The Centre’s briefing to the Opposition on the ongoing stand-off with China on the Doklam plateau was long overdue. The Defence, Home and External Affairs Ministers and senior officials, including the National Security Adviser and Foreign Secretary, spent two evenings explaining the ground position and the strategy ahead to Opposition leaders representing the political spectrum and different States. This is a clear signal of the gravity with which the government views the situation at Doklam, and the bipartisan iteration of the national interest that New Delhi would like to underline at a time of heightened rhetoric from the Chinese foreign office and media. The message the government sent, beyond the facts of how the stand-off began, was threefold: that Indian troops now sit across from Chinese troops for a second month at a part of the tri-junction claimed by Bhutan; that India is upholding its commitment to Bhutan with its military presence there; and finally, that it is pursuing all diplomatic options in order to resolve differences with China on the dispute. China has so far rejected any talks until the Indian troops move back. But New Delhi’s insistence on neither asking the troops to step back nor stopping the pursuit of dialogue is a mature response. It is to be hoped that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s coming visit to Beijing to attend a BRICS meeting hosted by his counterpart, and other engagements in the run-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to Xiamen for the BRICS summit in September, will see this strategy bear fruit. In inviting television panellists and foreign policy analysts to a separate briefing on Doklam some weeks ago, the External Affairs Ministry also indicated a desire to control the narrative emanating from India, by restraining easily excitable commentators and TV anchors from wrapping themselves in the flag and advocating aggressive military postures.
However, India will have to do much more than control the message to resolve this stand-off. China’s continued belligerence, amplified by its state-owned media outlets, on the issue suggests that the ‘Astana consensus’ between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping to not “allow differences to become disputes” is a fragile one. Despite all provocations, it should be kept in mind that Indian troops stand not on Indian territory but on territory claimed by Bhutan, and at Thimphu’s request. China’s actions at Doklam are aimed as much at putting a spotlight on the Indian presence there as they are at compelling Bhutan to loosen the tight bonds that have historically held New Delhi and Thimphu together. Instead of highlighting the stand-off as an India-China dispute, therefore, the government must ensure that every step it takes is in consultation with Thimphu, and make it clear that any final decision it takes will not be about a “win or lose” for India, but dictated by what is in Bhutan’s best interests.