In June of this year a new dispute between India and China arose when Indian troops moved into an area where the borders of Bhutan, Tibet and China meet and confronted Chinese workers building a road. The area concerned is known variously as the Doklam (Indian) or Donglang (Chinese) plateau. There has been a tense standoff between the two sides ever since.
The Sydney Morning Herald rather melodramatically headlined an opinion piece by its international editor Peter Hartcher ‘The Clash that could Lead to Nuclear War’”. Hartcher’s article, perhaps rather predictably, finds the Chinese to be responsible for the tension, relying heavily on an “expert” named Rory Medcalf from the Australian National University’s National Security College who declared that it “is the most serious confrontation since the 1962 war.”
In his eagerness to find fault with the Chinese, Hartcher manages to completely ignore the historical context, the problems created by India’s reaction to Chinese road building in what China says is its territory, why India is particularly sensitive on border issues; and why the Indian reaction may have been inappropriate.
The Chinese Argument. Hartcher quotes only what he is pleased to call the “bellicose” Global Times, an official newspaper of the Chinese government and widely used to disseminate the official Chinese viewpoint. Australian media of course are never bellicose. Hartcher refers to the Global Times “huffing” sundry warnings and threats against India, and warning of “dire consequences” if the Indian troops do not immediately withdraw.
There is no mention of the fact that the Chinese rely heavily upon and frequently quote the terms of the 1890 China-Great Britain Convention that settled the respective boundaries of India and China. Article 1 of that Convention specifically dealt with the China-India boundary, and that did not include the Doklam/Donglang territory that is the subject of the present dispute as being part of India.
Furthermore, the Chinese say, and it is not disputed by India, that both countries at various times post Indian independence and post the formation of the People’s Republic of China in the late 1940s, reaffirmed the nature and the force of the 1890 Convention.
Thirdly, the Chinese argue that the road building was three kilometres north of the line drawn by Article 1 and therefore within Chinese territory.
Fourthly, discussions between Bhutan and China on border issues (and there are more than 400km dividing the two countries) have been going on since the 1980s and there was no reason for India to become involved.
Fifthly, the Chinese argue that India’s action, intervening in a territorial dispute not involving its own territory, is a breach of international law and accordingly the Indian troops should withdraw forthwith.
India’s Position. India does not dispute the validity of Article 1 of the 1890 Convention. Instead, India argues that the actual territorial line is different in fact than the description given in the Convention.
Even if India is correct on that point, it does not assist their argument. If the actual border is as they say, the disputed territory is part of Bhutan, rather than China.
What has happened therefore is that India has intervened in a territorial dispute between China and Bhutan in which it has no legal standing. This is an action fraught with considerable risks, not only to India but in its wider ramifications, as will be returned to below.
India says that Bhutan asked for its help. Hartcher says that the Bhutan Foreign Ministry did indeed ask for help, although there are conflicting reports on that point. According to a more detailed analysis of the point than appears in Hartcher’s piece is in the Indian Newspaper The Telegraph the government of Bhutan has made no official statement confirming that it sought India’s assistance.
When an Indian government spokesman was asked a direct question on the point he answered with a rather confusing cricket metaphor. Both the Indian and Bhutan governments issued official statements. The Bhutan statement did not mention India and the Indian statement made no mention that the assistance given was at Bhutan’s request.
As several commentators have pointed out, but Hartcher fails to mention, is that either way the Indian action creates a dangerous precedent. What if, for example, Pakistan was to ask for Chinese help in the divided and disputed territory of Kashmir, where India and Pakistan have been in frequent and often violent dispute since partition in 1948?
Hartcher seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge that at least part of the problem is the unwillingness of Indian Prime Minister Modi to approach key foreign policy issues in a calm manner. Instead he has shown in a number of issues that his hatred of Pakistan and his distrust of China have led to a number of missteps.
Given the studied silence by Bhutan as to whether they welcomed the Indian military incursion or not, this latest action by Modi must be seen as another misstep. Given that Bhutan has been negotiating with China for several decades, it seems a safer assumption in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that India’s precipitate military intervention was not at all welcome.
India is being encouraged by such nations as the United States and Australia to resist the growing Chinese presence in what the Indians see as “their” region of South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean. When Modi looks around him he sees for example, Chinese initiated developments of enormous scale that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
These initiatives include for example, the $50 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor that is particularly sensitive to India as its route traverses the Pakistan controlled portion of Kashmir. There is also the China-Indian Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean Sea Blue Economic Passage and the China-Myanmar-Bangladesh-India Economic Corridor among many other major initiatives. India has neither the economic not financial ability to compete with these projects, which are transformational in their scope and potential.
Instead, India has been beguiled by the US-India so-called strategic partnership, which has minimal benefit for India. Instead, as Gupta that is because it is basically confined to checking Chinese power in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.
There are however some positive signs. Despite the rhetorical posturing by both sides and the overblown hyperbole of much mainstream media comment, neither side has come to physical blows and neither are they likely to. China’s military might is far superior for one thing, and India has no wish to repeat the 1962 humiliation of their brief war.
More importantly, neither side wants a war that will risk undoing the enormous potential that both sides have. The fact that both India and Pakistan became full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation at the same time as this dispute was brewing is evidence of where their priorities lie.
Notwithstanding Modi’s reluctance to fully embrace the BRI (which is also the case with Australia), economic self-interest will dictate a softening of that stance sooner rather than later.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.