While all eyes at the G20 summit in Hamburg may have been on the first meeting of Presidents Putin and Trump of Russia and the USA respectively, an equally significant development occurred with the Indian foreign ministry forced to deny that a planned bilateral between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, had been called off by the Chinese.
The diplomatic snub or not incident itself seems relatively trivial, but reflects a substantial deterioration in relations between the two countries over the past month.
Since early June, soldiers from the Indian Army and the Royal Bhutan Army have been in a stand-off with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the disputed Doklam Plateau between China and Bhutan. The 89 square kilometres of contested territory lies approximately 200 kilometres to the east of Mount Everest and is very close to the border tripoint where China, India and Bhutan all meet.
Bhutan issued a formal statement, known as a démarche, expressing to China their disapproval for its recent actions when a PLA construction party attempted to extend a border road through the disputed territory of the Doklam Plateau, concerned that this amounted to a stealthy land-grab of at least part of the area.
Whilst India has enjoyed incredibly close ties to Bhutan to the extent that until 2007, India managed the small nation’s foreign policy, other reasons as well as supporting its friendly, small neighbour have been cited as to why India has become heavily involved in the dispute.
Strategically, it is paramount for India to keep the disputed border lines as they are. In the event of an open conflict with China the one clear area where they hold the upper hand on the 3,500 km (2,174 miles) long shared border is around the tripoint. China’s territory in the area currently extends to the tripoint by way of the narrow Chumbi Valley, wedged in on either side by more vertiginous terrain belonging to India and Bhutan. Consequently, India currently holds the far superior geographical and geopolitical position on this small part of the border.
However, if China could claim control of the current tripoint and push it back only a small way to where they claim the tripoint should actually be situated, the tables would be dramatically turned. The Siliguri Corridor or ‘Chicken’s Neck’, a stretch of Indian territory no more than 20km wide and connecting North-East India with the rest of India, would come within easy reach of Chinese artillery fire.
This would almost certainly then enable China to pressure New Dehli in foreign relations and undermine the Indian Army’s capacity to prevent Chinese annexation of the significant disputed territory of the far most northeastern Indian state of Arunuchal Pradesh, equivalent in size to Austria and with a population of over a million.
Considering that Arunuchal Pradesh, the tripoint with Bhutan and other disputed areas border Chinese Tibet, the former kingdom of Tibet having been occupied and annexed by China since 1950, India may view itself as not unjustified in sending increasing numbers of military personnel to the stand-off on the Doklam Plateau. A possible explanation indeed, for the PLA Construction Party incursions into the Doklam Plateau could be the Chinese government’s displeasure at the visit 3 months ago of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to Arunuchal Pradesh.
The stand-off at Doklam Plateau is being viewed as the most serious border confrontation between India and China since the 1962 Indo-China War. Back then, a short military campaign saw China gain a strategic victory and expand to a limited degree the territory it controlled.
Evidencing the high Indo-China tension at present has been the respective media of both countries. The Chinese government media have warned India will face a ‘bitter lesson’ and suffer worse casualties than in 1962 if it does not withdraw from the stand-off.
Meanwhile, the intense spotlight of the Indian media on Rahul Ghandi’s, Vice-President of the Indian National Congress Party, decision to meet the Chinese Ambassador last week and the party’s initial denial of this taking place suggests that at present in India dialogue with China concerning the disputed area around the tripoint is not a popular approach to resolving the tension.
Both sides in the stand off have been bolstered by fresh personnel and Chinese military battle simulation exercises have reportedly taken place within hearing distance of the tripoint border area.
With neither India and Bhutan, nor the PLA, looking like de-escalating tensions soon, perhaps at the next G20 all eyes will be on deciphering the body language in any possible meeting between Modi and Xi Jinping.