Doklam Reminder: Need for Indian Redial in South Asia

Shyam Saran, Member, ICS Governing Council and former Indian Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister’s Special Envoy

The standoff between Indian and Chinese forces at the Doklam plateau in Bhutan is now over a month old and though diplomatic efforts have continued, no early solution appears to be in sight. India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, is in Beijing for the BRICS NSAs meeting. It is possible that on the sidelines, he will be able to engage with Yang Jiechi, his counterpart in the special representative mechanism between the two countries. One should remain hopeful that these talks in Beijing will lead to a satisfactory resolution of the impasse and pave the way for relaxing tensions between the two countries. Confrontation will be damaging to the interests of both countries and is best not allowed to persist.

Such confrontation is also not in the interest of Bhutan, India’s neighbour with which there is a special relationship of mutual trust and understanding. The two countries have shared security interests, acknowledged in the revised bilateral treaty concluded in 2007. Any threat to Bhutan’s security will always be a major concern to India and similarly a security challenge to India will impact Bhutan as well. China’s encroachment on Doklam is often characterised as a security threat to India, particularly to the narrow Siliguri corridor linking India’s North-East to the rest of the country. But it is also a threat to Bhutan whose main communication links south also traverse the same Siliguri corridor. The action taken by Indian forces in Doklam is in response to a serious security threat to both countries. Any notion that India has drawn a reluctant Bhutan into a crisis which is specific to India’s security interest alone, ignores this ground reality.

It is also important to keep Bhutan’s interests foremost while talking about the legal basis for the Sikkim-Tibet border. Bhutan was not a party to the 1890 Anglo-Chinese convention, nor to the subsequent 1906 convention. The Bhutanese claim on Doklam cannot be dismissed by reference to treaties or conventions to which it was not a party. Despite this, China has itself recognised in border talks with Bhutan that the Doklam plateau is disputed territory and had agreed not to disturb the status quo in the area. Furthermore, in the special representatives (SR) talks, both India and China had agreed that notwithstanding historical and documentary evidence, both sides needed to consult with the third country involved in determining the trijunction among respective borders. This figures in the minutes of the SR talks of 2012. India has observed this understanding faithfully. It has confirmed the alignment of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary as defined in the 1890 convention but reserved the issue of the trijunction keeping Bhutan’s interests in mind. China, on the contrary, has tried to assert its claim unilaterally through its road building activity in the area.

China has objected to India getting involved in an issue that is between China and Bhutan and that India’s action violates Bhutan’s sovereignty. The injured party, as per Chinese reckoning, that is Bhutan, has made no such complaint. In fact an official statement from Bhutan has, on the contrary, protested at Chinese incursion into Doklam and has termed this a violation of a bilateral understanding reached between the two sides not to disturb the status quo until the territorial disputes have been settled. By all accounts, India and Bhutan have acted in close consultation in terms of their treaty obligations. This is not a case of big brother India coming to the rescue of a ‘tiny’ neighbour.

The 2007 treaty was between two sovereign and independent nations which celebrated their longstanding relationship of mutual trust and close friendship and acknowledged the need to cooperate closely in upholding their shared security concerns. It is this spirit which must prevail as we continue to grapple with the challenge both our nations confront on our sensitive borders. We must not allow China or misinformed opinion to create misunderstanding between our two countries because we need to be seen as being united as governments and peoples in meeting China’s aggressive posturing on our borders.

Just as India seeks good relations with China and peace and tranquillity on our borders, it has every reason to wish for the same on the China-Bhutan border. Good neighbourly relations between Bhutan and China are in India’s interest just as good relations between India and China is in Bhutan’s.

Unfortunately, recent Chinese actions appear to reflect a competitive frame within which it looks at its relations with countries in the subcontinent. Just as it has tried to sow discord among ASEAN members through intimidation and blandishments, it is seeking to do the same in our neighbourhood. Both Bhutan and India understand this strategy very well even if some others in our region do not.

Indian diplomacy needs to engage more intensively with all our neighbouring countries not only to expose Chinese strategy and risks for countries of the region, but also to expand our relationship with them much beyond current levels. This is irrespective of how the Doklam impasse eventually gets resolved.

This article was originally published as, ‘Doklam standoff: Develop good ties with South Asian neighbours to counter China’, in Hindustan Times, 27 July 2017.

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