The lowdown on the border standoff with China

Updated - July 01, 2017 07:43 pm IST

Published - July 01, 2017 07:38 pm IST

What is it?

Along a mountainous disputed region of the tri-junction between India, China and Bhutan, two small units of the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army are in a standoff since June 16, when a Chinese group entered the Doklam area to construct a road. A Royal Bhutan Army patrol attempted to dissuade them, the Indian Army too later got involved in the scene, and the Chinese probably destroyed a few temporary bunkers of the Indian Army. On June 17, Army sources said, the two sides got into an acrimonious, physical jostling.

China has been vocal in its protests, accusing India of transgressing its territory, and of unnecessary rhetoric. Reminding India of its defeat in the 1962 war, a PLA spokesperson said earlier this week: “Such rhetoric is extremely irresponsible. We hope (the) particular person in the Indian Army could learn from historical lessons and stop such clamouring for war.” He was referring to Army chief General Bipin Rawat’s recent comments about India being ready for a two-front war while tackling internal insurgencies. “The (PLA) personnel have been operating on Chinese territory. We have made very clear to the Indian side that they should correct their wrongdoing and withdraw their personnel from Chinese territory,” the Chinese spokesperson said. The Chinese spokesperson let it slip that China tested a lightweight battle tank in Tibet near the Indian border. On the contrary, the Indian government was silent until this Friday, when the Ministry of External Affairs issued a detailed statement: “India is deeply concerned at the recent Chinese actions and has conveyed to the Chinese government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.” General Rawat rushed to Sikkim on Thursday to review the situation.

How did it come about?

Thanks to the region’s colonial history, India and China today share mostly disputed boundaries in challenging mountains. Along the Ladakh border, India sticks mostly to a boundary drawn by British civil servant W.H. Johnson in 1865, which showed Aksai Chin as part of Jammu and Kashmir. China disputes this claim and in the 1950s built a road connecting Xinjiang and Tibet which ran through Aksai Chin. In the northeast of India, New Delhi sticks to the McMahon Line, which was agreed to by representatives of the British empire and Tibet at a conference in Simla in 1914, where though Chinese representatives were present they didn’t agree to the final detailed maps. China claims that Tibet is not a sovereign nation and thus its approval has no legal standing. Beijing claims the entire Arunachal Pradesh as part of Tibet. The Middle Sector along Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand is almost settled, with both sides not differing much. India is keen to have a comprehensive solution to the dispute, while China has, of late, been talking about “early harvest” of solving the least controversial boundaries. There have been various suggestions, most common being India giving up its claims over Aksai Chin, while China stops claiming Arunachal as South Tibet.

Why does it matter?

The two countries have among the world’s biggest militaries and are nuclear armed. In many senses, they also represent the frontlines of a new global order emerging, where India seems to be moving closer to the American camp, which views China as the new global rival. Whenever two economies rise quickly next to each other, wars have been inevitable. That has been the history of the modern world—Europe is a great example. Avoiding a largescale military conflict between the two sides is critical to the world, and to millions of their citizens who are still struggling in poverty.

What next?

There is diplomatic contact, but it has not been escalated to the political level. The immediate standoff could be avoided at the diplomatic level, or through the intervention at the level of the Foreign Minister or the National Security Adviser, as has happened in the past. However, the standoff is a warning to both sides that unless they step up their engagement to move quickly towards a time-bound resolution of boundary disputes, the two could be inching towards a confrontation.


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