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India, China return from the brink at Doklam
  • Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping
    Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping
On 28th August, India and China agreed to ‘expeditious disengagement’ of border personnel at Doklam after the Chinese dragon had been fuming fire for over two months. The major diplomatic breakthrough came as a welcome relief just a week before the BRICS summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa at the Chinese city of Xiamen from September 3-5. Without this pragmatic face saving disengagement, Beijing would have embarrassed by Modi’s absence from the summit.

Thankfully, ‘India and China have maintained diplomatic communication in respect of the incident at Doklam. During these communications, we were able to express our views and convey our concerns and interests,’ said MEA statement.

Troops of the two countries have been locked in a standoff in Doklam since June 16 after Indian troops stopped the Chinese army from building a road in the Doklam area disputed between China and Bhutan. India never claimed Doklam for itself but for close ally Bhutan- its buffer against northern rival China- with Beijing accusing India all along of trespassing on Chinese soil. For mutual retreat India has completely withdrawn about 350 troops deployed in the area by evening. The withdrawal agreement was facilitated by Russia to some extent.

The geo-strategically important Doklam plateau gives China access to the so-called ‘chicken’s neck’ (Siliguri Corridor) – a thin strip of land connecting India’s north-eastern states with the rest of the country and through that to futuristic China Bangladesh Economic Corridor. Appreciating India’s security concerns ‘The Bhutanese’ wrote, “While Doklam is allegedly ‘disputed’ territory between Bhutan and China, it has a far bigger impact on India’s security. This is one key reason why Bhutan did not accept a generous ‘package deal’ from China in 1996, that offered not only the larger disputed 495 sq km in the central sector but also a part of the 269 sq km western sector in exchange for sections of 269 sq km which includes Gyemochen, claimed by China as trijunction.”

Though Indian and Chinese soldiers recently fought with rocks and sticks at high-altitude lake in Ladakh, the latest crisis at Doklam between two nuclear-armed neighbours was the worst in decades. India has historically been closely allied to Bhutan and has signed a defence treaty but China’s desperation to get closer has bred Delhi-Beijing competition for regional influence. India never objected to Chinese troops regular patrolling the area as but road construction was the red line. India refused to budge and eventually got China to step back from its contentious road project.

The stepping back has varied strategic implications. First, China was building road in a disputed territory it earlier claimed its own to change the status quo. Stopping China is a huge diplomatic victory for India which handled the situation well to make China agree on ‘no Road in Dolkam’. Now both Bhutan and Chinese army can patrol the area as it was before June 2017. Second, India could push it’s will in the land of a third country. It was India sitting on the claimed land of China confronting Chinese perception of not being allowed to build road in their own land before both retreated to status quo.

Third, no road access from Doklam implies successfully pre-empting Beijing’s strategic move to connect to Bangladesh ports. Fourth, China learnt the bitter lesson that India under Modi is no more India of 1962, no pushover anymore and can take on the mighty dragon.

Fifthly, this is a huge diplomatic victory for India which showcased its resolve to stand for its ally and emerged as a regional power in South Asia by restricting a larger power China. India’s emphatic and defiant stand has already caused some loss of face for Beijing with its Asian neighbours and could motivate other nations coerced by China to look up to India. But Pakistan may feel uncomfortable and insecure. This is the beginning of new era for India and Chinese effort to become a superpower has been badly undermined.

India and China together can benefit the whole world; fighting, each can be other’s nemesis. Both should be mature enough to focus on development, growth and mutual respect based on equal footing for mutual benefit that will be a defining moment for Asia and the rest of the world.