GAD

Global Affairs Desk

Tue Jun 18 2024

Revisiting the Doklam Crisis- A Major Diplomatic Victory

~ By Aarush Joshi on 5/5/2023

Revisiting the Doklam Crisis- A Major Diplomatic Victory

Earlier in 2017-18, reports began making rounds speaking about the Chinese side beefing up its military presence in the disputed Doklam area, where Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a two-month stand-off in the summer of 2017. Satellite images and intelligence reports showed that the Chinese had erected several permanent military posts, a few helipads and new trenches not very far from where the two Armies faced off. About 1,800 Chinese troops were stationed, even in deep winter, in the Doklam area, according to other reports. India had also strengthened its presence in the region. Doklam or Donglang in Chinese is an area spread over less than 100 sq km comprising a plateau and a valley at the trijunction between India, Bhutan and China. It is surrounded by the Chumbi Valley of Tibet, Bhutan’s Ha Valley and Sikkim. How did India emerge victorious in this situation? What tools did India use from its quiver to navigate successfully through the situation? More importantly, what challenge did this pose for Indian diplomacy?

Earlier in 2017-18, reports began making rounds speaking about the Chinese side beefing up its military presence in the disputed Doklam area, where Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a two-month stand-off in the summer of 2017. Satellite images and intelligence reports showed that the Chinese had erected several permanent military posts, a few helipads and new trenches not very far from where the two Armies faced off. About 1,800 Chinese troops were stationed, even in deep winter, in the Doklam area, according to other reports. India had also strengthened its presence in the region.

What is Doklam and how did it come about?

Doklam or Donglang in Chinese is an area spread over less than 100 sq km comprising a plateau and a valley at the trijunction between India, Bhutan and China. It is surrounded by the Chumbi Valley of Tibet, Bhutan’s Ha Valley and Sikkim. The two sides, Bhutan and China held several rounds of talks but the dispute over Doklam remained unsolved. It flared up in 2017 when the Chinese were trying to construct a road in the area, and Indian troops, in aid of their Bhutanese counterparts, objected to it, resulting in the stand-off. Doklam is strategically located close to the Siliguri Corridor, which connects mainland India with its northeastern region. The corridor, also called Chicken’s Neck, is a vulnerable point for India.

There lies a reason for the Indian security establishment's suspicion of China's interests in Doklam. Gaining control of the Doklam region would give the Chinese a commanding view of and easy access to both the Chumbi Valley and the Siliguri Corridor. The desolate Doklam region grabbed global attention after the stand-off. According to Indian claims, it began on June 16, 2017, when Chinese troops came to the area with equipment to extend a road southward in Doklam, towards the Bhutanese Army camp near the Jampheri Ridge, which according to both Bhutan and India, are an integral part of Bhutanese territory. China says the ridge is the border. Two days later, a few hundred Indian troops entered Doklam, at the request of Bhutan, and stopped the construction.

The Bhutanese government told China that “the construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation of the agreements and affects the process of demarcating the boundary between our two countries.” On June 30, the Ministry of External Affairs said: “Such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.”

The Chinese government released a map to accuse India of trespassing into its territory, and in a detailed statement in the first week of August, it said “India has no right to interfere in or impede the boundary talks between China and Bhutan.”

India's Diplomatic Victory in Doklam

The 70-day eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the Indian and Chinese forces atop the deserted Doklam plateau ended on 28th August with both sides agreeing to withdraw their soldiers to pre-crisis positions. The deadlock was precipitated when Chinese soldiers moved in with bulldozers and heavy earthmoving equipment to construct a road which would have provided them highway access to the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and China. This would have significantly altered the status quo and provided a strategic advantage to China with adverse security implications for India. They were stopped from carrying out their activities by Indian soldiers on 16th June.

On the 28th of August, the Ministry of External Affairs issued two statements, with the second one saying, “expeditious disengagement of border personnel of India and China at the face-off site at Doklam was ongoing” and “has been almost completed under verification”. Prior to this statement being issued, the situation remained largely unclear with a shadow of ambiguity looming large over the issue.

China had initially said that Indian troops had withdrawn and asserted that Chinese forces will continue to patrol the Doklam region. The first statement by MEA, issued earlier the same day was somewhat unclear. But all doubts were cleared when the ministry came out with the second statement. On the question of road construction, China has been trying to obfuscate the issue in order to save face in front of its domestic audience.

