Doklam- Chinese Lies and Misinformation
Amb Kanwal Sibal

China’s propaganda on Doklam is not only shrill, it is mendacious too. It is officially claiming that it had informed our side in advance about its road building plans on two occasions through local border management mechanisms but received no response. This raises the obvious question why the Chinese would want to inform us in advance about building a road on their own territory and felt any obligation to do so. Being so pugnacious about issues concerning their territorial sovereignty it does not make sense for them to implicitly accept that India exercised some sort of an oversight on what they do on their own territory. In this context, it would be pertinent to ask the question whether China has informed us in advance about the vast road infrastructure they have built over the years on their side of the border. If not, what was their compulsion to tell us about their plans on the Doklam Plateau. Their explanation that they did this out of goodwill is unbelievable as it flies in the face of years of China’s ill-will towards India on the border issue. Perhaps they actually believe that claiming Arunachal Pradesh and, in particular Tawang, and not as yet going to war over this, is an act of goodwill towards India, and so were the Depsang and Chumar incidents. This goodwill includes, of course, opposing India’s Nuclear Supplier Group membership and United Nations designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

If the Chinese chose to inform us of their plans, it is because they knew the plateau is disputed territory. The intention behind this move was devious. If India had not reacted to earlier Chinese encroachments into an area that belongs to Bhutan in order to avoid a confrontation on a third country’s soil, the Chinese may have calculated that they would use the absence of an Indian response to tell the Bhutanese that India had no objection, which would pre-empt any objection from the already intimidated and helpless Bhutanese side. They would have then probably told us that the Bhutanese have no objection, and thus play both sides against each other. In actual fact, the local Indian border forces refused to discuss the subject with the Chinese side on the ground that it was not part of the agenda and referred them to the Bhutanese about their plans. Bhutan has been protesting against Chinese incursions for years. It is understood that the Bhutanese tried to stop the Chinese form building the road on Doklam but were unceremoniously pushed aside and escorted back to their camp. So much for this Chinese lie.

China is claiming vociferously that Doklam is Chinese territory. If so, they need to explain why this area has been the subject of border talks - 24 rounds of it - since almost three decades. China and Bhutan have border differences in the north and in the Doklam area. It is well known that China has been offering a package deal to Bhutan under which they would give up their claims in the north against Bhutan ceding the plateau to them. For China the disputed territory in the north is of no strategic interest vis-a-vis India, whereas the Doklam Plateau is, as it would bring the Chinese military dispositions closer to the Siliguri corridor and enhance the security threat to India. Why despite all the border management accords and Confidence Building measures between India and China since 1993, and the numerous rounds of the Special Representative mechanism, China should have decided to create serious tensions in this area accompanied by raucous threats of war by seeking to build a motorable road is a pertinent question. China is pretending to be a victim of India’s violation of its sovereignty when it is actually the aggressor by seeking to change the status quo on the ground in a highly sensitive and disputed area. Why the Chinese could live without a motorable road all these years and suddenly must have one, when India’s posture in the Chumbi valley is fully defensive and does not threaten China’s security, whereas China’s incursion into the area increases its offensive capability against us.

China’s contention that India has entered Chinese territory is bogus as the area is disputed between it and Bhutan. It is not Chinese territory and cannot be declared unilaterally as one. For India it is Bhutanese territory claimed by China in the same way as China, by virtue of its occupation of Tibet, claims Indian territory. India has security ties with Bhutan, which the Chinese are aware of. They are not as foolish as not to know that extending their improved military infrastructure into the highly sensitive Doklam area would invite an Indian response based on the provisions of the India-Bhutan treaty, as the security interests of both countries are involved. China seems to be objecting even to the right of India to have a security agreement with Bhutan, in which case it should be objecting to the NATO, right of the United States to have security treaty partners in Asia as well as West Asia, the right of Russia to have a Collective Security Treaty Organisation in Central Asia, and should explain why it has a treaty with North Korea - and so on. China is trying to project the Indo-Bhutanese Treaty as a hegemonic exercise by India on a weaker neighbour, seeking to stoke adverse feelings against India amongst sections of the population that wants a more “sovereign” Bhutan; and, as it has done with our neighbours, undercut our position in these countries and keep us involved in managing bilateral difficulties in our relations thus preventing them from becoming a source of strength to us. After its clear statement that the status quo that existed before June 16 should restored and that China had violated its 1988 and 1998 agreements “to maintain peace and tranquility in their border areas pending a final settlement on the boundary question, and to maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959”, Bhutan’s silence on the stand-off since then is being exploited by China to sow doubts about the depth of Bhutan’s support for India. It is wise on India’s part not to fall into China's trap by pushing Bhutan to be more vocal on the issue, as the very act of doing so would signal weakness and loss of confidence on its part. India is acting in close coordination with Bhutan, and as it alone is capable of check-mating China, it is assuming that responsibility on behalf of both countries. As a price, the international focus has no doubt moved away from China’s condemnable bullying of one of the smallest and most peaceful countries in the world, which is regrettable.

