As the Indo-China border impasse at Doklam continues without a tangible end in sight, there are several important takeaways to note here. To start with, China has adopted an overtly aggressive position on the issue, it being the aggrieved party. The ‘conditionalities’ from Beijing include “immediate unilateral withdrawal of India’s troops to the Indian side of the border to uphold peace/tranquility in the China-India border areas as a precondition for essential peace talks“.
The rhetoric sounds unusually shrill and serious, with implicit threats of an even more serious situation developing, with even graver consequences, if New Delhi doesn’t step back, being made. All of this is being made in the backdrop of movement of heavy artillery into the plateau by China, and the all-time low diplomatic relationship between the two nations. There were no bilateral talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in Hamburg earlier this month. Also, subsequently, no significant meetings took place during the BRICS conclave. Hence, it would be a mistake, and a grave one indeed, to treat this as another run-of-the-mill incident being reported from the Sino-Indian border, as the differences between the current situation and those in the past, the ones in Chumar and Depsang, for example, are vast.
The next important point to note is that both parties view the stand-off quite differently. China refuses to back down, as the issue pertains to its territorial ‘sovereignty’. India, on the other hand cites concerns to its ‘national security’. It is known that China makes no concessions when it comes to the aspects of territorial ‘sovereignty’; episodes of Indo-China border disputes are proof of this fact. India too, cannot afford to step down to counter compromises made to its national security. If Chinese claims are to be believed and the tri-junction is accepted to be further down south, at Mt. Gipmochi, it could prove highly problematic. China would be within striking distance to the Siliguri Corridor, the lifeline to the Northeast, which has always been viewed as India’s ‘Achilles’ heel’. The possibilities and consequences of such a move are both immense and serious. India has clearly acknowledged the gravity of the situation, as is evident from the Centre’s briefing to the Opposition.
Furthermore, scope for mediation from friendly sides is limited, due to the highly volatile situation. Though Washington D.C. has advised both parties to pursue direct bilateral dialogue to resolve the conflict at the earliest, it is highly unlikely that the Pentagon will pressurise or persuade China to tone down its aggression, leaving India with a lone hand.
The only positive is that neither state is willing to engage in open conflict. There has been a substantial slow-down of China’s economic growth, and Beijing is anxious to avoid any major distraction from preventing the restoration of its economy. India’s reluctance also centers on the economical state of affairs in the country.
As mentioned earlier, India has understood the delicate nature of the deadlock and has taken up steps to soften China’s rhetoric. But issuing controlled statements is not the only solution. China’s actions at Doklam send out a loud, clear message: the border issue is one between China and Bhutan and China does not recognise the ‘special relationship’ between India and Bhutan. They firmly believe that India’s ‘interference’ is complicating matters. So, to tackle this issue head-on, New Delhi must ensure that each step it takes is only after exhaustive consultation with Thimpu. It is no longer a ‘win or lose’ situation for India, but the actions taken must be dictated by Bhutan’s best interests.