The Doklam dispute: Ensuing chaos

By Parth Gupta

The Doklam clash between the Chinese and Indian security forces in the Sikkim section of the Bhutan-China border on an isolated plateau in the Himalayan Mountains is now the countries’ longest recorded square-off. It was in 1987 that the two sides first faced a similar circumstance at Somordong Chu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.

It all began when Indian troops interrupted Chinese workers building a road in Doklam, a land which is claimed by Bhutan. According to the Chinese media, the construction of the road is legitimate since Doklam has been a Chinese territory since ancient times. However, Indian government views this construction as a security threat, since Doklam is very close to India’s Siliguri Corridor, a conquerable neck that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country.

National security threat?

On August 21st, Union Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh came out and re-affirmed that the Indian government has no ambition to expand its borders, and will not be attacking any country. He further said that a solution to the ongoing stand-off between India and China at Doklam will be found soon and that he hopes that Beijing will make a positive move in this regard. Despite this, Singh made it clear in his closing remarks that Indian security forces were capable enough to defend the country’s territory.

In an apparent response to India’s official statement, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on issued a statement on August 22nd questioning the “logic of threat to national security”, terming it “ridiculous and vicious”. The statement also said that China would in no way allow any country or individual to infringe upon its territorial sovereignty.  

Maintaining the aggressive tone of the statement, Chunying said, “You may think about it. If we tolerate India’s ridiculous logic, anyone who dislikes the activity at his neighbour’s home can break into its neighbour’s house. Does that mean when China thinks that large-scale construction of infrastructure at the border area of India is posing a threat, it can enter Indian territory? Wouldn’t that be utter chaos?

A diplomatic crisis

The Doklam standoff, which was initially an exclusively military situation, has now escalated into a diplomatic crisis between two nuclear-armed states simply because neither side wants to back down. China has been demanding an outright withdrawal by India as the only way of ending the dispute, with no alternative. At the same time, if the Modi government decides to pull out, it would be seen as a sign of weakness and India’s inability to ensure big countries like China don’t go around and bully smaller nations, like Bhutan.

In an attempt to force India to back down, China has intensified a military stand-off by denying India—a downstream country—of flood-related hydrological data since May. This is even as major flooding has hit the region from Assam to Uttar Pradesh. Data on river flows is indispensable for flood forecasting and warning in order to save lives and reduce material losses; China’s data denial crimps flash flood modelling in India. This denial violates the 2013 and 2014 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), which obligate China to transfer hydrological data to India from three monitoring stations in Tibet every year. Honouring the MoUs, the Indian government had already paid in advance. However, as of yet, it has received no data.

Troubled relationship, but war unlikely

This face-off is largely seen as a build-up to China’s refusal to support India in its bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It’s successful blocking of India’s efforts to have Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar listed on the United Nations list of designated terrorists has troubled the relationship between the two countries. However, the latest blow came when New Delhi spurned Beijing’s grand plans for its ambitious One Border One Road initiative, which is key to China’s plans to strengthen its manufacturing base and find new markets for its goods.

Having said that, war between India and China is highly unlikely since the Chinese Communist government has no conclusive reason to raid a market which imported goods worth USD 61.71 billion in 2014-15 alone. Betrayal from Bhutan also seems unlikely since India not only trains the Royal Bhutan Army but also pays the salaries of its troops. The Border Road Organization, an outfit affiliated with the Indian Army, has built roads all over Bhutan. For India’s security planners, Bhutan is of utmost strategic importance as it lies south of the crest of the Himalayas, or the northern line of defence against China.

Featured Image Source: Flickr