“You can change friends but not neighbours”
– Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Trade and Commerce are essentials that bind two neighboring countries. Historically, Doklam served the same purpose of trade between India and China; from Leh to Lhasa and Lhasa to Kalimpong. Being neighbors, they not only have had their share of good relations but also fights. The two nations fought a war in 1962. In some areas, disputes still remain unsolved which causes tensions from time to time.
Recently, the standoff between India and China has gained a lot of attention all over the world. For seven weeks, there has been tension along part of their 3,500 km (2,174-mile) boundary. Some even fear war.
The Doklam standoff started in Mid-June when China started constructing a road in the disputed territory of Doklam plateau, Bhutan. The Royal Bhutan Army raised objection against it which China flatly brushed aside. As the disputed territory was near the Siliguri corridor, India had to be involved in the dispute. The Bhutan government allowed Indian troops in this area to resist the Chinese, initiating the stand off.
India asked China to move its troops back by 250 meters. Instead of giving a positive response, China retaliated by claiming the area as its own territory and India was asked to remove two bunkers set up in the areas. Later, these bunkers were destroyed by China.
Amidst all the chaos, the holy pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet was cancelled when China sent back Indian pilgrims from the Nathu-la border post.
With time, it has been becoming clear that Doklam has been emerging as the region of prime importance and conflict for the three countries- India, China, and Bhutan. Where India and Bhutan have clubbed together and have been trying to deter the Chinese Army from Doklam, China has been in a state of constant denial. The important territory remains disputed, and the future remains vague.
Doklam: That important, is it?
Doklam (or Donglang) is a narrow strip of land between China’s Chumbi Valley, India’s Sikkim and Bhutan’s Ha Valley. It has been a disputed territory between China and Bhutan for many years. The region is of humongous strategic importance to both India and China.
For India, it is close to the Siliguri Corridor, which is known as Chicken’s neck and it acts as a crucial link between India’s mainland and its north eastern region. The prime rail and road networks run through it. If this link is severed by China, the supplies and reinforcements for the Indian Armed Forces present in the area would be cut off.
For China, the road being constructed would link Yadong (in China) to Doklam. This would allow China to transport ammunition and troops at India’s doorstep easily. This will also give China an access to some important Indian infrastructures including the hydroelectric project on Jaldhaka river in Jhalong.
If China manages to capture Doklam, it would cut off north-east from the rest of India. This would make the area vulnerable. There will be a lack of supplies and connectivity. The conflicts in the region would rise, causing further distractions for the Indian armed forces there.
China is also undertaking construction activities in the region including building dams over the mighty Brahmaputra. As India and Bangladesh are heavily dependent on the water from the river, these dams have the potency to turn water into a weapon in case of a conflict.
The War of Words
Even today as we compose this work, the tension between both sides runs very high. The Chinese media has been continuously trying to prove India wrong by issuing numerous controversial statements.
Among the various statements issued by both the parties, one was when the Chinese Media referred to the 1962 war. It even gave a threat: “If Modi government ignores the warnings, countermeasures would be unavoidable.” The Indian media strongly stated in response that India has had a long journey since 1962, and their army stands prepared this time. More troops have been deployed in the area by both sides.
Despite all these fumes, the government and army officials are more willing to resolve the dispute in a sensible manner. With a peaceful dialogue through diplomatic channels as opposed to an outright war.
Maintaining peaceful relations at this point is essential and beneficial for both the countries as they have huge economic prospects tied to each other.
Bhutan’s stand is straightforward from the beginning. It is against Chinese interference in its contours. It claims that there is a direct violation of the agreements.
Bhutan has further said that the boundary talks between Bhutan and China were already underway and the two countries had signed the agreements in 1988 and 1998. Bhutan hopes that the status quo in the Doklam area would be maintained by China as before 16 June 2017.
The Economic Impact
Future of the Asian economic structure significantly relies on the behavior of these two big powers. The standoff at Doklam not only increases tensions between the two countries, but also raises concerns for the economic well being of both the nations as well as the other Asian economies.
China has an economy & global trade which is five time of what India has. India has an approximate bilateral trade of $70 billion with China, making it India’s number one trading partner. This bilateral trade is largely in favour of China as India has only $10 billion exports. Such a huge disparity brings India at a disadvantage when the Economic front is considered.
However, the caution is for both the countries. The Doklam standoff can put Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) at a critical position.
BRI is an initiative by Chinese President Xi Jinping which aims to build trade routes between China and countries in Central Asia, Europe, other Indo-Pacific coastal regions. It includes a land based belt called “Silk Road Economic Belt” and a sea based route called “Maritime Silk Road”. Due to India’s geographical location, India is at the center of BRI. This would be seriously hindered if the stand off continues.
Not only this, China’s reliance on imported fuel is also an important issue at hand. As majority (80%) of this imported fuel has to sail through the Strait of Malacca or the Indian Ocean, it would be imperative to consider this impact before making a final call.
This current military stand-off at Doklam will test adequacy of changing foreign policy orientation in both India and China. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping like to be depicted as strong leaders to their citizens, neither one of the sides is probably going to back down from the present standoff in a rush. The conduct of both enormous forces is going to shape the advancing Asian economic and security architecture.
Despite the many complex issues in the past, India-China have kept up their relations sensibly till this point. With more such cooperation and coordination, both the countries can make the 21st century a truly Asian century. Otherwise conflicting Asian powers will open the doors for the West to continue its hegemony for some more decades.
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