The standoff between the armies of India and China in Bhutan’s Doka La continues even after more than 45 days. Previously, it was expected that the logjam would be broken diplomatically before the People’s Liberation Army’s 90th-anniversary celebrations but that did not happen, despite Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart as well as with President Xi Jinping.
Leaders from both the countries have put their reputations at stake and none of the two sides wants to be seen as to have buckled under pressure. Chinese state media has constantly breathed fire after Beijing made the happenings at Doka La public, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was slated to meet US president Donald Trump in Washington.
What is at stake at the site of the Doka La standoff cannot be underestimated. It has as much to do with the future of the global order as it has to do with the six-decade long border tensions between the two Asian giants. Since the time this crisis started, the Chinese have constantly accused India of interfering in their territorial dispute with the tiny Bhutan and, therefore, have asked India to unilaterally withdraw its troops operating on foreign soil.
In reply, New Delhi has invoked its treaty with Bhutan, whereby India is obliged to come to Bhutan’s aid during a security crisis. It has also recalled an understanding reached with Beijing in 2012, that says that any border dispute with a third country affecting both the parties will be solved with each other’s consent. Doka La is one such dispute, as Chinese construction activities in there may affect the status quo at the China-India-Bhutan trijunction.
It is not easy for India to yield to the Chinese demand of unilaterally withdrawing its troops and open threats of military use by the Chinese are only making the situation worse. If India – the Asian giant which is now almost equal to China in terms of population – recedes in the face of military threats, then not just Bhutan but other small Asian countries having territorial disputes with China will quickly surrender before Beijing’s belligerence.
After Rajiv Gandhi came to power with a record parliamentary majority, there was again a standoff at Samdorong Chu in 1986, when the Chinese tried to build a road there. Indians refused to back off and airlifted a whole mountain brigade, deploying troops in an aggressive manner. Finally, the Chinese blinked and the crisis culminated into bilateral talks over the border dispute which have been going on since then without any breakthrough.
After coming to power with India’s first full majority government in three decades, Modi too got a taste of Chinese pressure tactics. As Modi hosted Xi in his home state of Gujarat, a PLA contingent erected camps in Ladakh’s Chumar. This could have been a major embarrassment to Modi who, during his election campaign, had strongly criticised soft policies of previous United Progressive Alliance governments towards China and Pakistan. India had to quickly mobilise 4,000 troops before the situation was resolved.
All these military standoffs between India and China were over border disputes. This time though, the Chinese started to build a road in the Doka La plateau, which is a subject of the Bhutan-China territorial dispute. This road, if constructed, will put a narrow land strip connecting hinterland India with its north-eastern states under hazard of a quick Chinese assault.
But that is not the only reason Chinese suddenly got this idea. Along with India, Bhutan too boycotted China‘s One Belt One Road (OBOR) summit held in May in Beijing. This happened after Chinese called upon India to join the OBOR summit, giving up its reservations and strategic narrow-mindedness.
Indian objections to OBOR relate to its constituent China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan, regions that are claimed by India. After the Doka La crisis got triggered, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson again invited India to join OBOR and talked about integrating CPEC with the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor. Until India remains defiant, linking BCIM with CPEC will be impossible.
It is an age old principle of geopolitics that a land power tries to gain access to the sea and tries to evolve into a maritime power. China is trying to do that through CPEC, which provides it access to the sea through an alternative route, thus reducing its dependence on the Malacca Strait – through which most of its oil imports pass and which can be easily blockaded by navies of India or the United States.
But most of the Pakistani territory through which the CPEC passes has Islamist and ethnic separatist insurgencies. Chinese professionals working in Pakistan have been repeatedly targeted by Islamists as well as Baloch separatists. Now, even Sindhi secessionists in Pakistan are starting to target the Chinese.
Recently, Chinese engineers narrowly escaped an IED blast in Karachi’s Bin Qasim, responsibility for which was later claimed by a Sindhi insurgent group called Sindhudesh Liberation Army. There are regular agitations in Gilgit-Baltistan against CPEC as well. In the Punjab province, the Chinese have tried to co-opt Islamist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad by repeatedly blocking United Nations Security Council sanctions against its chief Maulana Masood Azhar.
But sooner or later, the possibility of a clash of Chinese with Islamists is very much on the cards as news of restrictions imposed by the Chinese government on Islamic religious practices in Xinjiang continues to pour in Pakistani media. Recently, Associated Pressreported on how in a central China city, Communist Party’s propaganda officer instigated locals to bury a pig’s head at the site of an upcoming mosque to stall its construction.
A large body of Uighur Muslim separatists continues to find havens in Pakistan and despite the growing Chinese influence, Islamabad has done little to expel them. The prominent Uighur Islamists that were killed in Pakistan died in US drone attacks. Then there is the chronic political instability of Pakistan, where no elected prime minister has ever been able to complete his or her term.
All this puts many question marks on the ultimate success of CPEC and the Chinese are painfully aware of this. Risks associated with CPEC may have an overall negative impact on OBOR on the whole. That’s why China now wants to “synergise” CPEC with BCIM under the umbrella of the belt and road initiative.
If India allows that, however, Chinese goods will get land access to a market comprising of a population of close to 1.5 billion as well as access to the Bay of Bengal, and thus to the Indian Ocean through major Indian and Bangladeshi ports. China can still gain access to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar without Indian help but that will not remove the Indian naval threat, but only double it.
On the other hand, if India joins BCIM, China will get more trade leverage in India, given the weakness of India’s manufacturing sector. It will also help in automatically checking the increasing Indian tilt towards the United States, thus dissipating a more palpable future strategic alliance between US, India, Japan and Australia.
India may not like BCIM to be made part of a framework which has CPEC as its main constituent. From the Indian point of view, joining OBOR will mean an indirect acquiescence to the construction of CPEC over the territory claimed by it and even regularising Pakistani claims.
Such has been the Chinese eagerness to make India join OBOR that the Chinese Ambassador to India even offered to rename CPEC to address India’s concerns. As India has so far refused to oblige, angry Chinese are trying to coerce it into submission to a new Asian order, led by China. Bhutan has been chosen as the theatre because, unlike Nepal and Myanmar, it has so far refused to join OBOR which is no less annoying for the Chinese.
As India has so far refused to oblige, angry Chinese are trying to coerce it into submission to a new Asian order, led by China. Bhutan has been chosen as the theatre because, unlike Nepal and Myanmar, it has so far refused to join OBOR which is no less annoying for the Chinese.