China has sought to obfuscate the Doklam issue by suddenly finding great virtue in colonial era unequal treaties which it has been decrying all along, and which is the basis of its rejection of the McMahon Line in the east and the British era lines drawn in the west at different times. Its argument, amongst others equally spurious, is that while it had initialed the 1914 Simla Accord, it did not sign it and therefore it does not recognise the McMahon Line, grossly contradicts the stand it now takes on the 1890 British India-China treaty on the Tibet-Sikkim Border by applying it to Bhutan too even when neither Sikkim nor Bhutan were a party. China is also distorting the content of Nehru’s letter to Chou En Lai in 1959 which, while accepting that the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet had been settled, states in a clear reference to the unsettled tri-junction, that this was not the case of the boundary between Sikkim and Bhutan. China also refers self-servingly to the talks between the Special Representatives in 2006 and omits to mention the agreement between the them in 2012 that the tri-junction would be settled through negotiations with the involvement of a third country (Bhutan) and until then the status quo will be maintained.

China’s aggressive conduct has not become a matter of international concern sufficiently as yet. Its economic and financial strength might be alluring for many who would want to profit from trade and investment opportunities that present themselves, but it would be a mistake to ignore the hegemonic ambitions that are driving a country that has in the space of less than two decades become powerful economically and militarily as well. To some thoughtful observers, China is resembling Germany and Japan in the 30s, which portends ill for international peace. Some believe that the People’s Liberation Army, driven by the nationalistic surge in the country promoted by Xi Jinping, is becoming too risk-prone in its conduct and elements in it could act rashly. We have to guard against this on our border, for which we are taking the necessary precautions. India under any circumstances will not allow the Chinese to reach the Jhampari Ridge, which means that its troops will not be allowed to cross the Torsa Nala, which is where the stand-off continues.

China has been active in briefing other countries on the stand-off, blaming India for violating Chinese territorial sovereignty. But it is frustrated that it has not obtained the response it expected, which suggests that it is beguiled by its own propaganda about its benign intentions and has lost the capacity to appreciate how much its expansionism and aggressiveness have damaged its false image as a peacefully rising power. China is pressuring ASEAN countries not to say anything critical of its action on Doklam. India seems to have briefed others quietly without seeking public support for our position at this stage so as not to complicate matters further. The decision to avoid polemics is intended to give China a way out. India wants to solve the confrontation bilaterally and at levels at which previous such face-offs have been resolved following the same methodology as in the case of Depsang and Chumar - in other words, at an appropriate level, but not at the leadership level, perhaps with a view to ensuring a smooth BRICS summit in China in September.

China risks severely damaging its economic interests in India

Already, by its utterly unacceptable conduct towards India, China has done lasting damage to its relations with us. The ugliness of the face they have revealed to us again will make us exceedingly cautious in the future about its intentions. The alienation of a billion plus Indians towards China is a developing reality. Howsoever the Doklam stand-off plays out, China risks durably alienating a billion plus Indians and severely damaging its economic interests in India. The movement to boycott Chinese goods can pick up momentum if China perseveres in its diplomacy of ultimatums and threats, and although the government would not want to encourage this it will have to be responsive to the public mood.

In short, the situation at present is unstable and can escalate, but we have made our bottom line clear and are prepared for all eventualities, while preferring by far a solution through a dialogue on equal terms.

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