In his first candid comments on Doklam after taking charge last November, Indian envoy to China Gautam Bambawale said Saturday that the crisis started because the Chinese military changed the status quo in the region. His comments come ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to China in June. Modi will visit Qingdao in China for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit on June 9-10, Bambawale has confirmed. While it was known that Modi is likely to visit China, this is the first time the dates have been announced officially.
In an interview to Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP), Bambawale said: “If anyone changes the status quo, it will lead to a situation like what happened in Doklam. I can tell you very frankly and you can quote me on this. The Chinese military changed the status quo in the Doklam area and therefore India reacted to it. Ours was a reaction to the change in the status quo by the Chinese military.”
He said that while political-level communication between the two countries had resumed, military-to-military communication at “headquarters-level” had not started, and there should be better communication “down the line.”
Sources said that Bambawale’s comments are a reaffirmation of India’s position on Doklam, despite Delhi’s outreach to Beijing on the Tibetan issue. The comments are sharply worded and make it clear that the Indian response on the border had been “political” and not just “military,” they said.
The Indian envoy made the comments during his Hong Kong visit, his first outside Beijing. India and Hong Kong signed the Double-Taxation Avoidance Agreement during the visit.
Highlighting the need for China and India to be “frank and candid” to reduce their ongoing tensions, he said: “In the sense that if the Chinese military are going to build a road, then they must tell us ‘we are going to build a road’. If we do not agree to it, then we can reply that, ‘look, you’re changing the status quo. Please don’t do it. This is a very very sensitive area.’”
The Indian envoy refuted recent reports that the Chinese military is stepping up infrastructure build-up in Doklam area. “Maybe behind the Chinese maybe putting more military barracks to put in more soldiers, but that is well behind the sensitive area. Those are the things you’re free to do and we are also free to do, because you’re doing it inside your territory and we are doing it inside our territory,” he said. This has also been India’s official position for the past six months.
Confirming Modi’s China visit, Bambawale said: “During that (PM’s visit), we will definitely have bilateral meeting between PM Modi and (Chinese) President Xi Jinping,” he said.
Sources told The Indian Express that the dates of the visit were finalised after the PMO signed off on the visit following Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s visit to Beijing on February 23. A day ahead of the visit, Gokhale wrote a note to the Cabinet secretary asking him to order all government officials to skip events organised by the Tibetan government-in-exile as part of their “Thank you India” campaign. This was seen as an attempt to mend fences with Beijing.