Post-Doklam : Removing Underlying Trust Deficit The Key
| Ashok Dixit, Editor - Foreign Affairs, IOP - 21 Dec 2018

Post-Doklam 2017, Removing Underlying Trust Deficit The Key

By Ashok Dixit

New Delhi: The months of November and December suggest that it has been a period of intense activity insofar as bilateral relations related to India and China is concerned. Reports and opinion pieces published so far indicate that an underlying trust deficit possibly still exists between the governments and leaderships of the two countries even a year-and-a-half after the trilateral border skirmish in the Doklam region that separates India, Bhutan and China.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs latest report on last year’s military face-off in Doklam in which Beijing has apparently been put on notice over New Delhi’s continued concern over Chinese infrastructure not being dismantled almost two years after it was built and of that infrastructure being "uncomfortably" close to the tri-junction, is unlikely to go down well with China.

Though the standing committee has taken care to clearly state that Doklam is not a sovereignty issue for India as much as it is for neighbouring Bhutan, it has been firmly flagged it as a major security challenge for the immediate future.

Beijing can be expected to respond with some verbal diplomatic bravado or blast of its own to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs praise and “highest appreciation” for Indian soldiers checking People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops from continuing with their road construction activity in South Doklam.

The panel’s decision to also highlight that it took 13 rounds of diplomatic discussions between India and China and 24 rounds of boundary-related talks between Bhutan and China to have some understanding and agreement over where the three countries stood on Doklam, is indicative of the fact that New Delhi, Beijing and Thimphu still have to and need to travel quite a distance to arrive on the same page for mutually beneficial engagement.

China is unlikely to accept the Indian parliamentary panel’s finding that it intruded in Doklam in a blatant manner and was eventually thwarted from “unilaterally” changing the status quo at the India, Bhutan, China tri-junction, and was forced to “disengage” by an Indian government guarding its security interests.

The panel’s missive to the government, and to the Ministry of External Affairs in particular, that Bhutan requires all support and assurances from its "time tested" ally India for it to take a firm position on this Doklam issue, will mostly definitely ruffle Chinese feathers.

India’s move to host Bhutan Prime Minister, Lotay Tshering for an official visit from December 27, is a pointer to the fact that Thimphu continues to be in favour of the “India First”, rather than a “China First” policy, thereby seeking to establish New Delhi’s pivotal position in South Asia. It is also expected that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will undertake a reciprocal visit to Bhutan early next year.

The Indian parliamentary committee has complimented the Modi-led government for sending the “necessary signals” to China that New Delhi will not "acquiesce" in its unilateral and forceful attempts to change the status quo at any of her territorial boundaries.

"The government has categorically denied that there is any direct threat from Chinese troops presently. The committee, however, are of the opinion that while dealing with China, it is always better to have a sense of 'healthy scepticism'," the parliamentary panel said.

It added that India's defence forces and the diplomatic corps have shown firmness in responding to the crisis without actually being drawn into any kind of political rhetoric.

To avoid border skirmishes, the panel has strongly desired that a comprehensive Border Engagement Agreement is concluded between the Indian Army and the PLA, subsuming all established mechanisms for confidence building between the two sides.

Meanwhile, India’s youngest paramilitary outfit, the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), has confirmed increasing its strength along the India-Bhutan border in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, not far from the mountainous terrain of Diban, Dua-Delai and Lohit Valleys along the China border in the Tibetan region, following last year’s Doklam standoff. 

In the past one year, the country’s youngest paramilitary force created 18 new Border Outposts (BOPs) in Sikkim (3) and Arunachal Pradesh (15), which started functioning this year to provide better security and patrolling in the areas bordering Bhutan. The three new BOPs in Sikkim are in Western Sikkim, which touches the Bhutan border.

At present, 53 battalions of the SSB are deployed on the 699-km Indo-Bhutan border and the 1,751-km India-Nepal border as part of its primary task of providing security with the establishment and operationalisation of 708 BOPs along the borders of the two countries.

It may be recalled that Indian and Chinese troops were locked in a 73-day face-off in Doklam from June 16, 2017 till August 28, 2017 after Indian soldiers received orders from the top to stop the Chinese PLA from building a road in the disputed Doklam area. The impasse ended on August 28 with an agreement to disengage.

