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Doklam lesson: Hit refresh on border dispute mechanism, address boundary issues

Doklam sets a new normal to the uneasy and troubled India-China bilateral ties. It is a stand-alone case since it has also involved a third country, Bhutan

india Updated: Aug 30, 2017 08:05 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Doklam,Doklam standoff,India
(FILES) This file photo taken on July 10, 2008 shows a Chinese soldier (L) gesturing next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in India's northeastern Sikkim state. (AFP)

After weeks of behind-the-scene negotiations and shrill rhetoric from Beijing, India and China on Monday resolved the Doklam standoff, the longest border impasse between the two countries in two decades.

The way the row began, worsened and subsequently ended tested the mechanism put in place for managing border disputes between two Asian neighbours, who share a 3,800-km mountainous frontier that remains undemarcated in most places.

“Doklam sets a new normal to the uneasy and troubled India-China bilateral ties. It is a stand-alone case since it has also involved a third country, Bhutan,” strategic affairs expert Uday Bhaskar said. The border issue was still unresolved, he said.

New Delhi said the two sides had diplomatic exchanges in recent weeks over the situation on the Doklam plateau in the eastern Himalayas that allowed them “to express our views and convey our concerns and interests”.

The two countries did manage to defuse the situation that had the potential to trigger a military flare-up but they need to hit the refresh button on border issues to avoid another Doklam.

Doklam is a territorial dispute between China and Bhutan but the sparsely inhabited plateau also borders India’s Siliguri corridor, the narrow strip of land that connects the mainland to the northeast.

In line with an understanding with Bhutan, the Indian Army went into the Bhutanese territory to stop the Chinese from building a road that New Delhi said would have serious implications for India’s security.

India also said China’s move was against an understanding the two sides had reached in 2012 that said any change in the status quo would need the consent of the third country, which in this case was Bhutan.

The Chinese, India said, had violated the 1993 pact on border peace and tranquillity.

As the two sides defended their positions, two things stood out.

China was unwilling to go by the 2012 understanding and chose to cite an 1890 treaty it signed with British India in a departure from the past.

The People’s Republic of China, when it launched a series of border negotations, maintained a distinct distaste for colonial era boundary-making. Tri-junctions were never a flashpoint – Doklam was a first but won’t be the last.

The two countries are keen to expand their sphere of influence in the region.

China is flexing its muscle on the strength of its economic might. Though India has stayed away from his ambitious One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping has won over South Asian neighbours Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The US and Japan, who share a thorny relationship with China, too, sent senior representatives to the Belt and Road conference in May that India boycotted.

With China and India, the world’s economic growth engines and emerging powers, vying for a larger play on the global stage, such frictions are bound to rise.

The decade-old “building on the convergences while narrowing the differences” approach will be under stress.

“Delhi and Beijing will have to begin the Sisyphean climb again -- with Doklam as the benchmark,” Bhaskar said.

Frequent exchanges between top leaders should help. The proposals for a hotline between the two prime ministers could also get a look in.

Improved economic ties would force both sides to be more pragmatic on territorial disputes. But a section of strategic experts believe that China would continue to be aggressive.

“The two countries have sufficient border mechanisms in place. The problem is that one side is seeking to quietly and repeatedly change the territorial status quo through encroachment,” said Brahma Chellaney, a strategic affairs expert and a keen China watcher.

First Published: Aug 30, 2017 07:16 IST