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Doklam Standoff Between the Dragon & the Tiger

By Prabasi Nepali

Sino-Indian Border Standoff: Rising Rhetoric & Tensions

Very near the Sikkim/India – Tibet/China – Bhutan tri-junction, and abutting the geo-strategic “Siliguri Corridor” or “Chicken’s Neck” Passageway (connecting the main bulk of India to its North-Eastern States (on the borders of China and Myanmar) in India (south of Darjeeling), and the Chumbi Valley in Tibet (which like a dagger separates the Indian state of Sikkim from north-western Bhutan), Chinese and Indian troops face off each other. Officials and the media exchange heated words, as well as, claims and counter claims over a border that has never been properly delineated. The main object of dispute is the “Doklam Plateau” (nominally in Bhutan), through which China (secretly) built a strategic mountain road, without informing Bhutan. India has come to the aid of Bhutan, but by trespassing on Chinese territory. In such a heated atmosphere, there is genuine concern that the two Asian giants may come to blows as in the autumn of 1962. Bhutan is unenviably ‘between the Dragon and the Tiger’, and is mainly keeping quiet.

Last week, the Chinese defence ministry spokesman warned that Beijing had shown restraint but had a ‘bottom line’: “No country should underestimate the Chinese forces’ resolve and willpower to defend national sovereignty.” Subsequently, this line has been repeated almost word for word by the foreign ministry, the official Xinhua news agency, the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece the “People’s Daily”, the official military news website of the Chinese armed forces, and other outlets.

China’s foreign ministry, in the meantime, has released a 15-page document of ‘facts’ about the border dispute, which included a map of alleged Indian intrusions and photographs of what it stated were Indian troops and military vehicles on China’s side of the frontier. Calling for the “immediate and unconditional” withdrawal of Indian troops, it warned Beijing would “take all necessary measures” to safeguard its national interests. Furthermore, India was building roads (where exactly?), hoarding supplies and deploying large number of troops in the area (how many?), according to a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. “This is by no means for peace.”  According to Rory Medcalf, head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, the recent escalation of China’s rhetoric was “genuinely troubling.” At the same time, one cannot ignore the extravagant language in India’s mainstream media – close to the establishment. If the “Siliguri Corridor” is of strategic importance to India, so is the Chumbi Valley for China.

Despite the heated war of words, a leading Chinese analyst has played down the possibility of an armed encounter. “The point of these statements isn’t that war is imminent; rather, they’re an attempt to figure out how not to go to war without losing face,” Shen Dingli, vice dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, told Agence France Presse (AFP). “Nobody wants to go to war, but China and India are acting like two unhappy little children.” However, India may over react and project its ‘forward policy’ on the ground and militarily provoke China that out of self-respect it has no other option but to ‘punish’ India – repeating the history of 1962.  In that case, Chinese military operations would be severely limited to this ‘theatre’, whereby North Bengal would be temporarily occupied and both Sikkim and Darjeeling truncated. At the same time, a larger military confrontation cannot be ruled out since India maintains one mountain division each in Kalimpong and Gangtok in the area itself, and China recently conducted major military exercises not far in Tibet.

To go by recent Chinese remarks, some sort of Chinese action is immanent. A report in the state-run “Global Times” quotes Chinese military expert Hu Zhiyong: “there is no way China will tolerate the Indian troops intrusion into Chinese territory for too long.” Hu, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said further: “If India refuses to withdraw, China may conduct a small-scale military operation within two weeks.” The clash of the Asian giants would not only severely damage Sino-Indian relations, but also cause lingering strategic distrust, and tensions in all of South Asia.

However,  Chinese President XI Jinping may choose to lie dormant, at least until early September when he is set to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a summit of BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in the Chinese city of Xiamen. He has said that he hopes for greater cooperation within the bloc. At the same time, he has been projecting aggressive Chinese nationalism, for instance in the South China Sea. He is also gearing up for a key party congress later this year, and in the run-up to that he cannot appear weak. He is expected to further consolidate his grip on power (he has already eliminated a perceived prominent critic). Politics professor Yvonne Chiu, and an expert on China’s military at Hong Kong University, said China was testing “how much they can get away with, in a region that is unlikely to draw the involvement of other major powers such as the US.”

Nepal’s foreign minister, Krishna Bahadur Mahara has rejected media reports that said Nepal was under pressure from the two neighbouring countries to support their respective stances on the Doklam standoff. However, the government has not made it clear that Nepal no longer stands under India’s so-called sphere of influence. Nepal shares two tri-junctions with both neighbours, and a so-called ‘neutral’ policy is not in our national interest. In the current standoff, Bhutan is clearly the harmed party, and a gesture of solidarity would have been in order. But this is too much to expect from the present government.

South China Sea: Antagonism Among Littoral States:

The simmering tensions in the South China Sea, which China is attempting to convert into a Chinese lake, have again come to the fore. Ahead of the launch of the annual gathering of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam made a bold play against China with a number of suggested changes to a planned joint communiqué. It set the stage for what was expected to be an explosive few days of diplomacy in the Philippine capital Manila, with top diplomats from China, The United States, Russia and North Korea set to join their ASEAN and other Asia-Pacific counterparts for security talks from Sunday onwards.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, including territorial waters proximate to the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The territorial claims overlap in many areas. China has in recent years and months expanded its presence in the sea by building artificial islands, which are capable of maintaining military bases. ASEAN has endorsed a framework for a code of conduct with China, which is meant to pave the way for more concrete action. However, security analysts are of the opinion that the framework comes 15 years after negotiations on the issue first began, and China has in the meantime accomplished a fait accompli by cementing its claims with the artificial islands.

Anxiety in the Korean Peninsula:

At the Manila summit – known as the ASEAN Regional Forum – the United States said it would seek to build united pressure on North Korea, and Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Pyongyang would receive a strong message.

The meetings took place as the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously 15 — 0 Sunday on a US-drafted resolution to toughen sanctions against North Korea to punish the isolated regime for its missile and nuclear tests. These would deprive North Korea of vital export income. This follows a month of negotiations with Pyongyang’s allay and main trading partner China over ways to compel the regime of Kim Jong-Un to halt its missile and nuclear programme. It calls for a ban on all exports of coal, iron and iron ore, lead and lead ore, as well as fish and seafood by the cash-starved state. These measures do not provide for cuts to oil imports – a move that would have dealt a serious blow to the economy. Hours after the fresh sanctions were agreed, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi told his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho in Manila that Pyongyang should stop carrying out nuclear and missile tests. However, in the latest development North Korea defiantly vowed that tough new UN sanctions would not deter it from developing its nuclear arsenal. It also rejected any talks and angrily warned the US of massive retaliation.

Previously, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the US National Security Adviser (NSA) said unmistakenly that US President Trump was ‘not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the US,’ “So of course, we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes a military option.” McMaster also revealed that Trump had told Xi Jinping that it was no longer enough for North Korea to ‘freeze’ its programmes since it had already crossed the ‘threshold capability’ and the goal was now denuclearization. Trump himself had been fully briefed on all scenarios in which the US carried out a pre-emptive strike and was aware of all aspects of the strategy.

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