Given the disengagement of Indian and Chinese military in Doklam/Donglang, the tension built over the past two months between the two countries has been defused to a great degree. Despite this, in the interest of long-term peace and tranquility along the border area between China and India, and among China, India and Bhutan, one still has to address three questions. First, what set off this stand-off? Second, what the two governments have agreed on the issue of road construction? Third, how to perpetuate peace and cooperation in this area?
The particular point where China and India staged their military stand-off is indeed not disputed between Beijing and New Delhi. Their border in this section was created by a treaty between Sikkim and Tibet in 1890, according to which Doklam belongs to China. However, India lately felt threatened when China started to build a road rather close to the border. The point where the stand-off took place is merely 180 metres from the border.
First, though the point at issue is not disputed between China and India, it doesn’t mean that it is ‘indisputable’. Actually, Bhutan has long disputed with China the question of who owns Doklam. After some two dozen rounds of inter-government negotiation between Beijing and Thimphu, China has failed to convince Bhutan that it is entitled to its so-called ‘indisputable’ sovereignty over this piece of land.
Luckily, China and Bhutan inked their agreement on this matter in 2007. They agreed that neither side shall change the status quo there. Regrettably, China started to build its road from this June, which doesn’t seem to be in conformity with its agreement with Bhutan.
Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs openly disagreed with China on this matter. In case China continues not to abide by the mentioned agreement, Bhutan has its right to bring the issue to the UNSC or International Court of Justice, as it is a matter of sovereignty and security, as well as willingness of observing international agreements pertaining to sovereignty and security. Such international agreements have been framed equally, openly and fairly. Once signed, both parties have to relinquish certain rights respectively, subject to the restriction of the agreement. Maintaining status quo clearly means not to change the natural geographical feature in a certain region and not to change military resources installed in the region. Any previous installation of military assets doesn’t justify any additional installing of assets. It goes without saying that building additional road(s) could be viewed as changing status quo.
Nevertheless, even though China may have not observed its 2007 agreement with Bhutan on the disputed land, and its 2012 agreement with India and Bhutan to maintain status quo in such an area, it is largely up to Bhutan to raise the issue to the UNSC. Even though Bhutan has enjoyed its security arrangement with India, Bhutan still needs to issue an open invitation to India, requesting India to send troops to the disputed place that Bhutan has long claimed it owns. Short of these, it is not proper that India should send its military voluntarily to Doklam, which New Delhi recognised as a part of China, as per the 1890 treaty between Sikkim and Tibet.
Second, how to avoid a recurrence of such incidents? On the part of China, it has to understand that once international agreements are signed to maintain status quo in border areas, it is better not to build roads of strategic importance in a place (i) where is clearly disputed, in this case between China and Bhutan; and (ii) where its full sovereign rights have been compromised through concession due to a treaty. One has to remember that concession is mutual: when China makes concession to Bhutan and India, they should make the same kind concessions to China. Bhutan should also not build a road in the disputed area, and nor should India build one as close as 180 metres to the border with China on its side.
On the part of Bhutan, simply stating that it disagrees with China on building the road in the disputed area may not be enough. Should all bilateral means fail, Bhutan could resort to mediation by third parties should China agree, or approach international courts or the UN. On such occasions, it is impossible that China should deny the existence of a dispute and justify its road-building in a disputed area as not in breach of the status quo. At a time when China cares for soft power, its international image and aspires to global leadership, it is better for Beijing not to disregard international law.
On India’s part, it should have reminded China of the consequence of disregarding the China-Bhutan agreement at the UN, rather than sending troops into Chinese territory, while even initially mistakenly claiming that China had invaded India. Given so many channels between the two countries, either bilaterally or multilaterally at BRICS, SCO, APEC, G20, and the UN, India has mistakenly opted its last resort first. This is rather unnecessary.
Finally, this dispute has been de-escalated peacefully. How could this happen? Thus far, the two governments have somehow stated matters ambiguously, both to assuage its domestic audience and to honour the other party’s sensitivity.
The Indian government declared that both armed forces had disengaged, indicating that its own force had withdrawn, meeting the Chinese demand. In the meantime, it was likely that Chinese force had also withdrawn from the stand-off point. As long as this is the case, China would not be able to continue its road construction at the disputed place, at least for the time being. India seems to indicate that it has reached its objective—to stop the road building.
The Chinese government informed its public that it had attained its objective to get the Indian army to leave. It promised to continue to station its force in Doklam, maintaining operations, as per the historical border agreement. The spokesperson also stated that given the changing situation, it would make the necessary adjustment and deployment, without specifying if it meant Chinese troops had withdrawn. The government stated that it had been engaged in road construction in Doklam for decades and, depending on future need, may continue to do so. But, it avoided saying that it would continue to build a road at the place of the dispute.
Clearly, each government has suggested that it has succeeded, while carefully avoiding details of their compromise, so as to protect itself and each other. Under extreme circumstances, it is possible that India withdrew without receiving China’s explicit commitment not to resume road construction at the disputed point. Or, it left after receiving such clear promise. Whichever it may be, the Indian Army left and both governments agreed not to inform the actual deal to their respective public.
The magic of diplomacy lies in the trick of mutual concession. In retrospect, China needs to be prepared for all possible Indian responses to Chinese road-building in a place disputed with Bhutan, and India needs to explore all other options that may be much better than sending military directly into disputed areas. All three countries have to revise their existing agreements, so as to define unambiguously what constitutes a status quo. Each side should be sensitive to the sensitivity of the other side.
(The author is professor and associate dean, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University)