Step back: Tension at Bhutan tri-junction suits neither China nor India

The boundary stand-off with China at the Doka La tri-junction with Bhutan is by all accounts unprecedented; it demands calmer counsel on all sides. The tri-junction stretch of the boundary at Sikkim, though contested, has witnessed far fewer tensions than the western sector of the India-China boundary even as India and Bhutan have carried on separate negotiations with China. China’s action of sending People’s Liberation Army construction teams with earth moving equipment to forcibly build a road upsets a carefully preserved peace. In fact, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in 2014 the stretch was opened as an alternative route to Kailash Mansarovar for Indian pilgrims as a confidence-building measure. That the PLA decided to undertake the action just as the year’s first group of pilgrims was reaching Nathu La cannot be a coincidence. Moreover, it came only days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bilateral meeting with President Xi in Kazakhstan. The warmth that officials reported at the meeting was obviously misleading, and it is important for India and China to accept that relations have deteriorated steadily since Mr. Xi’s 2014 visit. The stand-off comes after a series of setbacks to bilateral ties. Delhi has expressed disappointment over China’s rejection of its concerns on sovereignty issues, and refusal to corner Pakistan on cross-border terrorism or help India’s bid for Nuclear Suppliers Group membership. In turn, India’s spurning of the Belt and Road Initiative and cooperation with the U.S. on maritime issues has not played well in China — neither has the uptick in rhetoric, including statements from the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister questioning India’s “One China Policy” on Tibet, and from Army chief Bipin Rawat on India being prepared for a two-and-a-half front war.

These issues have to be addressed through sustained dialogue. In the immediate term, however, talks must focus on defusing the tensions at the tri-junction. China has made the withdrawal of Indian troops a precondition for dialogue. This would be unacceptable to India, unless the PLA also withdraws its troops and road-building teams. Apart from its own commitments to the status quo, Beijing must recognise the special relationship India and Bhutan have shared since 1947, the friendship treaty of 2007 that commits India to protecting Bhutan’s interests, and the close coordination between the two militaries. For its part, India would be keen to show that it recognises that the face-off is in Bhutanese territory, and the rules of engagement could be different from those of previous India-China bilateral clashes — at Depsang and Demchok in the western sector, for example. Bhutan’s sovereignty must be maintained as that is the basis for the “exemplary” ties between New Delhi and Thimphu. The Indian government has been wise to avoid escalation in the face of China’s aggressive barrage, but that should not stop it from communicating its position in more discreet ways.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 7:58:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/on-tension-at-bhutan-tri-junction/article19198858.ece

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