and the Mochu runs south of Bhutan’s actual boundary, leaving the Doklam plateau well to the north. The Chinese are asserting legal claims to it on the basis of tax receipts issued to graziers who were paying a ‘herders’ tax to the government in Lhasa till as recently as 1960. But Bhutan and China had agreed to put the dispute in cold storage when they signed a standstill agreement on border disputes in 2002. This dispute is the bait that China has used to draw India into an untenable position in Bhutan.

Today, Modi is faced with having to do something he has never done before. This is to admit, however tacitly, that he has made a mistake, pull Indian troops back from the Doklam plateau and step back. If he does not, then China has made it absolutely clear that it will use force to evict the Indians from Doklam. What is worse, the hostilities will take place on Bhutanese territory over the objections of its leaders and people.

Most Indian analysts who have been asked whether the present confrontation could lead to war have hastened to say ‘no’. That is precisely the wishful thinking that preceded the 1962 war. The truth is that having manoeuvred India into this impossible position, Beijing would be stupid not to take advantage of it to administer another crushing defeat upon its only rival in Asia.

Short of giving a formal ultimatum, China has left no avenue unused to do some plainspeaking. In an editorial on July 4, the Global Times issued the following warning: “We hope India can face up to the hazards of its unruly actions to the country’s fundamental interests and withdraw its troops without delay. We need to give diplomatic and military authorities full power to handle the issue. We call on Chinese society to maintain high-level unity on the issue… This time, we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.”

On the same day, China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, expressly did not rule out war when questioned persistently by a correspondent and warned New Delhi, “The first priority is that the Indian troops unconditionally pull back to the Indian side of the boundary. That is the precondition for any meaningful dialogue between China and India.”

A day later, in a moderately worded but steel-hard editorial, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stated that if India did not want a further escalation of the situation in Doklam, it must withdraw its troops to the Indian side of the border.

There is a way out

So does India have no other option but to fight or eat humble pie? The answer is that it does – and it might just be the Chinese who have left it open. Beijing has based its claim to the Doklam plateau entirely on the 1890 treaty with the British. But in doing so, it has relied upon two principles for border demarcation that it had expressly repudiated in the run-up to and the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

The first was to not allow our colonial oppressors to determine our borders, and the second was to base border demarcation upon the watershed principle. The Chinese leadership had explicitly stated the first in an unsigned editorial in the Peoples’ Daily in 1962, a few days after the start of the war.

But while accepting the watershed principle and applying it to the demarcation of its borders with Myanmar and other countries, it had, earlier that year, refused to accept a correction of the MacMahon line given to it by India on a revised map, after the Indian cartographers discovered that in his haste MacMahon, who had been following the watershed principle had, perhaps inadvertently, placed the tri-junction of Bhutan, Tibet and India about 6 km south of the watershed where it should have been.

Also read: Current Stand-Off an Attempt by China to Change the Status Quo at Tri-Junction – Shivshankar Menon

The now available Henderson-Brooks report has revealed that the 1962 war was set off by what was essentially an accident – the failure of army general headquarters to inform the soldiers tasked with setting up forward posts in North-East Frontier Agency that the Chinese had rejected the new tri-junction. As a result, Captain Mahesh Prasad, who set up the Dhola post at what he thought was the tri-junction, was soon surrounded by 600 Chinese soldiers. The attempt to relieve Dhola by force set off the war.

Today, Modi has an opportunity to claim that India’s action on the Doklam plateau has forced China to publicly acknowledge the validity of the watershed principle as the basis for demarcating borders in the Himalayas, even as he backs out of the mess in Bhutan. He could go a step further and offer a comprehensive settlement of the border issue across the entire length of the Himalayas without any reference to historically-inherited borders. This might require some minor realignments in Ladakh from which Pakistan and China might conceivably benefit, but it will create a base for settling the tortured dispute over the borders of Arunachal Pradesh quickly on the lines that India has always claimed it wanted. Properly planned and negotiated, such a realignment would leave everyone winners.

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?