Doklam: India – China incident

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As if the current complexity of international relations wasn’t enough, another power confrontation dossier is on the horizon, probably one of long duration. China and India, emerging great powers, are in a state of neither peace nor war at the border they both share with Bhutan, in Tibet, in a kind of tri-junction that is not necessarily singular in the world. I’m saying the current complexity of the international picture is enough because a simple review reveals this worrisome trait, which bodes ill for the future – the growth in clues pointing to insecurity, particularly at the level of the great powers, including the nuclear ones.

We have the situation in Europe. Here, Germany obviously seems in dire straits, subjected, as a veritable leader of the European Union, to an economic and geopolitical assault. In the East, there’s the Ukraine crisis in which Berlin does not see fit to give in to Russia, as some of its partners, located far away from the conflict, seem to be doing. The Nord Stream gas pipeline is like insurance policy toward Russia and a possible valve in order to avoid an even more difficult geopolitical situation that is being outlined for Germany. In the East, there is more than just the ‘Big Three’ project launched two years ago but revitalised in a different power narrative by D. Trump, expanded on the older pattern of the Visegrad Group, as shown by his visit to Warsaw early this month. The project as such seems to be gaining a geopolitical meaning understood as a separation of Eastern Europe from the two neighbouring continental extremities dominated by Russia and Germany. On the other hand, in Europe’s immediate proximity, in the Middle East, one notices developments that are very interesting in the long term.

The collapse of the Islamic Caliphate following the abandonment of Mosul and Raqqa (in Syria) raises a pressing issue for the Old Continent – where will the jihadists go from there, the alert being continuous. More pressing is the question where will the buds of the Caliphate’s revival appear (in Libya?; in Yemen?; etc.), because it is obvious this dossier is not closed at all. In Syria, one notices an expected Russo-American agreement which is absent in other regions (Ukraine), but which here makes possible a promising ceasefire for the start of a transition process with the Assad regime in power. But what will Turkey do, fearful of a Kurdish state, especially since its relations with Germany have significantly cooled down recently?

Does this foreshadow a repeat of the wave of migrants registered in 2015 (over 1 million people) in the EU, which tested the European organisation so much? And the Qatar crisis shows the limits of an alliance between the U.S. and Sunni Arab states, having Iran as target. Similarly, the nuclear crisis in North Korea is not over. Recently, on July 22, U.S. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that U.S. armed forces must be ready for a confrontation with North Korea, whose nuclear programme is “an urgent threat.” The Doklam incident occurred in this fairly fluid international context, involving two large nuclear powers and the most populous states in the world – India and China. In order to understand the significance of this incident, we have to recall the geopolitical orientations of these two Asian giants. First, we must mention that a veritable war – brief, but important in consequences for the two states –, resulting in China’s victory, took place in the area in which the current incident occurred, at their joint border. Historical dust has settled on that war, but the complex of divergent interests that generated it, at the joint border in the Himalayas, was not forgotten. In the same area, against the backdrop of minor infrastructure works carried out by the Chinese side, India deemed it necessary to intervene, last month, on 16 June 2017, on the territory of a third state – Bhutan – with which New Delhi has excellent relations, in order to deter the Chinese side from finalising the already started works. Obviously, on the Indian side the incident had the dimension of an armed intervention on the territory of a third state, even though this involvement was requested (even though it wasn’t) and runs counter to international legislation.

Doklam, the area concerned, is a topic of legal dispute between China and Bhutan, and is under Chinese jurisdiction, while India claims a security interest here. The explanations of the two sides are controversial. On one hand, China states that it informed India, in due time, two weeks before, that it will carry out infrastructure works in Doklam, expanding a road there, while India considers that this action allegedly changes the status-quo, so that it sent armed forces in the area on June 16. As mentioned, the area concerned is embroiled in a Sino-Bhutanese legal dispute, but China considers it part of its own territory, so that India’s intervention is deemed as very grave. Especially since neither Bhutan nor China have jointly agreed so far, in writing or otherwise, on what the existing status-quo consists of in this area, the changing of which was invoked by India as a threat to its own national security. On the other hand, India deems that its intervention is taking place in line with the friendship treaty signed with Bhutan in 2007, according to which the two sides “cooperate closely… on issues relating to their national interest.” Comments on the Doklam incident did not hesitate to point out that it reflects a certain stage in relations between China and India. T

hus, ever since China’s launch of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) grand strategy in 2011, India shows certain apprehension regarding Chinese intentions. Given the fact that this grand strategy includes the construction of a China-Pakistan economic corridor, New Delhi considers that, in perspective, infrastructure works in Doklam have to do with this. Yet the tense relations between India and Pakistan are known, and the same can be said about relations between Beijing and Islamabad. Similarly, it is worth noting that this June 2017 crisis grew in its initial stages at a time when the Indian Premier was on his way to Astana (Kazakhstan), where India’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – known as the Shanghai Five, in which China plays a prominent role – was formalised. In fact, Indian leader Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met on that occasion. How will this crisis be solved – from the withdrawal of Indian troops to the start of negotiations on defining the status-quo invoked by New Delhi – remains to be seen, at stake being not so much the historical rights invoked (China points out it has relevant maps in this regard) but the power relations between the two great actors against the backdrop of ever-faster developments in Asia.

The Doklam incident reveals that what experts are already calling the “Easternisation” of international relations, meaning the shifting of the global centre of gravity to Asia, is accompanied by the higher visibility of hotspots – from North Korea to the South China Sea to the Himalayas –, China being a major player in each of them.