The narrative of what went down in the Himalayan frontier region in the summer of 2017 has come under scrutiny once again ahead of a series of high-level meetings between Indian and Chinese officials. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman are expected to visit China next week to attend ministerial meetings for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, while Prime Minister Modi has planned a visit in June for the SCO summit. During her visit next week, Swaraj is also set to meet the newly-promoted Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi, who oversees negotiations with India over territorial disputes, on the sidelines of the SCO summit.
Looking ahead to these high-level meetings, the question is whether last summer’s 73-day military standoff over the Doklam plateau located in the India-China-Bhutan tripartite region will remain at the forefront of discussion between the two sides. Recently, in an interview, New Delhi’s ambassador to Beijing, Gautam Bambawale, blamed China for the standoff, saying it “changed the status quo in the region.” Reacting to the ambassador’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said, “Donglong (Doklam) belongs to China because we have historical conventions…China’s activities there are within our sovereign rights. There is no such thing as changing status quo.”
The events at Doklam brought to light the negative consequences that both sides accrue when the national interests of China and India collide.
These strong statements reinforce the significance of the protracted territorial dispute in clouding bilateral relations for more than half a century. Issues that came to the fore in 2017—India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama, the securitization of shared river water, and China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—have only added layers to the already-complex border issue. However, the events at Doklam brought to light the negative consequences that both sides accrue when the national interests of China and India collide. Heading into the SCO meetings, there are incentives for both New Delhi and Beijing to move beyond the Doklam dispute, balancing relations for mutually beneficial outcomes on both the political and economic fronts.
A Trying Year in Sino-Indian Relations
The Doklam crisis must be taken into the full context of 2017, a year that witnessed several downturns in Sino-Indian relations. Tensions soared around the Dalai Lama’s visit to the disputed state of Arunachal Pradesh, the growing security dilemma in the Indian Ocean region, Beijing moving to block India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), as well as its veto of an Indian effort to sanction the head of a Pakistan-based terrorist group through the United Nations. Moreover, India decided to boycott Xi’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit on the grounds that the project violated Indian sovereignty as it involves infrastructure running through Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Compounding these issues, in the immediate aftermath of Doklam crisis, Beijing breached a bilateral agreement by withholding hydrological data—crucial for flood forecasting and warning—from lower riparian India while sharing data on the same river with lowest downstream country Bangladesh. According to the agreement, upstream China is to share hydrological data with India during the monsoon season between May and October. However, Indian officials confirmed in August last year of not receiving any data. Chinese authorities cited technical reasons for not having data to share, but Bangladesh confirmed receiving said data from China. A third of India’s total freshwater supply comes from rivers originating in Tibet. Had China provided the necessary data, it could have prevented some of the deaths in the flooding that hit India’s northeast.
Worsening matters, the Doklam standoff also impeded crucial military confidence-building measures between the Indian Army and China’s People’s Liberation. The two armies did not hold their traditional border personnel meeting (BPM) along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) nor did the annual “Hand-in-Hand” exercise take place.
Post-Doklam Status Quo
In an unprecedented move that is markedly different from New Delhi’s earlier supportive stance towards Tibetan activities in India, a directive from the government urged officials not to partake in the celebrations commemorating the Dalai Lama’s 60 years of exile in India in March this year. It bluntly stated that the timing of the events coincided with a “sensitive time” for New Delhi’s relations with Beijing.
However, the directive can be seen as India’s decision to tone down its aggressive language towards China in a move to reset relations than a forced political concession due to Chinese aggression on the LAC. After all, the Indian Foreign Ministry issued a statement clarifying there is no change in India’s position towards Tibet, and that “His Holiness is accorded all freedom to carry out his religious activities in India.” Moreover, India has balanced its competing needs to counter and court China by being involved in strategic partnerships like the newly revived Quad with powers like Japan, the United States, and Australia, while at the same time engaging China in multilateral forums like BRICS and SCO.
It appears there is enough political will on both sides to move past the downturns in relations that occurred in 2017—including the Doklam crisis—at the soonest. New Delhi has already indicated this by implicitly acknowledging that Tibet has been a sore subject for Beijing. In turn, around the same time, China agreed to resume sharing hydrological data with India. Amid a trade war with the United States, China has indicated its keenness to sign a free trade agreement with India and address the huge trade deficit that India has with China. Moreover, China agreed to place Pakistan on the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) terror financing grey list earlier this year in a move supported by India.
China does not want an adversary in India, while New Delhi, in hopes of maintaining the status quo in Doklam while keeping a check on China’s activities in the Indian Ocean, does not wish to antagonize Beijing.
Behind these moves on both sides are political and economic considerations. A tense military standoff or worse—war—will not be favorable to either Modi or Xi domestically. With upcoming general elections in 2019, Modi will not want to be embroiled in any scuffle with China lest he is seen as having lost Doklam to the Chinese. Meanwhile, President Xi just won a second term and is driven to build his image as a world leader in his own right as a champion of global free trade. The flagship $174 billion BRI project is poised to position China as the focal point in the next chapter of globalization, necessitating cooperation and allies across the region. China does not want an adversary in India, while New Delhi, in hopes of maintaining the status quo in Doklam while keeping a check on China’s activities in the Indian Ocean, does not wish to antagonize Beijing.
Moving Past Doklam
What began as a dispute over road construction has invariably become a bigger issue in the Asian geopolitical climate. The upcoming SCO meetings in the post-Doklam status quo will be a litmus test of how well India and China will be able to manage their relationship without plunging bilateral relations off the deep end. If the latest round of boundary talks held last month is anything to go by, New Delhi and Beijing have not been able to move beyond complaining about transgressions supposedly committed by the other side. Yet, both countries have much to lose if they let the territorial dispute over Doklam continue to define bilateral relations. If India and China are to move beyond the current stalemate for shared political and economic gain, as both sides seeming willing to do, then the Doklam dispute will likely take a backseat in the days ahead.
Editor’s note: After months of tension due to the Doklam standoff, there has been a thaw in India-China relations recently, with Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visiting China over the next few days to get the relationship back on an even keel. However, many irritants in the relationship remain. In this series, SAV contributors assess the status of India-China competition in the post-Doklam era–whether it is heating up or cooling down–and how it manifests itself, with regard to security, economics, and politics. Read the rest of the series here.
Image 2: Shailesh Bhatnagar via Getty