Doklam Standoff: Background, Strategies and Resolution

The 71-day standoff between India and China at Doklam has been successfully resolved following a diplomatic breakthrough without the need for any armed confrontation and bloodshed. Both the countries have announced the end of standoff at Doklam, on the tri-junction of the Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese borders.

The Ministry of External Affairs has announced that the disengagement exercise in the border has been completed. The troops of both the countries were in eyeball-to-eyeball contact since June 16. It has been announced that China has accepted to withdraw road-construction equipment from the disputed site.

Background

Doko La (Doklam) is a strategically located tri-junction of India, Bhutan and China. Doklam is recognised as a Bhutanese territory by India and Bhutan. But, China claims some parts of the Doklam Plateau as part of its “ancient” frontier. From 1984, Bhutan and China have conducted nearly 24 rounds of dialogue to delineate the border between them and the process is still going on.

India and China were engaged in standoff at Doklam since June 16, 2017. The reason behind the stand-off was the Chinese attempt to build a road in the strategically located Doklam. On June 16, China attempted to build a road construction by bringing in earthmovers and construction machines in the Doklam area of Bhutan. The Royal Bhutan Army objected to these construction activities in its territory but was outnumbered and pushed back to its post by the China’s PLA following which Bhutan called for the help of Indian Army. India and Bhutan have a Friendship Treaty according to which, India serves as a virtual security guarantor of Bhutan. Indian Army and Bhutan Army do joint patrolling at the tri-junction. The Indian Army had asked the PLA to stop the road construction activity that has resulted in a stand-off.

India’ s Stand

India’s major concern was road building by China. Construction of a road in Doklam region would give China a major military advantage and would have security implications for India. India expressed its deepest concern over the actions of the Chinese PLA. It had said that such unilateral actions amount to altering the status quo at the tri junction. It was also against an understanding reached at 2012 round of Sino-Indian Special Representative (SR) dialogue.

Bhutan’s Stand

On June 20th, Bhutan had formally lodged a protest with the Chinese Government through its Embassy situated in New Delhi. Bhutan’s foreign ministry had stated that it views the road construction activity inside the Bhutanese territory as a direct violation of the 1988 agreement between Bhutan and China. It has also said that the recent developments will further affect the process of boundary demarcation between both the countries.

Chinese Bullish Tactics: san zhong zhanfa

  • China was playing a mind game with India and appeared have employed its ‘Three Warfares Strategy (san zhong zhanfa)” devised by its Central Military Commission in 2003. The strategy got refined in 2010, and involves a triad of media war, psychological war and legal war. Simply put, China employed both verbal barrage and psychological warfare. Deploying this strategy, China gained supremacy over the Philippines in the South China Sea. It made Philippines to give in to Chinese domination even after winning over China at the UNCLOS tribunal.

As a part of the strategy, China’s state owned media was engaged in relentless verbal abuse against India. Understanding the strategy of China, Indian government was unusually quiet and practiced restraint while handling the Doklam issue. It chose not to react to verbal abuse of China or threats posed by its superior economy and military capabilities.

In Doklam, China was attempting to repeat the likes of previous incidents that took place at Depsang in 2013, and the 2014 incident at Chumar, where it had sought to change the ground reality for making a new boundary claim. The only difference this time was that China was playing this game on Bhutanese territory with an aim of reshaping the boundary and the security matrix with India. For India, it is the first time it had sent its troops to a third country to uphold the territorial rights of Bhutan.

How India handled the issue?

India had moved hundreds of soldiers into the disputed area to check Chinese incursions and to block road construction works carried out by China. Simultaneously, India had announced that it was ready for diplomatic negotiations with China to defuse the issue.

India had never objected to Chinese patrol in the Doklam bowl, which is contested by both Bhutan and China. However, road construction activity in the strategic location was unacceptable to India as it amounts to altering the status quo, which has been explicitly prohibited by a 2012 agreement between China and India.

When Prime Minister Modi met Xi in Astana, both the leaders had agreed not to let the differences between the countries to evolve into disputes. The consensus arrived has been termed as “Astana Consensus”.

India had made it clear that it wanted China to go back to a position that it has been occupying before June 16. It stood firm that it will not allow China to build roads in the disputed region. It had highlighted peace and tranquillity in the border region as an important pre-requisite for smooth development of the bilateral relation between both the countries. It announced that it will find a mutually acceptable solution through diplomatic channels on the basis of the Astana Consensus.

What was the role played by Bhutan?

Since the beginning of the crisis, Bhutan showed a remarkable and consistent demonstration of support to India. It issued a demarche against China on June 20 followed by a government statement on June 29 protesting the construction activities of China in the disputed region. Though, Bhutan does not attach great value to Doklam, it continues to shun Chinese offers to settle the Sino-Bhutan borders by ceding Doklam to China.

Discussion

In recent times, the Doklam standoff emerged as one of the toughest foreign policy challenges for India. The successful resolution of the crisis is widely hailed as India’s most spectacular diplomatic victories in decades. India’s strategy in resolving the Doklam standoff was flawless right from the beginning and has achieved the Status Quo Ante, which was what India wanted.

In fact, India’s strategy gave China only two plausible options. The first option was the use of force. But that would set a bad precedent for other countries as they could also respond in force to China’s land grabs in future. Secondly, the use of force could have destroyed several fundamentals of nuclear deterrence. The second option made available was to maintain Status Quo Ante.

The recent handling of the Doklam crisis is undoubtedly a testimonial to India’s stature as a mature and responsible status quo power. In addition, India also gave China a face saving exit and has found out the best way to deal with China. In fact, the strategy adopted by India has resulted in the creation of a template for other countries to follow.

The successful resolution of Doklam crisis has reinforced India’s image as a reliable and sober status quo power. The diplomatic victory of India will no doubt enhance its regional status and its standing among South Asian neighbours like Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

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