Doklam: a return to crisis?

Doklam: a return to crisis?
It is a matter of serious concern that China is again building up its troop strength and has resumed road-building in the Doklam area. It was only a little over a month ago that the Indian and Chinese governments reached agreement on pulling back their troops to defuse the 72-day standoff between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the India-Bhutan-China trijunction area. Tensions de-escalated thereafter.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently travelled to Beijing to participate in the Brics summit that China hosted and even had bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines. It seemed then that relations were on the mend. At a time when bilateral relations are still fragile, it is unfortunate, indeed irresponsible of China to rebuild its troop presence at Doklam. The de-escalation notwithstanding, there were signs that the frosty relations had not thawed fully. Every year, on October 1, Chinese troops would invite their Indian counterparts to a ceremonial border personnel meeting to mark China’s National Day. This year, Indian troops were not invited, signalling that relations were not back to normal yet. Still, few expected the Chinese to indulge in the provocative build-up so soon after the August 28 disengagement of troops at Doklam.

China’s rebuilding of its troop strength at Doklam could be aimed at a domestic audience. The Chinese Communist Party Congress is due in a fortnight and it is likely that the muscle-flexing at the border is aimed at impressing party hardliners. Even so, the government should have avoided troop build-up — some 1,500-1,700 Chinese soldiers are said to be deployed in the area — as it is fraught with risk. India, meanwhile, is understandably worried and has dispatched Foreign Secretary SD Jaishankar to Thimphu to discuss the matter with the Bhutanese government.

When the crisis was defused in August, the details of what the two governments agreed upon were not made public. Indian analysts, especially those close to the government, maintained that China had pulled back its troops while India had stood firm. The Modi government was applauded for not buckling to Chinese pressure and emerging the ‘winner’ in the face-off. If China did indeed agree to pull back its troops from Doklam, then its current build-up is a betrayal of the agreement. Making public the terms of the agreement would not only inject much-needed transparency in Sino-Indian relations but it would also lay bare Chinese perfidy. If India pulled back without a reciprocal Chinese withdrawal, then it lost more than it reportedly gained from the crisis. The people deserve to know what the terms of the deal were and what it means for India’s national security. Delhi must seek an explanation from Beijing. A return to crisis is in nobody’s interest.

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