Amidst the Doklam stand-off, Dr Long Xingchun, director for Center of India Studies at China West Normal University, and Jayadeva Ranade, head of the Delhi-based Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, shared their perspectives with The Sunday Guardian. Whereas Long contended that China can’t accept any third party intervening in its bilateral dispute with Bhutan, Ranade pointed out that India is bound by a friendship treaty with the Buddhist kingdom to come to its defence. Excerpts.
Q. Why does China refuse to withdraw troops from Doklam but wants India to do it first? Shouldn’t efforts be put equally from both the sides to facilitate an open dialogue?
LONG: According to the position of China, Doklam is a Chinese territory, at least not an Indian territory; can China withdraw from this area with Indian troops equally?
RANADE: The facts are that Doklam, or Doklam Plateau, is a Bhutanese territory and has been such for many decades. China laid claim to this territory along with three other chunks of Bhutanese territory and then called it “disputed”. They began building a road through this area to alter the status quo by linking up with Gyemochen, near the southern tip, in 2003 and persisted despite regular objections and protests from Bhutan. In 2012, China and India reached an agreement to maintain the status quo and cease road building activity. In June this year, China decided to resume construction of the road, thus violating the 2012 agreement and prompting India to come to the assistance of Bhutan as well as to safeguard its own national security interests. Doklam, therefore, continues to be “disputed” and is certainly not a Chinese territory. India has also not ever described Doklam as Indian territory. To de-escalate tension, while keeping the prestige of both countries intact, a simultaneous mutual withdrawal without pre-conditions appears to be the best solution.
Q: What is the public sentiment in China on the tri-junction border dispute?
LONG: Now, many Chinese people have known for the first time that India is so offensive and assertive by the current standoff. The incursion of Indian troops into Doklam has already damaged India’s image seriously in China. Chinese people recognised that India is not a friendly country to China.
RANADE: Public opinion in China is moulded by the official media—whether TV, print or social media—most of which are state-owned and all of which are tightly controlled and monitored by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee (CC)’s Propaganda Department. The numerous “warnings” issued through the state-owned Global Times, which is subject to the controls imposed by the CCP CC’s Propaganda Department, included reminding India of the 1962 war. The Global Times also asserted that China will: reverse its stance on Sikkim and create trouble there; launch an international campaign to disrupt the close ties between India and Bhutan; revive the insurgency in India’s Northeast; and send troops into Kashmir. Very significantly, each of these “warnings” was mentioned by senior Delhi-based Chinese diplomats at least one, and at times two days earlier. Nonetheless, China’s social media has not been seen taking too much notice of the face-off at Doklam. Also, China’s authoritative official news agency Xinhua and the CCP’s official newspaper People’s Daily have had limited and largely factual coverage of the face-off at Doklam. Nonetheless, the “warnings” issued by Global Times do reflect the thinking of senior echelons of the CCP leadership and will impact adversely on India-China relations over the long term.
Q. What is interesting is the fact that the disputed border is shared by three countries but the stand-off is seen to be between China and India only. In all recent Global Times’ columns that are quoted by the Indian media, Bhutan does not feature anywhere. The narrative is always about India and China. So what is China’s policy towards Bhutan?
LONG: Everybody knows that Bhutan is controlled by India; it cannot have diplomatic relations with China and other countries without India’s permission. The Indian troops intruded into Doklam under the excuse of Bhutanese government’s request, however, the statement of the Bhutanese government only claims that Doklam is a disputed area between Bhutan and China. It says nothing about Bhutan requesting India’s involvement. Do you think Bhutan enjoys sovereignty?
RANADE: India and Bhutan are bound by two Friendship Treaties that obligate India to Bhutan’s defence. Way back in the 1950s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said in Parliament that any aggression against Bhutan would be an aggression against India. Bhutan is a sovereign, independent nation and a member of the UN. India and Bhutan both closely coordinate their foreign and defence policies. As mentioned earlier, Doklam is a Bhutanese territory being now claimed by China which is why it has become “disputed” territory. It is clear that China is smarting after its road building effort was stymied by India and so has directed its propaganda tirade against India going so far as to accuse India of “invading” China and conducting a “surgical strike” against China.
