‘India and Bhutan are questioning the new normal’

Ashok Kantha served as India’s Ambassador to China from 2013 to 2015. Earlier he was part of the negotiation team that ended the decade-long stand-off in Sumdorong Chu, which began in 1986. He is currently director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi. In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Kantha spoke about the Doklam stand-off. Excerpts:

Does the Doklam stand-off indicate the dominance of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)over the Politburo of the Communist Party of China?

I don’t think that is the case. I don’t see what’s happening in Doklam being a case of the party versus the PLA. The Chinese system of domestic politics is very opaque. It’s very difficult for us to say with certainty how certain things are decided. However, what we can fathom is that the party has asserted its control over the PLA. Under Hu Jintao, the military had become powerful, but Xi Jinping is in control of the PLA and has taken action against several dozen senior PLA personnel under the anti-corruption campaign. Secondly, restructuring and reform of Chinese military establishment has led to the party reasserting its control over the PLA. The present trend is towards greater control of the party over the PLA.

China’s behaviour in Doklam is part of a larger pattern wherein China is pursuing contested territorial claims, most importantly in the South China Sea. Reports from China suggest that the Chinese policy on the South China Sea is personally driven by Xi Jinping. China is asserting its territorial claim by the so-called Nine-Dash Line. They have gone ahead with setting up civil and military facilities and built artificial islands in the South China Sea. What is happening in Doklam is part of that trend. In the case of Doklam, just like in the case of the South China Sea, China says that its claim in Doklam is indisputable and that is why it has gone ahead with building activities in the region.

Does that mean there will be ‘20 and half front’ territorial disputes around China?

China has, in fact, settled most of the land boundary issues with most neighbouring countries. It has outstanding issues with India and Bhutan. It has serious issues in the South China Sea and East China Sea. On the remaining territorial issues, it is adopting an assertive posture in which it is changing facts on the ground. In the South China Sea, other claimants are adjusting to the new normal. Others are unable to do anything meaningful to change the ‘new normal’ that is emerging. China reclaimed 3,200 acres of artificial islands in the South China Sea. Other claimants and the U.S. do not have any effective strategy to counter this. India and Bhutan did not follow the script. We are questioning this new normal. Bhutan on June 29 questioned the construction of the mountain road in Doklam region and asked Beijing to restore the status quo as before June 16, 2017. We also came out with a clear statement on June 30.

Was China surprised by India’s action?

We can only speculate, as it is very difficult to understand how China decides. China did not anticipate that both Bhutan and India would come out strongly. What China was doing earlier can be described as ‘creeping intrusion’. But [with] construction of a motorable road, a new set of facts were being built in Doklam. This would have had a negative impact on India’s security atmosphere. Doklam is south of the tri-junction, which is near Batang La. According to Indian and Bhutanese maps, Doklam is Bhutanese territory.

What are the chances of escalation under the present circumstances?

If you compare the present scenario with what happened in 2013-2014 — that is the Depsang, Demchok and Chumar cases — we managed to sort out the issue in four weeks time. In the case of Doklam, pronouncements are belligerent from Chinese officials and the official media — almost warlike. This is one difference: that the rhetoric emanating from China is very heated, and that apart, China has placed a precondition for withdrawal for any meaningful talks. Also, this is getting protracted and no one knows how long it can go on.

How long can this stand-off go on?

It can go on for years. In 1986, Chinese troops set up a post in the Sumdorong Chu valley, south of Thag La ridge. Then there was action taken by both sides and sharp escalation followed. There was action taken by both sides and sharp escalation followed. That was the last time that the India-China border became ‘live’. This situation of heightened tension continued till 1987. In August 1995 finally disengagement took place. De-escalation in tension took place by the end of 1987. At that time also China was very vituperative. They had given a precondition for pull-back by India.

The biggest difference now is the introduction of Bhutan.

Yes, the introduction of Bhutan is the difference. But both sides have maintained sobriety on the ground, though the language coming from the Chinese side is rather strong. In contrast, India has maintained a measured posture.

But has India intruded into Chinese territory?

Look at the facts. Bhutan maintains that Doklam is Bhutanese territory, which they said in the June 29 statement which was echoed in the Indian statement. But China claims the territory. However, China is committed through the bilateral agreements of 1988 and 1998 with Bhutan to respect the status quo and not to change the status quo unilaterally. Its actions are in direct violation of agreements with Bhutan and India.

But China is changing the tri-junction unilaterally in violation of such agreements. In mountainous areas, defences are along ridge lines. The Chinese are trying to bring down the tri-junction point to Geymochen, which is the last major ridge line between the Siliguri corridor and the Chumbi Valley, which would have hit security.

But how long will Bhutan stay with India in this stand-off?

