The main agenda of the talks is to address the situation at Depsang plains that has seen a big mobilisation by both sides. At today's meeting too, the Indian side insisted that Chinese troops must complete the disengagement process and restore the status quo ante which existed in eastern Ladakh in early May.
The tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan was symbolically the ‘first’ country that Narendra Modi visited less than a month after he was sworn in as Prime Minister.
With a prescient eye on checkmating China’s activism in geopolitical strategies, Modi had famously stated in Thimpu, “In the guarantee of happiness, it is important what kind of a neighbour you get. Sometimes you get such a neighbour that in spite of having all the happiness and prosperity, you cannot live in peace”.
These strategic portents were dangerously played out with Beijing reneging on the 1998 bilateral agreement between China and Bhutan, that promised to “maintain peace and tranquility on the BhutanChina border areas”.
It also stated that “China fully respects the territorial integrity and independence of Bhutan”. The Chinese unilaterally started constructing a road towards the Bhutanese Army Camp in Zomplri area of Doklam, forcing the demarche to the Chinese mission in New Delhi, by the resident Bhutanese envoy (Bhutan has no diplomatic relationship with any of the five permanent members of the Security Council).
Later, pursuant to the timehonoured Indian responsibility of protecting Bhutan’s sovereign territory, the latest 2007 India Bhutan Friendship Treaty clearly states that the two countries “cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither Government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other”. The Doklam impasse started at the Trijunction of the India-Bhutan-China border, pregnant with geo-political implications beyond the naïve optics of pastoral claims.
The Chinese have had contentious border flare-ups with all almost all of the 14 of its contiguous countries, as also with the Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines and Brunei, with whom it shares its restive maritime borders. Though it is the largest armed force in the world, China’s People’s Liberation Army has never been able to permanently wrest lands militarily (except Tibet).
Three successive Taiwan Strait Crisis (1954-55, 1958 and 1995-96) and belligerent posturing notwithstanding, the independence of Taiwan cocks a snook at the Chinese, perennially. The Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 and the multiple border-skirmishes thereafter, could not evict the Vietnamese control on Cambodia (military historians acknowledge the superior performance of the Vietnamese forces vis- à-vis, the PLA).
Similarly the Sino-Soviet border clashes in the Zhenbao (Damansky) Island in 1969, was not resolved till 2003, when the Russians and the Chinese agreed upon the demarcations. Even against India, the 1962 war and the 1967 border clashes at Nathu La and Cho La could not change the narrative of either Arunachal Pradesh or Sikkim (though regrettably, the Indians were unaware of the Chinese road in the barren Aksai Chin tracts, till 1957).
The Chinese territorial claims are based on convenience ~ either the historically signed treatise by its monarchist past are invoked, or blatantly rejected, if it doesn’t suit the national script (e.g. the Tibet-Bhutan treatise pre-dating the annexure of Tibet by China, is considered invalid in the Doklam impasse). However, the undeniable Chinese economic juggernaut has empowered Beijing with an irresistible ‘cheque-book’ power that it brazenly uses to ensnare and ‘buy-out’ prospective countries into its hegemonic dreams.
In parallel, the one-party governance system has afforded the ability to take quick strategic ‘compromise’ formulae to address the multiple fractures along its 22,000 km land borders. China has more or less settled the border disputes on its Northern and Western fronts that essentially date back to the disputes from the Soviet era.
Along with the rapprochement with Russia and the settlement of the once-contentious Heixiazi Island in 2011, the disputes with other Central Asian Republics like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan have been settled with daring quid-pro-quo of lands, with an eye to control Islamist Uighur militancy, access energy sources and captive markets, and quickly establish the geopolitical footprint via gargantuan infrastructural investments like OBOR (‘One Belt-One Road’).
Similarly, China has made deep economic inroads into the traditional Soviet bastion of Mongolia, along with the strengthening of its ‘chequebook’ impact in Pakistan with the economy sustaining and resuscitating projects like CPEC. While the discredited Myanmar junta regime was earlier supported by the Chinese, they are still offering a bait to the new regime in Yangon, and dangling the economic carrot in Nepal, Afghanistan and Laos with alternative and lucrative trading options.
Traditionally irate countries like Vietnam and Philippines have made their peace, even though Manila had raked up the sovereignty issues against China at the International Court of Justice.
The Chinese ‘cheque-book’ literally ‘bought-out’ the newly elected Filipino President, Rodrigo Duterte,- who immediately after winning the case against the illogical ‘nine-dash-line’ approach of the Chinese in The Hague, succumbed immediately to the combination of Beijing’s dangling of the financial carrot and the unmistakable stick of severe reprisals.
Beyond, the immediate neighbourhood, the Chinese have furiously deployed the ‘cheque-book’ approach to countries like Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and countries in Africa to widen their strategic footprint (e.g. the Chinese base in Djibouti).
However, the recent Chinese practice of sieving emotional nationalism onto border disputes affords a certain popular groundswell against possible compromises, and the accompanying conversations acquire a dimension of invaluable distraction from the real issues besetting the ‘slow-down’ in Beijing. Collaterally, this strengthens the position of the wary Chinese regime.
The Chinese taunts of a Indian vassal-state to Bhutan and the parallel alluding of the hegemonic tendencies of India, are meant to provoke Bhutan, as was done with Nepal by stoking the fire during the 2015 ‘blockade’, that almost convinced the majority Khas Arya (hill elite), that India was behind the constitutional impasse and economic ‘subjugation’.
The devious aspersions were soon followed by the famed ‘cheque-book’ approach that weaned a sizeable section of society into harbouring an antiIndia sentiment. Doklam-Bhutan is not the first territorial dispute and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The Chinese are masters of realpolitik and they will deploy the carrot-and-stick policy, in order to realise their dream of the ‘Chinese Century’, wherein, territorial, political and sovereign usurpation of neighbouring countries is a definite element.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)