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Lessons From the China-India Border Standoff

The face-off between China and India at the Donglang/Doklam tri-junction ended after more than two months. Both sides claimed victory.

India pointed to the double or simultaneous withdrawal (euphemistically termed “disengagement”) by both parties from the area controlled by China (also claimed by Bhutan) and intruded into by the Indian troops. As for China, it confirmed that the remaining 50 or so Indian soldiers had left the area, without uttering a word about Chinese troops having pulled back as well. What Beijing did say was that it would continue to “patrol and  garrison” the area, and  “adjust and deploy”  its forces as the situation requires.

If there’s any victory, it’s that both sides have stepped back from another border skirmish after the 1962 war. That by itself is significant and reason enough to heave a sigh of relief. The prospect of two nuclear powers, which together have over one third of the world population, fighting each other was truly scary.

It’s also a victory for the emerging multi-polarity. A clash of the two titans, both members of BRICS, could debilitate, if not kill, BRICS as we know it.

New Delhi needed an expeditious, face-saving exit as badly as Beijing.  For the Indian troops squatting in the Himalayan plateau, the imminent snowfalls and  subzero temperature would make their continuing presence there unbearable. The Chinese agreement to double withdrawal was the best Modi could get and had demanded publicly. He had probably known from the outset that the Middle Kingdom  would not abandon road-building in the area under Chinese control.

In truth, the Chinese road works provided a cover, a fig leaf, to India’s incursion into the area to which it has no claim. The Chinese ambassador in New Delhi had told India of the road building in advance. India feigned ignorance and seized on the purported change of the status quo to encroach on Chinese territory, claiming that it came to Bhutan’s defence under a treaty between them. Thimphu sources laid bare New Delhi’s lie. Bhutan didn’t request India’s help. Their friendship treaty isn’t a defence treaty, and there’s no provision for mutual defence.

It has become abundantly clear to many Bhutanese that India’s military adventurism in Donglang/Doklam sought to spite Sino-Bhutan relations to prevent the pro-Beijing party from winning the election in Bhutan next year. Just as India successfully did in the previous poll in 2013 by cutting Indian subsidies on petrol and household gas for Bhutanese.

What Beijing found especially infuriating was that the Indians crossed into the Chinese-controlled area to which New Delhi has no claim, and from the Sikkim sector where the boundary had been settled by a treaty between Qing China and British India way back in 1890.

While the inclement weather in the Himalayan plateau was of concern to the intruding Indian troops, what worried Beijing was Modi retaliating with a “no show” at the BRICS Summit to be held in Xiamen, China from 3rd to 5th September. That would be a slap on the face of the Chinese host. China sets great store by BRICS and its façade of unity. Beijing doesn’t want to be blamed for causing a fracture, much less a breakup,  of BRICS. After more than two months of verbal battle across the Himalayas, China made the 11th hour tactical concession to ensure the upcoming BRICS Summit a success.

At last, the border standoff is over, bar the nationalistic, even jingoistic, shouting of the chattering class in both countries. Are there lessons to be learnt from the rupture for China and Bhutan?

For the Bhutanese, especially the younger generation who want economic development, they need to seize the  Destiny in their own hands. That entails defying threats from New Delhi and voting for the party that can bring in aid, investment and tourist spending from China. Only they can free themselves from the shackles of being a de facto protectorate of India. And they must seize the moment, when the Belt and Road Initiative is in full swing.

For the Chinese, it must be prepared to pay a price for its principled objection to India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It must also recognise, and act accordingly, India’s opportunistic practices in foreign affairs. Like its new BFF America, India doesn’t give a hoot to bilateral treaties and international conventions.

That complicates and toughens China’s defence along the 4,000-plus km border with India. Real time satellite monitoring of Indian troops along the long border, and deployment of rapid response force to prevent intrusion have become necessary.

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