The ongoing standoff between India and China in the Doklam area in Bhutan is the result of a disagreement over the terms of the 1890 convention relating to Sikkim and Tibet (pdf), signed by the colonial British government in India and the Qing empire in China.
Contrary to the Chinese stress today on “Mount Gipmochi on the Bhutan frontier” (Article I) as the beginning of the boundary between Tibet and Sikkim, India has pointed out that the specific trijunction point should be that point which adheres to the watershed as indicated in the same Article I of the Convention. Under the 2005 Agreement between India and China, the two countries agreed that “the delineation of the boundary will be carried out utilising means such as modern cartographic and surveying practices and joint surveys” (Article VIII) and that “(p)ending an ultimate settlement … the two sides should … work together to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas” (Article IX).
This clarifies several dimensions of this issue. Mt Gipmochi cannot be taken as the final trijunction point since the Indians and Bhutanese believe that the trijunction point, according to the watershed, lies further north at Batang La, and, therefore, this dispute will have to be settled through modern cartographic methods.
Secondly, the Chinese must be aware that their road-building through disputed territory threatened Indian security and thereby also violated the 2005 and earlier bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas. Disputed territory between China and Bhutan surely has implications for the border areas of India and China. Also, the Chinese action violates a similar injunction in their agreements of 1988 and 1998 with the Bhutanese themselves, as per the June 29 official statement by Bhutan’s ministry of foreign affairs.
Next, if the Sikkim-Tibet boundary was as settled as the Chinese claim it to be, then there should have been no reason for several clashes between the Indian and Chinese armies over the decades along the Sikkim-Tibet border, including the major confrontation in 1967. While there is agreement on the broad principle of the watershed as the basis of alignment of the boundary between between India and China, there are clearly differences on the alignment itself.
Further, the Chinese action, and subsequent claims about Mt Gimpochi as the settled trijunction, run contrary to the 2012 understanding reached between then special representatives Shivshankar Menon on the Indian side and Dai Bingguo on the Chinese side “that tri-junctions will be finalised in consultation with the third country concerned.” This understanding was part of a kind of progress report on the negotiations thus far between the two sides on the eve of Dai’s retirement from his post of Special Representative, as revealed by Menon.
So what impact will the present situation in Doklam have on India-China relations? One border incident does not constitute the full picture of the bilateral relationship. And this is a relationship that is today increasingly multidimensional, going beyond the boundary dispute to ever-increasing economic exchanges, including between the states in India and provinces in China as well as regional and global cooperation on issues of mutual interest such as anti-piracy or climate change.
Indian observers should also look at the whole gamut of China’s external preoccupations in the weeks of June and July. The Bhutan standoff is just one of the many security and foreign policy issues that preoccupied China: Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia, his participation in the G-20 summit, and Chinese concerns over the US’s THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system in South Korea all took up attention. The point here is that for Indian observers to maintain a granular focus on what China says about India without paying attention to the overall context does not help reveal the true picture about China’s actions or intentions.
Meanwhile, for those alarmed by the travel advisory that China put out for its citizens to be cautious while in India, this is part of standard Chinese practice and not nearly as strong as it could have been, or is with respect to the several Chinese travel advisories on Pakistan. Contrary to their own advisories, there have been continuing visits of Chinese political leaders to India. For instance, leaders from both Guizhou and Guangxi provinces were in India in late June and earlier in July, respectively, an important sign of the health of any bilateral relationship.
While the official Chinese rhetoric is cooling down, the cold vibes remaining will not evaporate easily. This is in the nature of international relations—India and China will constantly challenge each other as a way to validate their importance in their neighbourhood and in the global order.
In the meantime, it is important that both sides resist the temptation to take their cues from the current heated rhetoric in the media. The Indian side, especially, must desist from jeremiads based on the columns in English in China’s Global Times.
As for the military intrusion: Any pullback of troops on both sides in the Doklam area is unlikely, or, if it happens at all, will be temporary at best. In fact, it is more than likely that the Chinese will continue with their assertiveness in the India-China border areas at some later date, possibly right after the September 2017 BRICS summit in China, which the Chinese will want Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to attend and ensure that it is a success.
This will happen despite China entering a very sensitive period domestically, with the Communist Party’s 19th Congress scheduled for sometime in October or November. The Congress is expected to confirm Xi Jinping for a second five-year term as general secretary, and see a large turnover of leaders at the highest echelons.
There is, in fact, precedent for such Chinese action. It was practically on the eve of the 18th party congress in 2012 that the Sino-Japanese spat over the Senkakus escalated with anti-Japanese violence in China—including protests in front of the Japanese embassy—and frequent intrusions into the waters of the Senkakus by Chinese civilian fishing vessels, with the latter continuing through the Congress.
It should not surprise Indian defense planners if the Chinese test and prod the Indian military by opening up road-building, patrolling, and other forms of activity in areas along the disputed boundary that have hitherto remained dormant or not seen any such activity at all. The most likely venue for such increased activity will be the Eastern Sector—given India’s greater difficulties of access and in maintaining logistics supplies there.