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Lowering the pitch over Doklam: Neither India nor China gains by escalating the standoff
SHASTRI RAMACHANDARAN
2017-08-01
Region : Asia, South Asia, India, Chaina,
Issue : Arms & Trade, Military Issues, Security,
Both India and China need to demonstrably cool down
No news is certainly good news when it comes to the India-China military standoff in the Sikkim sector. As the face-off enters its seventh week — and the Government of India has nothing to report for public consumption after the visit of National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval to Beijing — it appears that both sides have begun scaling down the rhetoric.
Whether scaling down of the war of words — which was waged more stridently by China — signifies de-escalation of the standoff itself remains to be seen. News of that may emerge in the course of time, for it cannot be suppressed indefinitely by both sides. Yet the fact of the daily drumbeats being called off denies grist for the mills of hawks and jingoists on both sides. Doval’s visit was not for the purpose of defusing tensions over Doklam. His visit to Beijing on July 27-28 was for a meeting of the NSAs of BRICS nations. He had meetings, among others, with President Xi Jinping and State Councillor Yang Jiechi. Doval and Yang are special representatives of India and China, respectively, for dealing with the boundary issue. No breakthrough on the Doklam dispute was either expected or achieved during the meetings with Xi and Yang. All that succeeded in, as reported, was “better understanding”.
This is not as inconsequential as it sounds. Given the Chinese state-owned media’s shrill campaign, there were apprehensions in New Delhi over the atmospherics that prevailed on the eve of Doval’s visit. One nationalistic daily went to the extent of making a very personal attack on Doval. It described Doval as “one of the main schemers” behind the border standoff. This was undiplomatic and intemperate, and amounted to an attack on the Indian Prime Minister’s Office. Doval is the highest-ranking officer in the PMO and the Prime Minister’s designated aide for dealing with China. Earlier, in another vituperative attack, the official media had called External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj “a liar” for her statement on the Doklam issue in Parliament.
Some informed observers wondered whether the personalised attacks were an attempt to scuttle Doval’s visit — which would have suited a section of the hawks in China’s military establishment. Therefore, New Delhi not letting the unsavoury remarks affect its amour propre and Doval going ahead with the visit and meetings as scheduled was an emphatic demonstration of India’s resolve to stick high diplomacy. As a result, Beijing had to live up to its oft-repeated mantra that “diplomatic channels are unimpeded” and ensure that Doval’s visit went off without a glitch.
Swaraj, for her part, acted with grace in ignoring the personal attack and reiterating the Sino-Indian resolve for a “development partnership” based on the Astana Consensus of not allowing “differences to become disputes”. This compelled China to desist from further rhetoric with the official Xinhua news agency — which works closely with China’s Foreign Ministry — speaking of the need to “enhance mutual trust” between the two countries.
Xinhua’s reports signalled a softening of China’s stance. The day before Doval landed in Beijing, Xinhua praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s management of the economy and stressed the need for “enhancing (bilateral) business relations”. The emphasis on business — instead of the military face-off in a disputed territory between China and Bhutan — shows that China will not risk losing one of its biggest markets and investment destinations over Doklam. China’s exports to India are $58.33 billion while its imports from India stand at $ 11.76 billion.
Thus, it appears that both India and China want to lower temperatures over Doklam because neither country gains by escalating it beyond a point. It looks like Beijing and New Delhi have, tacitly or otherwise, agreed upon quiet diplomacy and talks away from the media glare to prevent escalation on the ground, followed by steps for de-escalation. Terminating the actual military standoff can take months or, even, years.
This brings to mind the confrontation of 1986-87, which was the last major flare-up on the border. The Wangtung incident, as it was known, began with the Chinese putting up a military camp in an area south of Thagla Ridge. India responded by deploying forces on the ridge line. That standoff lasted for over a year and the tension persisted for much longer. The “confrontation” itself — as Ambassador Ashok Kantha, who was then the negotiator, recalled in a recent interview — was resolved only in August 1995. Unlike then, it is felt that, this time, the coming of winter and already falling temperatures may hasten the process of de-escalation and act as a natural face-saver for the two countries to pull back their forces (or, at least desist from further reinforcements) in a much shorter period, albeit without advertising it.
The author, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, worked as Senior Editor with China Daily and The Global Times in Beijing
This article originally appeared in DNA
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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