The European Commission in Brussels. Photo: AFP
The European Commission in Brussels. Photo: AFP

The European Union and its member states are trying to stay out of the two-month-old confrontation between Indian and Chinese soldiers on the Doklam (or Donglang) Plateau near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, an area controlled by Beijing but claimed by Thimphu.

In mid-June, Indian troops blocked the construction of a road at Doklam by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The row comes at a delicate moment for the EU’s relations with India and China, which are both valued economic partners for the European bloc. As a result, EU leaders do not want to irk Delhi or Beijing by siding with one party or the other.

Despite the waiting game of their respective governments, the diplomatic missions to India of major EU countries will be in constant touch with Delhi’s Foreign Ministry over the issue, according to Indian media reports.

Dominic McAllister, the British deputy high commissioner in Bangalore, said on August 11 that the territorial spat at Doklam was a bilateral matter between India and China and that London had an interest in supporting stability in the Himalayas. McAllister’s words reflect Britain’s position about current Sino-Indian border skirmishes, but they could be embraced in full by other leading countries across Europe.

Trade and investment concerns

The EU is slowly recovering from a decade of economic decline and needs to foster good relations with fast-growing markets such as China and India. This is an imperative that prompts EU institutions and member nations to handle with care the territorial dispute in the Himalayan region between Beijing and Delhi.

The EU is India’s largest trading partner. Their combined trade in goods reached US$92.2 billion in 2016, the International Monetary Fund reports. The European bloc and Delhi are struggling to finalize a trade and investment deal that they started to negotiate in 2007. The two sides are now trying to revive talks on the matter, which have remained stalled since 2013, but mutual distrust still runs deep.

After suggestions the EU and China might have teamed up to counter the anti-globalist agenda of US President Donald Trump, Sino-European relations are now turning sour – a fact that makes it harder for them to conclude a bilateral investment deal and, at a later time, a free-trade agreement.

The EU is working hard to introduce an union-wide vetting system for foreign takeovers or, alternatively, harmonize existing national legislations to screen Europe-bound foreign investments. The move is clearly intended to protect EU countries from Chinese acquisitions in strategic sectors while Beijing continues to restrict European investments in its vast domestic market.

While China is said to be focusing on infrastructure investments in countries that have joined its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, Chinese takeovers of industrial assets in Western Europe were worth $56.3 billion in the first seven months of 2017, up from $51.3 billion in all of 2016, according to the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.

On August 11, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce complained about the decision by the European Commission – the EU’s executive arm – to impose new anti-dumping measures on some corrosion-resistant steels, ceramics and photovoltaic products from China and launch an anti-dumping investigation into Chinese-made truck tires.

Moving to middle ground

Europe is showing far more caution about the Doklam standoff than the United States and Japan. Washington has called for India and China to settle their differences diplomatically. Such an outcome has been encouraged by Tokyo as well. Last week, Japanese Ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu ventured as far as to say that his government understood why Delhi had sent troops to Doklam. His reference was to the bilateral friendship treaties that India and Bhutan signed in 1949 and 2007 and that would justify Indian military moves on the disputed plateau.

The problem is that Beijing sees the Doklam area as part of its territory and says the withdrawal of Indian troops from there is a precondition for diplomatic talks with Delhi.

Europe’s position on the Doklam issue resembles that of Russia. Beijing and Delhi are both strategic partners of Moscow, which is indeed seeking a middle way between them. However, should the situation worsen at the tri-junction, the EU would likely be obliged to step in, calling on both parties to solve the conflict through negotiations.

The EU could abandon its “neutral” stance only if one of the two contenders were to resort to a military blitz to force the situation on the ground. In that case, both Brussels and major European governments would definitely intervene to urge the belligerent side to halt its armed operations.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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