A year has passed since India and China announced their decision to peacefully “disengage” at Doklam and commenced the difficult task of trying to rebuild the relationship. While the year witnessed meetings between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a major event was the first ever ‘working’ meeting between the two at Wuhan in China on April 28, 2018. This was a clear signal that the two leaders had decided to calm tensions at a time when their countries were passing through a difficult and sensitive period. The meeting could have the potential for Beijing deciding to keep the borders peaceful.
There are lessons to be learnt from the 73-day stand-off at the disputed Doklam Plateau, which brought the two largest Asian countries dangerously close to hostilities. It conveyed at the outset that China will not hesitate to pursue its territorial ambitions, including by using military force. The unilateral violation by China of a tripartite agreement signed between India, China and Bhutan in 2012, not to alter the status quo, should have seen the scales drop from the eyes of those unwilling to accept that China has territorial ambitions in the region, or those who dismiss the suggestion that China will not hesitate to use military force against India. In fact, discussions sharply critical of India’s stance on the disputed border, on the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Pakistan harbouring terrorists etc. had been underway in the higher echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for months prior to Doklam.
There was sharp contrast in the manner in which China and India conducted diplomacy during the stand-off. India’s response to China’s effort to alter the status quo and resume building the road through the Doklam Plateau demonstrated the ability of the Indian armed forces to mobilise rapidly and, simultaneously, underscored that India would not willingly yield concessions on issues of territory or sovereignty, or submit to China’s over-lordship. It additionally displayed a new approach and maturity by India in the conduct of diplomacy. India chose not to respond to China’s accusations or threats but repeatedly insisted that peaceful diplomatic negotiations were the only way forward towards resolution.
Beijing, on the other hand, mounted a vitriolic propaganda offensive authorised at the highest level of the CCP. This was backed by the deployment of additional military forces in the vicinity. Each threat made by China on every one of the 73 days had a background in history, thus giving an insight into the real thinking of China’s leadership. These will remain as the backdrop to efforts to rebuild ties. Essentially, China warned it would: (i) revive the insurgency in India’s northeast; (ii) launch an international campaign to break the close relations between India and Bhutan; (iii) reverse its position on Sikkim and foment trouble there; and (iv) deploy China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Kashmir at Pakistan’s behest much as India had done at Doklam.
While the “disengagement” of forces was made possible because of various reasons, a report on China’s Central Conference on Foreign Affairs Work (June 29 – 30, 2018) in the official English-language China Daily (June 28) nevertheless appreciated the peaceful resolution at Doklam. Fu Xiaoqiang, Research Fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations which is subordinate to China’s Ministry of State Security, cited from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “important” speech at the conference where he said that “China has won some tough battles on the diplomatic front since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012, among which the moves to peacefully resolve the South China Sea issue, the Donglang (Doklam) standoff with India and the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue are the most notable”.
Nevertheless, post-Doklam there has been a marked increase in the number of exercises by the PLA on the Tibetan Plateau and accelerated pace of development of military infrastructure. China has established a new PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Base in Lhasa and announced it will commence construction in 2019 of three new airports in Tibet across the border with India. Additional new forces have been inducted into the Tibetan Plateau and there are reports of paradrop training, ‘integrated joint operations’ exercises and training of helicopter pilots for operations in the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau. The recent visit of a 27-member Chinese military delegation led by its Defence Minister saw little forward movement. Similar reticence was observed when China and Japan agreed to the military hotline a couple of weeks ago but China insisted on a 48-hour time delay before communicating via the hotline.
The road ahead is difficult. Pragmatism should compel the Chinese and Indian leaders, who have ambitions for their countries and peoples, to forge close cooperative economic ties. However, China’s continuing intrusions and effort to stymie India’s progress only add to existing wariness and suspicion.
(The author is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is presently President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.)
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