India-China Face-Off in Doklam – Need for firmness of resolve but with a measure of caution and prudence 

Shyam Saran, Member, ICS Governing Council and former Indian Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister’s Special Envoy

The latest face-off between the Indian and Chinese security forces in Doklam, where the borders of India, China and Bhutan meet, brings a sense of déjà vu. There was a similar extended face-off in the Depsang area in Ladakh in April 2013. There have been other incidents as well but the mechanisms in place to maintain peace and tranquillity at the border have eventually worked and the issues have been resolved. Both sides have remained committed to preventing escalation. One hopes that the Doklam incident will not be allowed to vitiate the relationship between the two countries, particularly in view of the fact that Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly had a friendly meeting on the sidelines of the recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Almaty. Both leaders made a special effort to put relations back on a positive track after a somewhat prickly interlude, which included India’s refusal to join the Chinese-led One Belt One Road initiative. This turnaround in relations must not suffer a setback as a result of the latest incident. This may impact the prospects of a possible bilateral summit when the leaders attend the forthcoming G-20 summit in Hamburg.

It is important to understand that as a result of sustained development of infrastructure at their common border, their border guarding forces are able to mount more frequent patrols and visit areas which were hitherto remote and barely accessible. This has multiplied the occasions when the patrols run into each other and wherever there are differences in perception concerning the alignment of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), face-offs become inevitable. This is what has been happening over the recent past and the bilateral measures to ensure peace and tranquillity need to be upgraded to take these developments into account. This is all the more necessary in order to avoid misunderstanding and unintended escalation in segments of the border which hold special sensitivity for either side.

The bedrock of the peace and tranquillity regime between India and China is the mutual commitment that neither side will seek to unilaterally alter the status quo at the LAC. Both sides are also committed to resolving any differences which may arise through consultations, beginning at the local level and then going right up to the senior-most levels. Of late, China has been resorting increasingly to unilateral actions seeking to alter the status quo. This is what has happened at Doklam and the Indian side had to respond in order to prevent an enhanced threat to the narrow land corridor which links the Indian North-East to the rest of the country.  The Chinese side maintains that in the “Convention Between Great Britain and China relating to Sikkim and Tibet”, the southern-most point identified as the peak of Gipmochi, is located on the Bhutan frontier but further south. On this basis, China has laid a claim to Doklam, but this has been contested by the Bhutanese side. The Chinese side has recognised this as disputed territory and even in the past its construction of mud tracks through this area had been resisted by the Bhutanese border guards.  Although both China and India accept the alignment of the Sikkim-Tibet boundary as laid down in the Convention except for the so-called “The Finger” at its northern-most point, they have agreed that as far as the trijunction is concerned this can only be settled in consultation with Bhutan.  Until then the commitment not to unilaterally alter the status quo, should be observed by all sides concerned. The current impasse has arisen because the Chinese side has gone further by attempting to build a defence class road through the area in place of the earlier mud tracks. This will significantly elevate the potential security threat to the Siliguri corridor which is a vital transport artery for both India and Bhutan. China should have shown greater sensitivity in this matter.

The Chinese side has demanded that the issue should be resolved by India withdrawing its security personnel from the Doklam area.  In fact the issue can be defused by both sides agreeing to restore the status quo and mutually disengaging their forces. This is how earlier such incidents were resolved satisfactorily.

It is clear that the Indian side does not want the situation to escalate. It has been fairly muted in its reaction to the daily and harsh rhetoric emanating from the Chinese side whether from official sources or from the media. The Chinese action to suspend the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage through the Nathu la Pass and its more recent cancellation of a visit of Indian journalists to Tibet are uncalled for. These will heighten tensions and lead to an adverse public reaction in India. In a charged public environment it becomes difficult to deal with issues in a sober and measured manner.

For India this incident has certain unique sensitivities as it involves not only China but also a very close neighbour and partner, Bhutan. India would not wish to do anything which embarrasses Bhutan or which complicates its relations with China. This is another reason to handle the incident in as discreet a manner as possible. This is the first time that Indian forces have engaged China from the soil of a third country and this cannot but be a sensitive issue for a proud and independent country like Bhutan. It is imperative that whatever India does to deal with the situation, it does so in close consultation with Bhutan. It will only be too easy for an impression to gain ground that India has dragged a reluctant Bhutan into its own disputes with China. Bhutan’s press release confirming that it had lodged a protest against China’s road building in Doklam has helped dispel the perception that it is India and not Bhutan reacting to the Chinese action but we should continue to emphasise that the two countries are acting in concert against a shared threat. India-Bhutan relations are far too important to be affected negatively by developments related to China.

We must acknowledge that India-China relations are undergoing a change. China believes that India should acknowledge the power disparity between the two sides and show appropriate deference to China. In the past it had tacitly acknowledged Indian pre-eminence in the South Asian region. It is no longer willing to do so and is seeking such pre-eminence for itself. In the Asia-Pacific region it believes that under Trump, the U.S. has abandoned any notion of a “pivot” to Asia . It also believes that its dominance of the South China Sea and South East Asia is now unchallenged. In this context, India is not seen as a constraint on China, which can pursue its interests, indeed its ambitions, more openly, more aggressively. In Chinese perceptions, therefore, India’s refusal to join Xi Jinping’s signature initiative, the One Belt One Road, is seen as impertinence. In dealing with China in Doklam, this overall context must be kept in mind. We need firmness of resolve but expressed through a measure of caution and prudence.

