India says it was invited to intervene dispute in the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
India says it was invited to intervene dispute in the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A military confrontation at a height of about 3,000 meters above sea level, at Doklam in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which lies between the two giant neighbors India and China, threatens regional security in South Asia.

India would be well advised to take immediate steps to withdraw its forces, which have intruded beyond a defined section of the boundary, and allow Bhutan and China to settle their differences over border demarcation in the Doklam area in the Sikkim sector.

India says it was invited to intervene, but Bhutan has remained silent.

Chinese road-construction activities in the Doklam area started on June 16 and were intended to move toward a state army camp at Zomphiri in southern Bhutan. New Delhi has perceived this as posing a security threat to the Siliguri Corridor, which connects India’s northeastern states with the mainland.

India must open diplomatic dialogue with China to sort out its strategic concerns over the Siliguri Corridor and refrain from resorting to force of arms.

India’s growing strategic alliance with the US in the South China Sea is perceived as a security threat by China. Since July 10, Indian, Japanese and US naval forces have come together in the Bay of Bengal for the so-called Malabar exercise to practice communication, search and rescue, anti-submarine operations, boarding tactics and so on.

Earlier, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US President Donald Trump in Washington and highlighted the Malabar exercise and the importance of freedom of navigation, overflight and commerce. Trump said “our militaries” were working every day to enhance maritime cooperation respecting sovereignty and international law.

A Trump-Modi joint statement on June 26 at the end of the visit to Washington was openly supportive of India.

The Malabar exercise is only a small part of the growing US-India partnership, MaryKay Carlson, an official in the US Embassy in New Delhi, wrote in a July 11 op-ed in The Times of India.

China perceives the Malabar exercise as a security threat.

Before becoming prime minister in May 2014, Modi had been chief minister of Gujarat state. He had had no previous experience of the intricacies of governance and policy formulation at the central level in New Delhi. Since becoming PM, Modi has mainly relied on the bureaucracy for making policy, both domestic and foreign. However, as one adage puts it, bureaucracy is like fire: It is obedient as a servant, but is dangerous when it becomes master.

In domestic policy, Modi has made egregious blunders such as on demonetization last year, which has hit the agricultural poor hard. His GST (goods and services tax) policy is also likely to have a seriously adverse impact on small and marginal industries.

The increasing lack of trust with Pakistan and China under Modi over the past three years has also had serious consequences.

In Outlook magazine this month, Professor Shen Dingli of China’s Fudan University explained the adverse consequences of the Modi government’s policies on the Doklam issue. He notes that India began by falsely charging China with intruding into Indian territory.

Doklam was an area in dispute only between China and Bhutan, not China and India. Between China and Sikkim (now part of India) there is no dispute, and India accepts that Doklam is part of China. So India stopped arguing that China had intruded into India; it picked up another argument that Doklam belonged to Bhutan. China felt this was insincere.

Shen felt Bhutan had the right to disagree with China but before it could do so, India’s armed forces entered an area New Delhi has already acknowledged as belonging to China – after once again accusing China of having invaded India.

The relations between India and China have been affected by differences over many issues. Beijing is not happy over New Delhi’s increasing closeness to the US, which is targeting China as a global threat. New Delhi on the other hand is annoyed with Beijing over the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which it claims violates India’s sovereignty over areas included in the project.

Beijing objected to the visit to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China, by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, now a resident of India. China claims the state belongs to it.

There are other differences as well, including India’s demand for inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group allegedly blocked by China, and China’s alleged opposition to declaration by the United Nations of the Pakistani Masood Azhar as an international terrorist.

Above all, Modi boycotted China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was a conspicuous insult to Beijing. The inaugural ceremony of the program held in Beijing was attended by representatives from 160 countries including the US, Japan, Russia and Vietnam.

India had only one private representative at the function, journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni. He was effusive in his praise for the BRI.

By not attending the event, Modi seemed to have let down his own country above all.

Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian foreign secretary, has noted that China was attempting to change the status quo at the tri-junction with Bhutan and Sikkim. He said: “Unlike earlier times, this time China wants India to withdraw even before any dialogue can take place.”

China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, said troop withdrawal by India was a precondition for any resolution of the dispute between Bhutan and China. Bhutan has no diplomatic ties with China and is supported militarily and diplomatically by India.

Luo says India has no right to interfere in the China-Bhutan boundary talks, nor is India entitled to make any territorial claims on behalf of Bhutan.

India has informed China that its road construction aimed at significantly enhancing China’s military logistics in the region meant a change in the status quo, with serious security implications for India, altering the Border Peace and Tranquillity Agreement of 1993.

The Chinese road construction at Doklam seems aimed at moving in the direction of a Bhutanese military establishment in south Bhutan (see map). China seems unwilling to give up the project.

The China-India military standoff has prevented Hindu pilgrims from India from crossing over the Nathu La pass to visit the holy Kailash Mansarovar lake in Tibet.

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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