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Doklam standoff between India and China ends
Aug 29, 2017

[GS Paper II: (India and its neighbourhood relations)]

Why in News?

India and China have ended their military standoff by agreeing to speedy disengagement on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan. This welcome development has come just days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled visit to China for the BRICS summit (September 3-5) in Xiamen city.

Diplomacy wins

  • The separate announcements by India and China that the Doklam military stand-off has ended are a welcome sign that diplomacy has prevailed over the harsh rhetoric of the past two months. 
  • The essence of the deal — mutual disengagement and restoration of the situation before the Chinese construction of a road towards the Indian border and the deployment of Indian troops blocking that activity — is close to what India wanted. 
  • China, which had demanded an unconditional Indian withdrawal from Doklam, has had a greater difficulty in presenting the return to status quo as victory. But the Indian decision to announce the withdrawal first seems to have given sufficient political space for China to accept the outcome while affirming its sovereignty over a territory that is also claimed by Bhutan. 
  • India has got China to suspend the construction of a road that Delhi cited as a big security threat. China, in turn, got the Indian army to pull out its troops from Doklam. 
  • The very fact that both countries have been able to issue statements — even if they were designed to satisfy their domestic audiences — suggests that in diplomatic negotiations, each took into account the other’s constraints. 
  • Both New Delhi and Beijing have respected the wishes of the Bhutanese government, which wanted an early end to the crisis before the bitter winter set in.
  • Diplomats must now begin the heavy lifting required to repair the rupture in ties over the past few months which led to actions such as cancellation of the Nathu La route for Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrims and calls for boycott of Chinese products in India. 
  • India and China must revert to the spirit of the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement of 2013, which laid down specific guidelines on tackling future developments along the 3,488-km boundary the two countries share. 

Background

  • The present standoff started in June 2017 when People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China started constructing a road towards Doka La plateau in Bhutan to which the Bhutanese objected. 
  • Bhutan maintains no formal diplomatic ties with China and depends on military and diplomatic support from India. The Bhutanese Army thus approached the Indian troops for help. ? 
  • Indian troops blocked PLA road construction inside Dokalam as it would “represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.” 

Why is India involved in China-Bhutan territorial issue? ? 

  • India and Bhutan signed a Friendship Treaty in 1949, according to which Bhutan was to hold diplomatic relations with rest of the world with the guidance of India. ? 
  • The treaty was revised in 2007 and under the new terms, the mandatory consultation with India on foreign affairs is no longer binding on Bhutan. But the treaty makes defence of Bhutan against any aggression an obligation on India. ? 
  • It was under this obligation the Indian Army stopped China from constructing road in the Dokalam region. 

India’s Vulnerability ?

  • The Dokalam area is dangerously close to the narrow Siliguri Corridor (or the Chicken's Neck) that connects the northeastern states with the rest of India. Undisputed control over Dokalam will give China tactical and strategic advantage in the region. ? 
  • The corridor is extremely important for India because rail and road networks towards the North East run through it. ? 
  • Since 1998, China has been developing infrastructure in the region. Reports suggest that it has already built a crisscross of basic roads there. China now intends to build all-weather highway in the region to gain strategic advantage.

Way Forward

  • The restraint shown by India during the Doklam crisis and its ability to stand up to China has been impressive. 
  • But India will have its task cut out in coping with the growing military might of China and Beijing’s assertive political will that together promise to make the long and contested border a perennially active one. 
  • The past two and a half months are also a lesson that India cannot be unprepared for “another Doklam”. India must necessarily “hope for the best, and prepare for the worst”, when it comes to tensions with its northern neighbour.
  • China must also recognise that it underestimated Delhi’s political resolve and could pay a big price for its strategic condescension towards India. 
  • For both countries an appreciation of the costs of conflict that allowed them to avoid a war in Doklam should also encourage them to explore the long overdue political resolution of their outstanding boundary issues.


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