There have been 24 rounds of border negotiations between Bhutan and China. As far as the Bhutanese position [goes], the Doklam area belongs to Bhutan. On June 29 also, Bhutan requested China to restore the status quo as of June 16, 2017, and Bhutan has not weakened its position. Please remember, any change in the status quo will hurt Bhutan first as it will lose a very strategic territory and it will lose access to India through the Siliguri corridor. For Bhutan too there are vital strategic interests involved in any compromise.

Is China erring by taking on Bhutan?

China is changing the status quo unilaterally with a relatively small neighbour, Bhutan. It is a clear case of browbeating both Bhutan and India. Through this action, China was trying to drive a wedge between Bhutan and India. But China perhaps thought that Bhutan would not protest. But Bhutan came out with a public protest like India. China has also landed in a situation that it did not anticipate.

What is the solution? Mutual withdrawal?

The provocation for India was that the Chinese construction party was building a road unilaterally. If China pulls back from the area, listening to the very sensible suggestion from Bhutan, there would be no need for India to have military personnel. For India, any unilateral withdrawal will be impossible as there will be serious consequences. There can only be reciprocal withdrawal.

So differences remain in Indian and Chinese positions.

The response of the Indian government has been measured and effective so far. We have clearly eschewed temptations to respond through tit for tat polemics. We have not risen to China’s bait. We need to question the narrative emanating from China. The narrative is that the boundary of the Sikkim sector is all settled and demarcated. That is not the case as the alignment of the boundary in the Sikkim sector is basically agreed on but there are well-known differences as far as the tri-junction points of India, China and Bhutan are concerned.

There are also differences on interpretations of the watershed boundary in northern and eastern Sikkim. In fact, post-1962, the most serious armed skirmish was at Nathu La in eastern Sikkim in 1967 because of differences in the interpretation of the watershed boundary.

Has India violated international law through the Doklam venture?

It is China that has violated agreements with Bhutan and India. Bhutan pointed out that China violated the 1988 and 1998 agreements. China is also violating agreements with India.

Can China hit India in some other area of the border?

The present situation is under control as no major troop mobilisation has taken place. The border has not become ‘live’ so far, like 1987. But we cannot preclude the possibility of China probing our defences in the Indian border. But hopefully that will not happen because any expansion of the differences will lead to damaging peace and tranquillity in the border areas. One needs to ensure that differences do not expand and are contained. At the same time, we need to take preventive measures. Second, the move towards de-escalation. For that China needs to scale down its comments.

Have the NSA-level talks helped?

The Chinese rhetoric has slowed down a bit, but it’s too early to come to a conclusion. I would not interpret Xi Jinping’s speech on the occassion of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese PLA as something in the context of what’s going on in Doklam.

Can India and Bhutan try the International Court of Justice as an option?

That is not quite the policy of India and China as we are very clear that our bilateral boundary disputes will be dealt with through bilateral consultations. That is the track we adopt for India-China border differences. Likewise, no indication has come from Bhutan that it will approach the international court. You know the PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration) gave a verdict on the South China Sea but China completely rubbished the PCA award and went ahead with activities for military and civil facilities.

Should appeasement be the policy to deal with China’s territorial claims?

When it comes to the India-China border, we have to rely on ourselves. We need to persist with the present approach that the border areas remain peaceful and we need to ensure that there is requisite deterrence available on the ground to discourage China.

Deterrence has to be in terms of military capability and infrastructure on the ground. Our posture should be defensive and sometimes a mix of offensive and defensive capabilities.

In this context, can the BRICS summit be successful?

I do not want to prejudge. Even if the Doklam stand-off continues, we can still have a fairly successful BRICS summit in China. In this context, we can compare with the 1987 situation when the border went ‘live’. However, that is not the case today. Tension had gone up in 1987 and we prepared Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in 1988, which was a turning point in India-China ties. But the situation continued till 1995. The Doklam issue can continue minus the tension and noise, and we can approach the difference in a businesslike manner. Though ideally we should terminate the military stand-off as early as possible. Frankly, talks are taking place between India and China, India and Bhutan, and between Bhutan and China. There is no communication breakdown.

What does the Doklam issue indicate for bilateral ties between China and India?

The narrative of the relationship has been affected, but there is something more structural that is going on. China is becoming increasingly assertive in pursuit of its global and regional goals. The Belt and Road project is one such example, which is above all a major geopolitical project. It is aimed at China trying to put together a continental and maritime domain where China is the lead player. This is apart from the fact that the project affects Indian sovereignty as it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But the rise of China is also taking place simultaneously with the rise of India. China wants to be the pre-eminent power. But India would like to see a multipolar world. That is the contradiction. Our preference is for a bipolar Asia. India-China ties also have positive aspect and there will be an uncertain mix of cooperation and competition and how we manage the relationship will be a big challenge. It is possible but will be a challenging position.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 9:23:17 AM |

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