Doklam Plateau: Adding to the list of Sino-India Territorial Disputes

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While China and India’s current territorial conflicts have historical roots, they should also learn from history and avoid engaging in war.

Isabel Yeo

(Source: Asia Times)

Tensions between China and India are at an all time high.

China and India have engaged in a dispute over a piece of territory, the Doklam Plateau. The Doklam Plateau borders China, India and Bhutan. Both nations have both claimed the plateau as their own. India has announced their support for Bhutan’s claim.

The situation at the Doklam Plateau

In June 2017, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engineers began constructing roads near the China-India border, renewing tensions between China and India. The PLA also began moving construction equipment to the disputed Doklam Plateau. India perceived China’s move as an act of assertion over the disputed area and a disruption to the status quo. In response, India crossed the disputed border with approximately three to four hundred Indian troops on behalf of Bhutan. Bhutan’s government have condemned China’s move as a “direct violation” of past agreements signed in 1988 and 1998 where both sides promised to abstain from making unilateral moves to claim the territory.

While India has not shown any interest in claiming the Doklam Plateau as its own, it is in the country’s interests that the Plateau remain in friendly Bhutanese hands – or at least out of Chinese ones. India needs to be able to access and traverse the Doklam Plateau as the plateau connects India’s mainland and its northeastern states. Given its other intransigent border disputes with China, India would not be pleased if such a strategic region falls under China’s perpetual administration.

Other contested regions along the shared India-China border

(Source: DW; edited)

China and India share a long border, and there are ongoing disputes over the ownership of some of the regions along the shared border. One example is the Aksai Chin area. India claims Aksai Chin as their own, but it is currently controlled and administrated under the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China. The other disputed territory is Arunachal Pradesh, located south of the McMahon Line. It separates north-east India and Tibet.

During the early 1900s, the McMahon line was used by the British colonialists to indicate the Tibet-India border. The Tibetans and the British both endorsed the validity of the line after the 1914 Simla Convention. The Chinese rejected the proposal. Today, the old border is a source of controversy in these territorial disputes as it favours India’s claims. The Chinese government denies the validity of the line. It considers Tibet to be a part of China and thus asserts that Tibet had no authority to sign any national agreements. China and India fought over these two areas in 1962.

Causes of the 1962 Sino-India War

After China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950, China and India remained engaged in a dispute over the Aksai Chin area throughout the rest of the 1950s. The signing of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” in 1954 did little to temper tensions between the two countries. In 1956, China attempted to construct a road and build a border post in the disputed Aksai Chin area. India strongly protested this move and sought diplomatic recourse to no avail. Relations worsened even further in 1959 when the President of India, Nehru, allowed the 14th Dalai Lama to take refuge in India after his failed uprising in China. Tensions escalated in August 1959 when an Indian citizen was captured by the People’s Liberation Army near the disputed McMahon line. Two months later, nine Indian frontier policemen were dead in a clash between the two sides in Aksai Chin.

In 1960, both parties entered discussions to settle the dispute. However, both sides were unable to reach a compromise as the contested region held strategic significance to both sides. Neither side wanted to concede and seem like the weaker party to their people and the international community. These concerns have contributed to the intransigence of the territorial disputes.

The next two years saw an increased militarisation of the area, and isolated clashes between the two occurred. Tensions peaked in 1962 when India’s intelligence services received reports of a Chinese build-up along the disputed border. India deployed more troops to the area in an attempt to disrupt Chinese supply lines. China also tried to surround Indian soldiers in the contested region but was met with an Indian push back. Eventually, both sides met head on in a month long border war where the Chinese emerged victoriously. Despite the Chinese victory, India continued to contest China’s ownership over the Aksai Chin region.

A war today would be costly for both sides

The situation today over the Doklam Plateau does bear some similarity to the beginnings of the 1962 Sino-India War. China’s attempt to build a road in the disputed Aksai Chin area then, and it is building a road in Doklam now. Both parties have taken this dispute seriously, and both have sent armed troops to the border. Tension has been mounting, and the prospect of a border war is not inconceivable.

From its numerous territorial disputes across Asia, China has shown that it is not averse to taking aggressive action when staking its claims over territory and protecting its strategic interests. President Xi is known as a strongman, and he is unlikely to back down from any confrontation. The Chinese Foreign Minister has also emphasised that “the solution to this issue is simple, which is that they [India] back out honestly.” With such a strong statement, it is unlikely that both sides would reach any compromise soon.

However, as China grows economically and participates more actively in the international community, it would be wise not to portray itself as an aggressive superpower. If it wants to be a leader in the international arena, China’s constant threats of war or aggression will mar the way forward.

A war would be costly for India’s government. India is heading for parliamentary elections in May 2019 and engaging in a war now will undoubtedly have negative repercussions on the Indian economy. While Defense Minister Arun Jaitley has maintained that “India of 2017 is different from India of 1962,” suggesting that the Indian army has strengthened itself since 1962, the current government would be wise not to engage in a war they might not win. If the current government loses that war, they will likely lose the election as well.

If war is to be avoided, both China and India must realise that they each have more at stake than a piece of land. War is also an ineffective solution. The last one did not even resolve the Aksai Chin territorial dispute. Let 2017 not be 1962 all over again.