The Doklam Issue: Is It Far From Over?

India and China may have completed disengagement of their border personnel at Doklam, but a complete resolution of this critical border issue is far from over. On August 28, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) announced in New Delhi that both the countries agreed to an “expeditious disengagement” at the face-off site following diplomatic communications. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, however, said the standoff ended after India withdrew its troops and asked New Delhi to “learn lessons” and prevent such incidents in future. In Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, also sought to highlight the withdrawal of Indian troops to dispel the impression of a climb down by China.

The official, while stonewalling questions about India’s announcement of the mutual disengagement of troops, claimed its soldiers continued to patrol the area. Troops of the two countries had been locked in the standoff since June 16 after Indian soldiers stopped the Chinese Army from building a road in the strategically key Doklam region, a disputed area between China and Bhutan. India had deployed about 350 Army personnel in the area.

The Indian Army had blocked the construction of the road as it could give China a major military advantage over India at the BhutanChina-India tri-junction. China and Bhutan were engaged in talks to resolve the dispute in the area. India argues that since it is a tri-junction involving the three countries, it also has a say in the issue. In keeping with their tradition of holding close consultations on matters of mutual interest, Bhutan and India had been in regular contact through the unfolding of the developments in Doklam.

Following the face-off between Indian and Chinese troops, Bhutan had underlined that construction of the road inside its territory was a direct violation of the 1988 and 1998 agreements between Bhutan and China and affected the process of demarcating the boundary between the two countries. China is non-committal on the issue of stopping road construction in Doklam. “In order to meet the needs of defending the borders, improving the living conditions, China has long engaged in infrastructure development including the road construction,” according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.

On whether China will continue with building the road in the area, Hua said, “We will take into consideration all relevant factors, including the weather, to make relevant construction plan in accordance with the situation on the ground.” Talking to reporters in Beijing, Hua reiterated that Chinese border troops “will continue to station and patrol the Doklam area. We will continue to exercise our sovereignty with historic conventions”. She also parried a reporter’s question whether China is in consultation with Bhutan, which has protested the Chinese troops’ road building in Doklam. “So far we have resolved the issue of illegal trespass of the Indian troops,” she said. When asked whether China halted the work on a road in Doklam to end the standoff so that the BRICS summit could be held, Hua said, “Peaceful resolution of the issue through the diplomatic channels serves the common interests of all relevant parties.” “It shows the sincerity and responsible attitude of China as a major country,” Hua added.

According to Chinese scholars, the major lesson out of border tensions is that China and India should be sensitive towards each other’s concerns to avert future conflicts. “I am very glad to hear that finally the two governments demonstrated their maturity and far reaching and farsighted decision to peacefully end the conflict,” Hu Shisheng, Director of the official China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said. Hu said China and India should be sensitive to each other’s concerns. Rong Ying, Vice President and Senior Research Fellow of the China Institute of the International Relations, which is affiliated to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said the resolution of Doklam standoff showed maturity and resilience of India-China bilateral relations. “This is by far the most the serious incident between the two countries on the boundary.

Ten weeks of very serious and grave situation. So the fact that both sides through the diplomatic means solved it in a peaceful (way), I think it should be definitely welcomed,” said Rong, who served as a diplomat in the Chinese embassy in New Delhi. According to the MEA, India’s principled position was that agreements and understandings reached on the boundary issues must be scrupulously respected. “India’s policy remains guided by the belief that peace in the border areas is an essential pre-requisite for the further development of our bilateral relationship,” the MEA spokesperson said. The two countries had also agreed in Astana in early June that “differences should not be allowed to become disputes and that India China relations must remain stable”, the spokesperson said, adding that India looked forward to continuing engagement with the Chinese side on this basis. Modi and Chinese president Xi Jingpin had held talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, on the sidelines of the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Welcoming the end of the standoff, Bhutan hoped it would help maintain peace and status quo at the tri-junction. “Bhutan welcomes the disengagement by the two sides at the face-off site in the Doklam area,” the Bhutanese foreign ministry said. (page 3) PF- 141/2017 “We hope this contributes to the maintenance of peace and tranquillity and status quo along the borders of Bhutan, China and India in keeping with the existing agreements between the respective countries,” it said.

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