No common ground on the Doklam plateau

China and India see the stand-off very differently — it’s important for the Special Representatives to meet

The Doklam plateau has become the unlikely scene of the latest India-China imbroglio. The region falls within Bhutanese territory, but this is now questioned by China. The Chumbi valley is vital for India, and any change is fraught with dangerous possibilities. The incident stems from differences between Bhutan and India on the one hand and China on the other as to the exact location of the tri-junction between the three countries.

In 2007, India and Bhutan had negotiated a Friendship Treaty to replace an earlier one. According to the revised treaty, the two countries are committed to coordinate on issues relating to their national interests. The terms of the 2007 Friendship Treaty are somewhat milder than the one it replaced, which provided India greater latitude in determining Bhutan’s foreign relations, but there is little doubt about the import of the revised treaty.

Cartographic aggression

China’s current claims over the Doklam plateau should be seen as yet another instance of cartographic aggression, which China often engages in. It is, however, China’s action of building an all-weather road on Bhutan’s territory, one capable of sustaining heavy vehicles, that has prompted Bhutan and India to coordinate their actions in their joint national interests, under the terms of the 2007 Friendship Treaty.


Many of the points involved in the current stand-off are disputed or disputable. The Sikkim (India)-China border was the only settled segment of the nearly 4,000-km-long India-China border. It adheres to the Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890, signed between Britain and China, though the exact location of the tri-junction is today in dispute. The Indian side puts it near Batang La, while China claims that it is located at Mt. Gipmochi further south. The Bhutanese are rather equivocal about China’s claims, acknowledging that Tibetan graziers had free access to the Doklam plateau and the Dorsa Nala area, but accept the fact that the tri-junction is at Batang La.

China has long eyed this area. It has been keen to establish its physical presence in a region that it claims belongs to China according to the 1890 Convention. With China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) gaining momentum, and completion of infrastructure programmes such as the Lhasa-Shigatse Railway, China appears to have turned its attention to the Doklam plateau, eying an opportunity to establish a strong presence close to the Indian border.

The Doklam plateau has indirectly figured in the several rounds of border talks that have been held between China and Bhutan. Reliable reports suggest that China is not unwilling to make generous concessions to Bhutan in return for a mutually acceptable border settlement. Thus, China appears willing to make concessions in the north, in return for land in the west, comprising the eastern shoulder of the Chumbi valley which incorporates the Doklam plateau.


It would be a serious mistake to treat the present incident as another run-of-the-mill border incident on the pattern of incidents reported from different points on the disputed Sino-Indian border. There are substantial differences, for instance, between the current incident in the Doklam plateau and past stand-offs such as the ones in Depsang and Chumar, or even for that matter, the 1986-87 Wangdung incident near Sumdorong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh.

Neither side appears to be in a mood to cede ground regarding the dispute. The rhetoric from the Chinese side has been unusually shrill with China laying down ‘conditionalities’ that “India should withdraw its troops to the Indian side of the border to uphold the peace/tranquillity of the China-India border areas as a precondition for essential peace talks”. Implicit threats of an even more serious situation developing, leading to even more serious consequences, if India did not step back have also been made. The rhetoric seems to convey the message that these are not empty threats.

Unintended consequences

China may have temporarily halted its road construction programme, but it appears determined to hold on to its position. India is equally clear that it cannot afford to back down, as of now, having gone to Bhutan’s assistance at a time of need. With both sides intent on a show of strength, the potential it has to provoke an incident with unintended consequences is quite high.

China and India see the Doklam stand-off very differently. For China, the issue is one of territorial ‘sovereignty’. For India, the issue is one of national security. Both appear irreconcilable. China is generally not known to make concessions when it comes to aspects of territorial ‘sovereignty’. The entire saga of the Sino-Indian border dispute hinges on this, with China unwilling to make territorial concessions regarding areas over which it once claimed suzerainty. India, for its part cannot be seen to be compromising on its national security. This would be the case if Chinese claims to the Doklam plateau are accepted and the tri-junction is accepted to be further south at Mt. Gipmochi. It would bring China within striking distance of India’s vulnerable ‘Chicken Neck’, the Siliguri Corridor, the life-line to India’s Northeast. This has always been seen as India’s ‘Achilles heel’, and ensuring its security has figured prominently in India’s calculation from the beginning. The possibilities and consequences are both immense and serious.

Diplomacy should ordinarily have been the way out, but relations between India and China are far from cordial at present. Even at the highest levels, there are few signs of a thaw. No bilateral meeting took place between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Hamburg earlier this month. There were no consequential meetings subsequently, including during the BRICS conclave.

India must read proper meanings into China’s unwillingness to hold talks at the highest level. China is categorically laying down difficult pre-conditions for talks, though India is open to the idea of discussions without pre-conditions. These are well reflected in the differences seen between the high voltage Chinese reaction and the measured response of the Indian side.

The play for Bhutan

One implication could possibly be that the Chinese wish to convey the impression that this is an issue between China and Bhutan, and it does not recognise the India-Bhutan ‘special relationship’ which provides an Indian guarantee for Bhutanese sovereignty. Another is that the Chinese believe that on their own they can make peace with Bhutan and it is India’s ‘interference’ that is complicating matters. China can be expected to pursue this line vigorously from now on.

The geo-political situation, meanwhile, is in a state of flux. Scope for mediation from quarters friendly to both countries is, hence, limited. If anything, China seems to be more advantageously placed than India. India’s friends are most unlikely to pressurise or persuade China to step back. This leaves India to play a lone hand.

The only silver lining is that both India and China, though for different reasons, are reluctant to engage in an open conflict — one that could prove detrimental to both. The Chinese economy is slowing down at present and the main preoccupation is to regain its past momentum. China is also preparing for its 19th Party Congress, at which Xi Jinping hopes to establish full control. It is, hence, anxious to avoid any kind of major distraction. India’s reluctance again centres on the economy. Its concerns are that a conflict would stymie economic growth. Both, therefore, have valid reasons not to provoke a conflict.

If the deadlock is to be broken, and if diplomacy is ruled out for the present, other measures will need to be considered. One available option is the Special Representative Meeting (SRM) that was set up primarily to deal with border issues. Over the past decade and a half, the SRM has been enlarged to some extent to deal with strategic issues. The issue of the Doklam plateau may not fall neatly into either compartment, but it does not prevent the two countries from pursuing this option.

It will not be the first time that the SRM has been used in this manner to deal with knotty problems outside border matters, and I can personally vouchsafe for this. As of now, it appears to be the only viable and meaningful option to tackle the impasse. The Special Representatives should, hence, urgently establish contact and work out a modus vivendi that would ensure a solution without loss of face for either side.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 5:30:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/no-common-ground-on-the-doklam-plateau/article19303193.ece

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