In its hindsight, China never expected such a resolute pushback by India. Since the territory is disputed between China and Bhutan, it would have occurred to the Chinese MFA that they would be able to easily brush aside Bhutan’s objections as they had done in the past. It must have felt that when big powers like the USA and all 10 members of ASEAN were not able to stop it from constructing artificial islands and militarisation of the South China Sea, it would not face any insurmountable opposition from Bhutan in constructing the road.

Chinese government-controlled media including Global Times, Xinhua and others, as well as spokespersons of the foreign and defence ministries, went ballistic in condemning India and using offensive epithets to threaten India to withdraw or it will have to face a fate far worse than the defeat of 1962.

The end result was a victory of diplomacy and maturity of both countries. It had become quite clear from the beginning that in the Doklam area, India occupied the heights and hence strategically was in a much more advantageous position as compared to China. Had China tried to attack the region and be adventurous in their endeavours, China would have suffered an embarrassing bloody nose.

It was hence speculated that China might decide to attack other segments of the 4,000 km long border between the two countries where it enjoyed a strategic advantage. Several segments on the border exist where India enjoys the advantage. Indian forces could be moved there to occupy territory under the control of China. It must have become clear to China that there would be no clear, decisive winner and that the loss of men and assets on both sides would be unacceptably large. It would also severely dent the image of the ‘’peaceful development’’ of China. Even if a military confrontation were to take place, as Sushma Swaraj, former Minister of External Affairs said in her statement to the Rajya Sabha on 3rd August, the resolution of the issue would have to be arrived at through dialogue and diplomacy.

Tiding over the Diplomatic crisis was a huge political, diplomatic and moral victory for India. It contributed immensely to raising the stature of the country even higher in the international community. The fact that the Indian government stayed steadfast and resolute and did not blink even in the face of extreme provocation, speaks volumes of the determined and decisive approach of the present government. The episode has significantly burnished the image of India as a responsible, decisive and reliable actor on the global scene.

The tenacious conduct of India had unsettled China. So far China has been used to having its way either through chequebook diplomacy (bribing its way) or by issuing loud threats to its adversaries. Most of its opponents have succumbed to its threats. It was only India, that not only did not waver in its resolve and stood steadfast in its position but also refused to play by the agenda of shrill, and did not fall prey to the propaganda unleashed by China.

The episode has contributed to further strengthening relations between India and Bhutan. To Bhutan’s credit, the country stood steadfast through the long, tense standoff. The confident manner in which India conducted itself and kept all channels of communication open with Bhutan would have been immensely reassuring for Bhutan. China has been trying for a long to create fissures between India and Bhutan. It has used many blandishments and incentives to wean it away from India but has not been successful. This incident has contributed to further enhancing the trust level between the two countries and has put paid to China’s devious machinations.

The message to India’s neighbourhood is also positive and reassuring. It will further enhance India’s stature and image as a reliable partner. It will enhance the resolve and resilience of some of China’s neighbours to stand up to China on issues of vital and critical importance to them.

This episode will give strength and reassurance to other countries in China’s neighbourhood like South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Philippines and others who have caved in or capitulated in the face of Chinese threats. Pakistan, on its part, would have hoped that the faceoff will degenerate into a military conflict. This would have served its purpose eminently as it would have made India and China implacable foes of each other and would have weakened India. This would have provided Pakistan with more opportunities to carry out its invidious ploys.

This crisis was one of the toughest and most demanding foreign policy challenges for India in recent times. India’s diplomatic skills as well as its commitment to its allies and neighbours on matters of sovereignty were put to a rigorous test. While the crisis unfolded, the world watched all the denouements with rapt attention. India was clear that if it capitulated, it would lose all credibility in its neighbourhood and in the ASEAN region where it is positioning itself not only as a major player but as a net security provider. By being firm India demonstrated to its neighbours and friendly nations that they can count upon it in time of need.

The manner in which Indian diplomacy and its armed forces conducted themselves is praiseworthy and commendable. This should induce confidence in the leadership and the people that with the right policies and clear vision and determination, India can hold its own against the strongest adversary.

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