Monday, 30th October 2017

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Confronting China

Out on a limb

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 23.07.17

For the average citizen without strategic or military expertise - in this case, your columnist - trying to make sense of the news from Doklam, the Indian intervention in the disputed border region seems a departure for two reasons.

First, India has sent its soldiers to a disputed territory which it doesn't claim on behalf of its close ally, Bhutan, which does. The dispute over Doklam is between Bhutan and China and the official Indian position is that '[i]n coordination with the RGOB [Royal Government of Bhutan], Indian personnel, who were present at general area Doka La, approached the Chinese construction party and urged them to desist from changing the status quo. These efforts continue.'

Thus India formally acknowledged that as a third party closely allied with Bhutan it moved troops on to foreign, disputed ground to prevent the Chinese from extending a road on land that China claims as its own. This is clearly tricky ground because it allows the Chinese to allege, as they have done, that India has interposed itself in a dispute that it isn't formally party to.

Worried, perhaps, about the robustness of this position, the Indian statement offered supplementary reasons for this action. It suggested that the 2012 agreement with China, by which the two countries agreed not to change the status quo in the tri-junction area (where the boundaries of China, India and Bhutan meet), had been violated by the Chinese attempt to build a motorable road on disputed ground. Thus far, India's justification of its action seemed to be based on China's unilateral violation of two sets of status quo agreements: those between China and Bhutan in 1988 and 1998 and that between China and India in 2012 to which Bhutan was not a party.

Which brings us to the second reason why the Indian action sets a precedent. The Indian statement of June 30 explicitly argued that recent Chinese actions (i.e. the construction of a pucca road) concerned India because it represented '...a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India.'

The invocation of India's security as an important reason for India's intervention is a radical move. On the face of it, this is no more than a statement of the obvious: it is reasonable for India to count the security cost of a Chinese attempt to create facts on the ground in support of its case for extending its border southwards. If China were to succeed, a more southerly tri-junction would give China control of terrain which could, according to some analysts, threaten both the Siliguri corridor, the so-called chicken's neck, as well as India's defences on Sikkim's eastern border.

The problem with actually saying so in an official statement designed to justify India's troop presence in the disputed area was that it seemed to counterpose India's security to China's sovereignty. China was quick to point out that a precedent that allowed security to become a legitimate reason for a violation of sovereignty, that justified third country interventions in disputes between two sovereign nations, would lead to adventurism. China, by this logic, could cite Pakistan's territorial claims on Kashmir as a reason for intervening militarily there.

Some pundits have been critical of this aspect of India's statement. They argue that citing security concerns ceded the diplomatic high ground to China because in the hierarchy of international law, sovereignty is sacrosanct in a way that security isn't. No Indian commentator has, however, disputed the need to intervene once Bhutan protested China's road-building plans and was brushed off. The need to prevent China from assuming that it could get away with bullying Bhutan, or forcing it into making territorial concessions by simply creating facts on the ground, forms the basic justification for the intervention. The bottom line is that India came to the aid of an ally threatened by China's unilateral actions.

Having gone the extra yard for Bhutan, India finds itself in a curious place. Militarily, according to the experts, India is well placed in this section of the Sino-Indian border. India commands the high ground, which is why China is unlikely to initiate hostilities in the region of the stand-off. Diplomatically, though, its entire posture hinges on Bhutan's implicit support for India's actions. I say implicitly because Bhutan hasn't officially stated that it invited India to intervene on its behalf. The statement the Bhutanese government made on June 29 protesting the Chinese action did not mention India. The Indian statement that followed a day later spoke of 'coordination' with the RGOB without clarifying if the Indian action had been premised on a prior request of assistance from Bhutan.

Pressed on the matter, the then MEA spokesperson used an unusual cricketing metaphor to side-step an answer: 'I cannot get into saying whether the ball ( sic) came first and the batsman went forward or the batsman had taken a stand before the ball was bowled.' The trouble with the metaphor is that India and Bhutan are two separate sovereign countries and the MEA's preferred phrasing that India's intervention was the outcome of a 'tradition of maintaining close consultation' cannot substitute for a clear answer to the question: did Bhutan formally ask India to intervene before it moved?

The reason the answer to this question is crucial for India is that without a formal invitation from Bhutan to come to its aid, India's position in Doklam is untenable. India cannot premise its intervention primarily on grounds of national security. It's either there as an ally or it is an adventurist interloper. In the present instance, there is no evidence to suggest that Bhutan isn't supportive of India's action, but it's undeniable that an explicit invitation to intervene would have strengthened India's hand.

In the long term, India's position on Doklam depends on its ability to march in lockstep with the government of Bhutan on this matter. This is an unstable position to be in because as Bhutan feels its way into an independent foreign policy there are bound to be circumstances in which its interests don't coincide with India's. As a small border state hemmed in by two large states, its future depends on its ability to navigate a prudent course. It might, for example, choose to resolve its border disputes with China by making concessions in the west (where Doklam is located) in exchange for Chinese concessions in the north.

India's ability to shape Bhutan's policy is limited to material aid and suasion; it can't treat Bhutan as a protectorate with no independent foreign policy as it once did. Bhutan isn't Sikkim; the world has moved on since India annexed that other small Himalayan kingdom. India's concern must be that Bhutan doesn't turn into Nepal, a small state playing off two giant neighbours against each other. Bhutan is a member of the United Nations, it has ambassadors in more than fifty nations. It is anomalous that Bhutan hasn't exchanged envoys with China and it is more than likely that in the not so distant future, it will. There are already factions within Bhutanese politics that India regards as inimical to its interests and it isn't a secret that during the elections of 2013, India made its displeasure with the ruling faction known.

To take a position that is wholly dependent on unwavering support from an ally which also has to deal with the reality of China on its doorstep is not the best place to be in. The experts could be right and the matter might be resolved without shots being fired in anger, but India's current position on Doklam is diplomatically precarious. It is mortgaged to Bhutanese calculations of self-interest which might change. Having chosen to take an unprecedented 'forward position', India might find itself out on a limb.