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OPINION | Under the Shadow of Doklam, India and China Continue Border Talks

The current series of negotiations are critical, not on account of any hopes for long-term resolution of border disputes, but largely to continue bilateral diplomatic relations in the aftermath of a major military engagement.

Bedavyasa Mohanty |

Updated:January 9, 2018, 5:31 PM IST
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OPINION | Under the Shadow of Doklam, India and China Continue Border Talks
The 73-day Doklam standoff which began on June 16 over PLA's plans to build a road in area claimed by Bhutan, ended on August 28 following mutual agreement between India and China. (Photo: Reuters)
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This week, India’s National Security Advisor and Special Representative on border issues with China, Ajit Doval, is meeting his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi for the 20th edition of the annual boundary negotiations.

The meeting is the first between the Special Representatives since the 72-day Doklam standoff that ended on August 28.

The Doklam controversy ultimately concluded with the withdrawal of troops on both sides and halting of Chinese construction in the disputed tri-junction area. This led experts to chalk out the peaceful resolution as a win for India. The de-escalation, however, did not signal a common understanding between the two Asian giants on contested territorial claims.

Notably, Chinese attempts to keep Doklam outside the scope of the annual negotiations between Special Representatives were rejected by the Ministry of External Affairs. India continues to be steadfast in its claim that the Doklam border dispute needs a trilateral resolution between India, China and Bhutan.

The current series of negotiations are critical, not on account of any hopes for long-term resolution of border disputes, but largely to continue bilateral diplomatic relations in the aftermath of a major military engagement.

China’s dissatisfaction with the resolution of the Doklam issue was apparent earlier this month when the PRC’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called it a “serious test of bilateral relations” during his visit to New Delhi. Wang urged External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to avoid similar incidents in the future.

The meeting between Doval and Yang, however, promises to be more controversial in light of the continued military buildup by China near the disputed tri-junction area. While the point of conflict at Doklam still remains largely unconstructed, there now appears to be a massive buildup of Chinese roads and an influx of military vehicles, personnel and permanent structures nearly a kilometer from the point of conflict.

Experts claim that this behaviour, which goes against standard practice during winters, is largely a muscle-flexing exercise.

The increased military presence helps China retain the strategic ability to respond to another military dispute like the one earlier this year. To a large extent, however, it signals that China continues to hold steady its ambition to expand its military activity to the Doklam region.

Undeterred by this, India is likely to present the Chinese with a proposal to set up a trilateral arrangement involving India, China and Bhutan for the resolution of the Doklam issue, some reports claim.

Whether these attempts bear fruit may be decided in the years to come. However, with the cloud of Doklam hanging over the meeting, it seems unlikely that there will be any progress on the India’s own border disputes with China along Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh.

The meeting between the Special Representatives that began in 2003 with much fanfare has now turned into an exercise in maintaining the status quo much like our disputed borders. The realisation that diplomatic measures are unlikely to yield long-term solutions, must be taken in context of continued Chinese military buildup in the region and no indication of the PLA ceasing its ‘salami slicing’ of disputed territories.

Instead of being overly concerned with diplomatic niceties, New Delhi must start worrying about whether it can hold the line when the next Doklam happens. By all indications, this does not appear to be a question of if but when.

(Bedavyasa Mohanty is an Associate Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation and can be reached at @darth_beda. Views are personal.)
| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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