Two options on Doklam standoff: Let Bhutan troops replace India’s, wait until November

The option of a prolonged standoff is based on the premise, sources said, that the Chinese would not like to escalate the situation to a military conflict.

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi | Updated: August 4, 2017 5:19 am
doklam standoff, indian army china, china troops bhutan, india china bhutan issue, india china relations, xi jinping, indian express news Sources have told The Indian Express that India wants to resolve the crisis peacefully but is very clear about not letting the Chinese construct a motorable road to Jampheri.

As the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops at Doklam at the trijunction with Bhutan continues, the government is working hard on two diplomatic options to resolve the crisis. The first option involves Bhutan, wherein its soldiers replace Indian troops in the standoff, leading to a mutual disengagement by China and Bhutan. The second option is of prolonging the standoff until November, till after the National Congress of the Communist Party of China, when de-escalation can take place through quiet diplomacy.

Sources have told The Indian Express that India wants to resolve the crisis peacefully but is very clear about not letting the Chinese construct a motorable road to Jampheri. Consultations by the government ever since National Security Advisor Ajit Doval returned from Beijing last week have included experts, including a former Indian envoy to China.

The first option under serious consideration involves replacing Indian troops on Dolam plateau with soldiers of the Royal Bhutan Army, which is then followed by mutual withdrawal by the Chinese and Bhutanese troops. By addressing the Chinese complaint of Indian troops on Bhutanese soil, this option gives Beijing a face-saver to withdraw its troops while meeting New Delhi’s aim of preventing Chinese road construction.

The drawback in this option, sources said, is “coordination issues” with Bhutan which New Delhi will have to overcome deftly. These issues pertain not only to logistics of simultaneous Indian and Bhutanese troop movement, but also Chinese acceptance of the proposal. Although New Delhi is confident of Bhutanese support at this point, there is fear that this could provide Thimphu the impetus to eventually start engaging with Beijing directly, and have diplomatic ties with China. Bhutan currently does not have diplomatic ties with any of the five permanent member (P-5) countries of the UN Security Council.

The fears about Bhutan are also driven by the 2013 experience when Thimphu tried to craft a “balanced” foreign policy, which translates into diplomatic ties with China. The then NSA, Shivshankar Menon, and Foreign Secretary, Sujatha Singh, had to fly to Thimphu to dissuade Bhutan from pursuing that course. While this option is being considered, the second option of prolonging the standoff till November currently finds greater favour within the government. As winter sets in, the weather in the area deteriorates by November, making any military action, or even road construction, difficult.

More importantly, the National Congress of the Communist Party of China will be over by November which will then allow Chinese President Xi Jinping to bring down the rhetoric needed for political support in the Congress. This would then create an environment where mutual de-escalation can take place and a way out can be found through diplomatic engagement by both sides.

The option of a prolonged standoff is based on the premise, sources said, that the Chinese would not like to escalate the situation to a military conflict. New Delhi has already demonstrated its will by stopping the Chinese road construction and has shown great diplomatic maturity by not publicly responding to provocative Chinese statements over the past five weeks. This means that the status quo can continue till November when a solution is arrived at. It is a course of action seen as most likely by many foreign embassies, including some of the P-5 countries.

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