Q. Given that Bhutan and India are allies, isn’t it justified that India intervened at Bhutan’s request? Why is there an objection to Indian troops present in Bhutan when the Bhutanese government does not have a problem with it?
LONG: China can’t accept any third party intervening in the bilateral dispute between Bhutan and China, just as India can’t accept a third party intervention in the dispute between India and Pakistan. Even if India wants to defend Bhutan, you may stand behind the Bhutanese troops, not in front of them.
RANADE: Coming to the assistance of a Treaty partner is an obligation. There is no provision that Bhutanese troops should be in the front line. Treaties do not have such provisions. In any case, both sides are very unevenly matched with a 3.7 million sq km large China militarily intruding into the territory of a barely 23,000 sq km small Bhutan with very limited resources and manpower. Also, the Convention of 1890, quoted by the Chinese, does not demarcate boundaries and together with the other agreements all provide that the border should be demarcated through negotiations between China, Bhutan and India.
Q. China is dealing with border disputes with several of its neighbours. The largest country in Asia is being accused of displaying an expansionist mindset. Your comments.
LONG: China solved the border disputes with all its neighbouring countries by peaceful negotiations that were marked by a “give more and got less” policy except with India and Bhutan. We don’t know how do they define expansionist and what are their evidences to support their claim?
RANADE: China has, contrary to popular perception, unresolved land border issues with many of its neighbours including Russia, Mongolia, North Korea—one of its only two friends—Vietnam, Bhutan, India etc. It has conflicting claims with all its maritime neighbours. China has resolved border disputes depending on the strategic gains it perceives or the strength of the other country. China has, additionally, begun asserting its territorial claims when it feels it has become strong—the South China Sea is an example.
Q. The Belt and Road Initiative is also seen as China’s way to push its boundaries into new countries via trade; the expansionist mindset observation is alleged here too. Your comments.
LONG: There are so many misreading and misunderstanding on the Belt and Road Initiative. It’s a win-win economic initiative, and relevant countries may make their own decision based on their own national interests. China did not force any country to participate in this initiative.
RANADE: The “One Belt, One Road”, now called the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), is a China-conceived and China-led initiative with the sole objective of giving a boost to China’s sagging economy and expanding its diplomatic, economic and military influence well beyond its borders. Beijing did not consult any other countries, which it now realises was an error. Many Chinese scholars and academics are on record saying that there should have been wider consultations and that these could still be held especially as the concept has not yet been worked out. Many countries attended the Forum held in China in April 2017, but very few—and none of the advanced countries—have actually signed it. Many are also witnessing the fate of participants in the BRI, like Sri Lanka and now imminently Pakistan. Incidentally, China applied considerable pressure on India to attend the BRI Forum till even the day before it started.
Q. There is a speculation that the situation at Doklam might de-escalate after November once the Party Congress is done. What is your view on this?
LONG: In my personal opinion, China can’t tolerate Indian troops staying in Chinese territory till November. It must be a disaster for the Chinese government and leaders if the Chinese government does not clear foreign troops out of its territory. The Chinese people may give time, but not too long. The situation at Doklam has nothing to do with China’s domestic issues and the Party’s 19th Congress.
RANADE: Had China not chosen to go public on the face-off at Doklam, the matter could have been resolved through diplomatic negotiations, which has been India’s preference all along. Beijing’s propaganda offensive has reduced the room for diplomacy and raised the stakes. Neither side can now withdraw without loss of face unless it is a simultaneous withdrawal. The ball, therefore, is now effectively in China’s court and it has to decide whether to de-escalate or further exacerbate tensions. Staying on indefinitely could make the situation volatile.