Monday’s panel discussion on Doklam must be seen as having a significant bearing on bilateral relations going

Forward, given the events that are taking place in the remaining twelve days of December

On Friday afternoon (December 21), India and China are participating in a Media Forum that will be jointly inaugurated by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi

This is the first high-level Sino-India “people-to-people mechanism.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a media briefing this week that both countries decided to set up “people to people mechanism” during Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with President Xi at Qingdao in June this year on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit.

The people-to-people mechanism is aimed at building on the momentum of the informal summit between Modi and Xi at Wuhan in April this year.

Three sessions will be held on Friday.

Session-I will be on: Towards Enhanced Understanding: Challenges and Opportunities in India-China Media Cooperation. It will be moderated by Nitin Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief, Strategic News International

Session-II will focus on the: Role of Indian and Chinese Media in Promoting Closer Developmental Partnership. This will moderated by Sun Shangwu, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, China Daily

Session-III will be on: India China - A Roadmap for Media Cooperation. This will be moderated by Abhishek Kapoor, Executive Editor, Republic TV

Each of these sessions will have two panelists each from China and India.

In a recent article for the South China Morning Post, Mohan Guruswamy has said China will do well to use the ongoing seventh “Hand in Hand” bilateral joint military exercise being held in Chengdu to allay India’s concerns on matters such as Doklam, even for the sake tokenism and to project the belief that Beijing and New Delhi are possibly “closer to the thaw that was spreading till Doklam put a freeze on relations.”

The two armies continue to maintain an eyeball-to-eyeball vigil on the frigid and un-demarcated borders of the two countries. The notions of where the lines of control are over lap and both armies have worked out an arrangement which allows them to patrol up to their perceived lines without actually confronting each other.

Doklam is a small plateau, lies between Tibet’s Chumbi Valley and Bhutan’s Ha Valley, and traditionally has been used by Tibetan and Bhutanese graziers. While the dispute was between Bhutan and China, the possession of the Doklam plateau has security implications for India as it gives the PLA a commanding view of India’s troop dispositions, which are mainly to guard the strategic “Chicken’s Neck” sliver of land that joins mainland India to its north eastern states. India also has treaty obligations to ensure Bhutan’s security.

According to the SCMP report, the Hand-in-Hand exercise has the potential to become something bigger and more meaningful. There is a belief on both sides that there is scope for joint exercises in humanitarian and rescue operations to foster greater inter-operability.

On the economic front, India is also concerned over the trade imbalance that it has with China, it leading trading partner.

Guruswamy says, “India would prefer to see Chinese investments in India. We have see some signs of this investment happening with companies like Huawei and Haier increasing their presence in India, which helps ease the worries. But much more needs to be done. India too still needs to become more welcoming to Chinese investment…”

China claims that it is on the path of quantum reform and opening-up for the last 40 years, lifting 740 million people out of poverty and building the world's largest social security system (with the basic old-age pension covering more than 900 million people and medical insurance covering over 1.3 billion people).

It has also claimed that it has generated over 30 percent of global growth for years.

India and the rest of the world could possibly take advantage of this too.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have met four times this year, the last one being on December 1 on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) Summit in Argentina.

Both leaders have repeatedly stressed on the need for building continue consensus on bilateral ties to ensure mutually beneficial and stable development.

The two sides should deepen their practical cooperation, expand bilateral trade, and enhance cooperation on investment, healthcare, poverty reduction, environmental protection and disaster prevention and relief, besides seeking new ways to strengthen coordination and cooperation in multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

India has said that it is also willing to push forward various dialogues with China and deepen communication and cooperation on trade, medicine, telecommunication, tourism, law enforcement as well as in multilateral affairs to take ties to a new level. Removing the existing underlying trust deficit is the key.

(The writer Ashok Dixit is a senior journalist with 24 years of rich cross-editorial functional experience in covering and reporting on developments in South Asia. He had been associated with ANI as a Senior Editor for more than two decades. He can be contacted

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Indian Observer Post and Indian Observer Post does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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