This article was originally published as, ‘The Standoff in Doklam’, in The Tribune, 4 July 2017.

Pressing Pause: India’s Absence at China’s Belt and Road Forum

Shyam Saran, Member, ICS Governing Council and former Indian Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister’s Special Envoy

The successful conclusion of the Belt and Road Forum (BARF) in Beijing, which India chose to stay away from, has led to a chorus of voices warning that in doing so, India has isolated itself both regionally and globally.

With the exception of Bhutan, all the South Asian neighbours of India participated, as did countries India regards as its partners in resisting the Chinese dominance of Asia; these include the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. Japan and Vietnam are also countries of South East Asia, which, like India, have territorial disputes with China, but they did not consider those disputes reason enough to stay away. It may also be argued that India itself has not let its territorial disputes with China stand in the way of cooperating with it on matters of mutual interest such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or the BRICS Development Bank (DB).

India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will also present opportunities for regional cooperation with China and other member countries. These opportunities constituted a rationale for seeking membership in the organisation. So, did India make a wrong call in staying away from the BARF? Continue reading “Pressing Pause: India’s Absence at China’s Belt and Road Forum”

India’s Concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Ashok K. Kantha, Director ICS and former Indian ambassador to China

It is one of the most imaginative and ambitious programmes ever to be rolled out by a government. It represents a broad strategy for China’s economic cooperation and expanded presence in Asia, Africa and Europe, and has been presented as a win-win initiative for all participating nations. But for India, the connotations of China’s Belt and Road Initiative” are somewhat different. A flagship programme and the most advanced component of the initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a region that belongs to India and is under the control of Pakistan. As a country acutely conscious of its own sovereignty-related claims, China should have no difficulty in appreciating India’s sensitivities in this regard. Continue reading “India’s Concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative”

Economic Ties with China: India Needs to Look Beyond Politics

Alka Acharya, ICS Honorary Fellow and Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

There appears to be a world of difference between the images presented by India-China economic and commercial ties on the one hand and the politico-strategic on the other. Interactions and exchanges with representatives from both these domains are markedly different in tone and tenor—the former focus on the opportunities, openings, benefits and profits while the latter dwell more on the dangers, threats, challenges and disputes.

Prima facie, they appear to be working at different levels, according to their own—somewhat different—logic and rationale, and it does not look like they will converge any time soon in a more composite picture of this most critical of relationships in the world today. The political understanding at the highest level, which is committed to building a strategic and cooperative—and now more promisingly ‘developmental’—partnership, struggles with deep suspicion that runs through practically our entire strategic discourse. On the other hand, economic engagements have become the most dynamic and transformative aspects of the India-China relationship today. But this has to contend with the structural mismatch between the manufacturing strengths and industrial capacity of the two economies—and therefore, unsurprisingly, perceived by and large as a situation that works only to China’s advantage. The controversial and contentious political issues and the angry exchanges understandably garner greater attention.

Bigger Picture

And yet we must ask ourselves as to whether that is all there is to the overall picture. Continue reading “Economic Ties with China: India Needs to Look Beyond Politics”

China and the Iran-Saudi Rivalry: Towards a Greater Role?

Kishorchand Nongmaithem, Research Assistant, ICS

In January last year, when the Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran, the two countries agreed to expand their commercial ties to US$600 billion in the next ten years.[1] On that visit, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Xi that, “Iran never trusted the West” that’s why Iran “seeks cooperation with more independent countries” (like China).[2] China also welcomed Iran to work together under its ‘Belt and Road’ connectivity framework.[3]

A year later in March 2017, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia visited China, and during his three-day stay, the two countries signed deals worth US$56 billion that included 14 cooperative agreements and 21 other deals on oil production, investment, energy, space and other areas.[4] Continue reading “China and the Iran-Saudi Rivalry: Towards a Greater Role?”

The Dilemma of China’s New Engagement with West Asia

Kishorchand Nongmaithem, Research Associate, ICS       

Traditionally, China has played little role in West Asia. However, in recent years it has become more active in its diplomatic engagement with the countries in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s four-day visit to China commencing on 20 March 2017, just few days after China hosted Saudi Arabia’s king Salman bin Abdulaziz and signed an agreement worth US$65 billion, shows China’s increasing interest in the region’s politics. China’s diplomacy appears intended to increase its profile and facilitate its interests in the region. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping also toured to three of the most important countries in West Asia—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Continue reading “The Dilemma of China’s New Engagement with West Asia”

India and China: Perceptions of Strategic Culture and its role in the NSG membership issue

Kajari Kamal, PhD student, University of Hyderabad.

The debate on whether to include India as a member in the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or not, has brought the India-China-Pakistan dynamics in the limelight again. China’s resistance to India’s membership is seen by the Indians as clearly strategic, targeted at constraining the rise of India as a global power. While some observers of India-China relations believe that factors such as border disputes, power asymmetry, mutual distrust, and most recently, nuclear proliferation issues, are obstacles in the normalization of bilateral relations, some others strongly believe that there lies a fundamental clash of interests, rooted at a strategic culture level, which manifests in China’s determination to play a key role in world affairs, as it has done as a great power and a great civilization, in the past. In a dyadic relationship, the importance of the perception of each other’s strategic culture cannot be overemphasized. Andrew Scobell argues that China’s foreign policy and its tendency to use military force are influenced not only by elite understanding of China’s own strategic tradition but also by their understanding of the strategic cultures of other states.

Continue reading “India and China: Perceptions of Strategic Culture and its role in the NSG membership issue”