By Lt Gen S L Narasimhan (Retd) Doklam
For the last seven weeks, the stand-off in Doklam has hogged the limelight particularly in Chinese and Indian media. It is an area where many, who have written about it, have not seen. Therefore, the imagination has been the driver for all writings and videos.
There was also a lot of confusion about where Doklam is. A decade ago, this author was lucky to see the pristine beauty of that meadow called Doklam a number of times. The tiredness of walking for hours to reach that place used to vanish once the beauty of that place strikes you.
This time around, the incident started in the first week of June 2017. Chinese PLA came and broke a bunker in the first or early second week of June. The mention of ‘this time around’ is because, they broke another bunker in 2007 in the same area.
One needs to understand why this business of breaking bunkers happens. Chinese claim that some bunkers built by Indian Army are in their territory. But, India andBhutan claim that territory is Bhutanese. Chinese broke the bunker 10 years ago to ascertain their claim on that area. The latest incident shows their perseverance.
On 16 June 2017, Chinese followed up the breaking of bunker with construction of a track from the area of Dokala towards the Bhutanese post that is located on what the Bhutanese call as Zompelri and otherwise known as Jampheri Ridge.
This action violated the understanding arrived in 2012 between India and China that status quo was to be maintained in the areas of tri junctions and if any decisions are to be made about these areas it will be done with the concurrence of all the countries involved.
Since the construction of the track would have altered the status quo in this area significantly, Indian troops stopped the Chinese from constructing it. Though the incident happened on 16 June, the first indications of it came when the Chinese stopped the travellers to Manasarovar at Nathula. Initially, the reason given was that there were landslides on the Chinese side and so this action was being taken.
However, they clarified that the route from Lipulekh will be open and those who were to go from Nathula can go from Lipulekh. At this point, suspicions started rising that all is not well in the area of Sikkim.
All hell broke loose on 25 July when the Chinese spokesman broke the news of the stand-off just hours before the Modi-Trump meeting. Lot of motives have been attributed to the track construction and the stand-off.
Some of them are: India did not participate in the OBOR Summit held in May in Beijing; India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Arunachal Pradesh; China was trying to influence the Modi – Trump meeting; basically all of them were based on ‘teach a lesson to India’ theory.
The other theories on the motive for this incident are that President Xi wanted to create an issue to consolidate power keeping in mind the forthcoming 19th Party Congress. Secondly, China wanted to test India’s resolve to stand by Bhutan and thirdly, it is just a track construction like anywhere else that went wrong.
Motives behind this incident are yet to come out in the open. It is unlikely to do so for some time to come. All the writings about the motive of this stand-off are guess works at the best. Whatever be the motive, there are a few things that are different from the past face offs. Firstly, this is the first time that India went into another country’s territory to stop an activity of the Chinese. Secondly, this action by India took the Chinese by surprise.
Thirdly and surprisingly, the Chinese media went to town with this news first. (They used to blame the Indian media in all the previous such face offs for going ballistic).Not only that, the Chinese media went very high on rhetoric in the initial stages itself. Fourthly, China’s action would have unilaterally changed the status quo in that area.
Once the Indian troops stopped the construction party of the Chinese, there was a bit of tension in the area which was expected. Both sides reinforced the area with additional troops. But what is important is to analyse the reaction from both sides.
The spokespersons from Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defence of China used threatening tones including reminding the Indian Army of 1962 conflict. Global Times, (the credentials of which has been explained by Aradhana Takhtani, who worked in that paper, in the Times of India of 31 July 2017(Coimbatore edition)), went ballistic.
The visual media in China showed clips of a brigade exercising in the Tibetan Plateau and a firing exercise. While a trained eye could see through it, one has to admit that it created a mild flutter in the minds of the general public in India. This effort from the Chinese seems to have been done to pile up pressure on India. Since India did not back off, their effort backfired on them. The reporting in other papers like Peoples Daily (人民日报) and Xinhua (新华)
was more muted. They also joined the fray but briefly. On 28 July, Xinhua was the one which put out the story that India and China need to build mutual trust as they are not born enemies. That was an indication that a door for talks was left slightly ajar.
The official reaction from India’s Ministry of External Affairs was to the point, mature and balanced. After the statement on 30 June 2017 which came after the 29 June 2017 statement of the Government of Bhutan, there was no further official communication from India in the public domain. Reporting of the incident by the Indian media was by and large muted. Most of the reports that came out were speculative.
Some writers tried to cash in by whipping up war hysteria. Visual media showed older video clips of Indian and Chinese troops jostling at some other place. Some of them reported that 158 Indian soldiers had been killed in a rocket attack by the Chinese on 17 July 2017. On 31 July, TV channels reported a transgression as that of China having gained entry into India and intruded into the Central Sector. It was played down after the official clarification.
Contrary to the worries there was no untoward incident at the site of the stand-off. Such reporting by media of both countries does precious little to resolve the sensitive issue and sways the minds of the population adversely. The saving grace in all the things that have been happening is that both India and China have been saying, officially, that diplomatic channels were been functioning normally.
All eyes were on Mr Ajit Doval’s visit to Beijing for the BRICS National Security Advisers’ (NSA) meet. He did meet his counterpart Mr Yang Jiechi and also Mr Xi Jinping. After those meetings the rhetoric in the Chinese media has reduced considerably. So far, there have been no indications as to what transpired between the two NSAs.
Where do we go from here? It appears that the stand-off will be a long drawn one. How and when it will end is anybody’s guess. But one thing is sure. The fallout from this stand-off will influence the future trajectory of India – China relations.
For the stand-off to end, this incident needs to go out of the focus of media. Once that is done, diplomatic endeavours can work to reach a mutually acceptable resolution of this issue. One of the solutions could be a phased and simultaneous move back to positions that existed before 16 June 2017.
In the 50 years that have gone past after the skirmish at Nathula and Chola, both India and China have handled the bilateral relations with a lot of care and maturity. Mr Wen Jiabao, former Premier of China, said in 2003 that India and China have had a good relationship for 99.99% of the time in history. Mr Modi mentioned in Russia in June this year that not a single round has been fired across the India – China border for more than 40 years. One is confident that both countries will have the wisdom and fortitude to maintain good relations between them.