China-India Standoff Deepens Mutual Mistrust

A commentary by Dan Southerland
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Chinese president Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi are shown at the BRICS summit, Sept. 4, 2017.
Chinese president Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi are shown at the BRICS summit, Sept. 4, 2017.

China’s recent standoff with India in the Himalayas ended without a shot being fired, but the confrontation has deepened mistrust between the world’s two Asian giants.

Ending a more than two-month-long military standoff in the remote kingdom of Bhutan, the two sides announced on Aug. 28 that they had negotiated an expeditious “disengagement” of their troops.
And they pledged to open dialogue over their territorial dispute.

This, they said, will require regular communications between military officers from both sides.

But several Indian analysts have predicted that India-China relations will continue to be tested in parts of the world far from the Himalayas, including the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

The standoff began in early June when China began extending an unpaved road southward into the kingdom of Bhutan from a disputed area along the China-Bhutan border.

On June 16, India sent troops into Bhutan in order to block further Chinese road construction.

Seen from India, the contested Doklam Plateau, or Donglang in Mandarin, where Chinese soldiers had been building the road, approaches a strategic valley connecting India to its landlocked northeastern states. India calls it the “Chicken’s Neck."

Some analysts conclude that India came out a winner in the Doklam standoff by acting swiftly and decisively to China’s challenge in Bhutan and restoring the status quo. But others argue that it would be too simplistic to see the event in terms of winners and losers.

The standoff’s impact

Sun Yun, a senior associate at the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Stimson Center, said that the two sides’ statements announcing a resolution of the standoff appeared designed to save face for both sides.

“But people in both China and India understand that this is not a win for China” she said, basing her conclusion on conversations with both Indian and Chinese experts.

“The Chinese have come up with more than a dozen reasons for why the ending is good for China,” she said.

Those reasons include avoiding two simultaneous conflicts: a potential conflict involving North Korea to China’s east and another involving India to the west. Another was China’s need for a peaceful environment before the five-nation BRICS summit, which took place in early September, and before China’s Communist Party Congress in late October.

BRICS is an acronym for an association which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

Chinese state media claimed at one point that India had withdrawn unilaterally, which would imply that India had blinked and that China now held the upper hand.

But as Sun sees it, India’s swift and forceful moves in Bhutan amounted to “a heavy blow to a more assertive foreign policy style introduced by President Xi Jinping and his vision that China is the great power in the region.”

“India stopped the Chinese construction and, in the process, was not deterred by Chinese threats,” she said.

Meanwhile, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with China’s President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit, held in the Chinese city of Xiamen. The two apparently achieved no important agreements but also avoided any open or embarrassing conflicts.

What next?

In a commentary published a few weeks into the Doklam standoff, the New Delhi-based Indian Express published a commentary which succinctly summarized why the standoff wouldn’t end in a military clash, but also pointed to where future strategic challenges to India-China relations might lie.

In the commentary, C. Raja Mohan of the Washington D.C. based Carnegie Endowment, said that military confrontations, such as the one in Bhutan, “tend to be constrained by the costs of military conflict and the political loss of face for the two Asian giants from even a small military setback.”

In contrast, Mohan said, India “can’t afford to take its eyes off Beijing’s maritime forays in the Indian Ocean” and the geopolitical impact of those forays, which include Chinese port construction near India.

As Mohan notes, after much “internal wrangling” in Sri Lanka over Chinese proposals to build a port in the South Asian nation located near the southernmost point of India, China has secured the deal.

A Chinese consortium will build a port there “astride the lanes of communication of the Indian Ocean,” said Mohan.

According to Mohan, China’s port contracts “will lay the foundation for China’s long-term economic influence in India’s immediate neighborhood.”

Ties with Bhutan

Before dealing with long-term issues in the Indian Ocean, India must immediately begin to improve its ties with Bhutan, some analysts believe.

As The Christian Science Monitor noted in mid-August, India has handled many of the foreign affairs of Bhutan. This, The Monitor says, is “a legacy of British rule as well as Bhutan’s isolation and its own fears after the takeover of nearby Tibet by Communist China in the 1950s.”

But the Doklam standoff revealed that a number of Bhutanese now resent what they regard as India’s attempts to block an improvement in relations between Bhutan and China.

“Such differences are normal when one country is calling the shots,” says Debasis Dash, a researcher currently studying at the University of Malaya.

He notes that India offers the Bhutanese access to the Indian job market and positions in the government and armed forces.

But it’s also important to remember that while Bhutan is a kingdom, it’s also a democracy.

To ensure the stability of its position there, India must now upgrade its relationship with Bhutan while continuing to listen carefully to a broad range of opinion, including that of the Bhutan’s opposition party.

Bhutan will hold parliamentary elections next year, making this a sensitive time.

India apparently failed to get an explicit approval from Bhutan when it sent hundreds of troops into the kingdom in June. And Bhutan has avoided saying whether it sought the intervention.

But Debasis argues that had it issued an explicit statement supporting India, Bhutan could have risked not only its boundary negotiations with Beijing but also any future economic opportunities offered to it by China.

More than half of Bhutan’s trade is with India, while its trade with China is still limited.

The roots of hostility

In an article published in The Diplomat on Sept. 12, Mohan Malik, a professor at the Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, argues that India is “the only Asian power that has long been committed to balancing China.”

The two countries’ “power rivalry and their self images as natural great powers and centers of civilization drive them to support different countries and causes,” Mohan Malik says.

“New economic prosperity and military strength is reawakening nationalistic pride in India, which could bring about a clash with the Chinese, if not handled skillfully,” he says.

Add to this India’s growing military cooperation with the United States, as well as with Australia and Asian nations such as Japan and Vietnam, and one can understand China’s concerns about India.

Finally, Beijing has long resented India’s decision to allow the exiled Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet amid a failed national uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, to take up permanent residence in India.

Mohan says that China’s long-standing contempt for India’s at times chaotic democracy and bellicose propaganda directed at India by Beijing during the Doklam confrontation have their origins in the earliest days of China’s Communist Party rule.

Chairman Mao Zedong, for one, doubted the historical legitimacy of the Indian nation, considering it an artificial creation of the British Empire.

In the meantime, India has evolved from the early days of Mahatma Gandhi and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when many steeped in Ganhdi’s teachings opposed the use of force as a tool of statecraft.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.





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