T R Ramachandran
NEW DELHI: Despite the Chinese hardening its position in the wake of the standoff in the Sikkim sector and Beijing ruling out a meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Hamburg, the two leaders met on Friday and talked about a range of issues.
The Indian side remained circumspect without ruling out a face-to-face between the two leaders lasting less than seven minutes. It was not known if the standoff at Doklam was discussed.
With China pursuing its expansionist designs retired career diplomats and defence services officers believe New Delhi should strive for a political solution as upping the ante is not going to serve the interests of either country.
At the same time Beijing continued its game of speaking in different voices demanding India must quit Doka La. Amid all this the Chinese government also said it wants a peaceful resolution.
The threat of war rings the air after a gap of three decades. Such a tense situation arose at Somdrong Chu from October 1986 to May 1987 in the North-Western part of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Doklam sector on the China-Bhutan (India) border finds itself in the eye of a storm since the middle of last month. Of the 3448 Km long border from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, a 220 Km sector falls in Sikkim.
The boundary stand off is unprecedented and calls for calmness on all sides. The Chinese have already whipped up passions by blocking the Kailash Mansarover yatra through the Nathu La route. The contested tri-junction stretch of the boundary in Sikkim has witnessed fewer tensions than the western sector of the India-China boundary with New Delhi and Bhutan having had separate negotiations with China.
The problem has arisen on account of Beijing sending the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) construction teams with earth moving equipment to forcibly build a road affecting the carefuly preserved peace so far.
The strategic challenge for the political leadership is not to walk into any trap. Last Friday the Indian side expressed its deep concern about China’s road building activities in the Doklam sector drawing attention to the significant and perhaps unacceptable change in the status quo.
The persistent problems are due to the divergent geostrategic pursuits of India and China.
There is no doubt Beijing is seeking to impress with its assertiveness as a major power. India is within its right to actively protect and enlarge New Delhi’s strategic footprint.
The External Affairs ministry explained: “In coordination with Bhutan, Indian personnel, who were present, approached the Chinese construction party and asked them to desist from changing the status quo. These efforts continue,” the ministry clarified.
Beijing now accuses India of being the “third party” to the China-Bhutan dispute. On June 20, Bhutan had lodged a protest with China through its embassy in New Delhi that any road inside its territory was a violation of the 1988 and 1998 agreements with Beijing.
On June 29 Bhutan had issued a demarche to China to restore status quo by stopping the work immediately.
Thimphu has also accused China of violating bilateral agreements by constructing a road in disputed territory. New Delhi recalled that both countries had in 2012 reached an agreement that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and any third country would be finalised in consultation with the parties concerned.
The boundary in the Sikkim sector was mutually agreed upon in 2012 and further discussions had been going on between the special representatives. The Doklam plateau, north of the tri-junction between Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet is not just a disputed area but has huge strategic significance for both India and China.
Wedged between Bhutan, India and China are a few areas of dispute accounting for more than 750 Sq Km. Doklam is about 90 square kilometres.
For the Chinese to reach the China-Bhutan border posts, Doklam provides an easy way to construct their road and they have been trying to do so with India consistently objecting to it.
Not far away from Doklam is the strategically important Chumbi Valley in the Tibet region, to which the Chinese are now planning to extend their rail connectivity.
New Delhi has said it is deeply concerned at the recent Chinese action and conveyed to them such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications. Importantly, Bhutan’s sovereignty must be maintained as that is the basis for the “exemplary” ties between New Delhi and Thimphu.
Notwithstanding China’s aggressive barrage, India is not going to stop from communicating its position in a clear and unambiguous manner. New Delhi and Beijing have agreed on maintaining peace and tranquility and neither will seek to unilaterally alter the status quo at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Of late China has been resorting to increasingly unilateral action seeking to alter the status quo. In the wake of what has happened in Doklam, India has had to respond to prevent an enhanced threat to the narrow land corridor which links the Indian Northeast to the rest of the country.
(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator. The views are personal.)