Attempt of China to impinge on Bhutan’s sovereignty is a scene setter for its 19th National Congress

Chinese Army. Representational picture.

Hong Kong, July 19: China’s aggressive postures in the Doklam Plateau is but a scene setter for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in which President Xi Jinping is expected to be crowned as the undisputed strong leader of the nation with his handpicked politburo and perhaps a change in the party constitution which would allow him to remain president beyond 2022.

This change in tone comes months ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The fear should be that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is hoping to completely choreograph and orchestrate personnel and policy arrangements at the Party Congress, could begin to see the Doklam impasse as an opportunity to underline his credentials as a strong leader.

A miscalculation about China’s abilities and India’s willingness to respond could, at short notice, convert the current standoff into a shooting war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. It must be the intent of key governments in the region and around the world to ensure that this does not happen.

Interlocutors between India and China need to ensure that the current display of resolving on the border between India and China is defused in a manner where neither side suffers a loss of face. The Indian Foreign Secretary seems to have shown the way during a speech in Singapore a few days ago, where he noted that both sides have ample experience of dealing with such issues and need to go back to the negotiating table.

Sadly, China’s response has been to ratchet up the rhetoric, with its Foreign Ministry saying that this section of the border was already delimited, and insisting that there was no reason for China to step back unless India withdrew its troops. An earlier example of China’s new assertiveness was its insistence that significant parts of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) did not apply to it, and that a decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ challenge to China’s claimed sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea was not worth the paper it was written on.

The second type has most recently been witnessed in one of the stranger geopolitical developments of recent years. China and India have been engaged in a face-off in an area close to the tri-junction between these two and Bhutan, a territory that belongs to Bhutan. On being challenged for building a road in an area under Bhutanese sovereignty, China has resorted to quoting from a single article of a Sino-British convention of 1890.

That the world has moved on since then, during which the British have left India, Imperial China is now the People’s Republic of China, and realities have altered, seems not to have registered with Beijing. The Indian Foreign Ministry pointed out on 30 June 2017, that the Special Representatives of both India and China had reached agreement in the year 2012 that the tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries would be finalised in consultation with the concerned countries.

So, China is choosing to base its claims over territory on a 127-year old convention which primarily dealt with the manner in which tea and other goods would be traded between British India and Imperial China, while completely ignoring the understanding it reached with India just five years ago. The developments in the Doklam Plateau area have occupied premium space in Chinese media for nearly a month, and have consistently featured in the statements of the spokespersons of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The nub of such media coverage has moved on from asserting China’s claims, to something more aggressive and jingoistic, with more recent coverage talking of possible war, and reminding India of the short war of 1962, the scars of which many Indians continue to carry to this day.

In all this, the smallest voice has been of Bhutan, which is the rightful owner of the area where China has built a road, and in whose support the Indian Army has deployed its troops. China and Bhutan do not have diplomatic relations, and China seems to be using this current episode to try and force not only a boundary resolution with Bhutan, but also coerce that small country into accepting a diplomatic relationship that it does not desire at this point of time. (ANI)

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