Doklam standoff: a case of Chinese duplicity

Doklam standoff: a case of Chinese duplicity

Consistency has never been a virtue for the Communist rulers of China in settling their border disputes with the neigbours. They have used different principles for different countries. And this is the biggest bottleneck in arriving at an amicable solution to the present faceoff between the Chinese and Indian troops in the in the Doklam plateau near the tri-junction of Bhutan, India and China.

It may be noted that China shares land boundaries with  as many as 14 neighbours( North Korea, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam)  and maritime boundaries with four(Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea). If its claims over the whole of South China Sea is to be conceded, then Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia will come to the picture, leave alone Taiwan that China claims to be its own.

With most of these countries, China has had “disputes” over the territories; it has fought full-fledged wars with three of them- India, Vietnam and Russia. And, if voices emanating from the Chinese media are any indication, China is ready to fight a second war with India.

As a communist country, it is quite understandable when it says that Beijing does not believe in the sanctity of all the “unequal treaties”, that were the “imperial products” when China was weak – and all these pertain to ‘British India”, Russia and Japan. But it considers all the treaties or territorial gains made by the powerful Chinese emperors in the past to be sacred and non-negotiable. In other words, for the communist rulers in Beijing, territorial gains by a “strong” China in the past are sacrosanct, but territorial concessions or adjustments made by a “weak” China in the past are profane or blasphemous.


For instance, the Chinese say that Tibet became a part of the Chinese empire when the great Mongol Genghis Khan annexed Tibet (most parts of it) in the early 13th century. It is a strange logic, because taken to its logical conclusion, one could argue that China is a part of Mongolia (Khan was then ruling over Beijing as well) and does not deserve to exist as an independent nation. Secondly, why are the Chinese not claiming a quarter of Europe, Russia and the whole of West Asia (Middle East) and Central Asia since these also constituted the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan?

The problem with the Chinese version of history is where to draw the line. After all, it is also a fact that the pre-Mongol history of Tibet was militarily glorious. In the eighth century, the Tibetan empire was expanding at such a pace that at one time the then Chinese emperor had to flee his capital and a Tibetan nominee was put on the Chinese throne! Peace was restored in the year 821 with the conclusion of a Treaty, which laid down clearly the boundaries between China and Tibet. It read: “Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the East is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet….”

But then, China has a selective knowledge of history. It has always believed in the dictum, and this is the first principle of its border-settlement strategy – “might is right”. Under this principle, it has annexed Tibet.  And it has absorbed a part of Mongolia – Inner Mongolia.

When China thinks that it is not militarily not that strong to completely overwhelm the other party, it talks of the importance  of “mutual trust and benefit”, seeking cooperation towards a “win-win” solutions for everybody to succeed (file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Fang_2006_._Negotiation_The_Chinese_styl.pdffile:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Fang_2006_._Negotiation_The_Chinese_styl.pdf). And while pursuing this second principle, the Chinese ‘talk” (in mandarin, there is no equivalent to the word “negotiate”) sees everything as a “zero-sum game”, in which they set out to “win-lose” you. Their bargaining technique is based on Sun Tzu’s secret: “To subdue the enemy without fighting.”  They will weaken you psychologically to have their way. And in this they  utilise “the external forces” against you– the unfriendly international factors, existence of other enemies but China’s friends( like Pakistan in the case of India), and the carrot of the Chinese economic power that can be of help to you if you agree on a border-settlement. And if, this tactic does not work, then the Chinese will withdraw from the bargaining table and keep the things as they are till they are in a position to fight back.

Many a time, the Chinese have succeeded by utilising their second principle. The Russo-Chinese border was finally settled on the basis of this second principle after differences over 40 years (that included a war in 1969). It was not that there were serious territorial adjustments by both the sides in the end; the agreement was termed as “a refinement of the original border line” ( for laying “the crucial foundation” of Sino-Russian “strategic partnership”.

Sometime, while working on the second principle China emphasises more on the economic component to buy over the other party. This it has done very successfully with North Korea and Kazakhstan. North Korea’s excessive dependence on China for food and security is too well-known for an explanation. The situation was all the more crucial for North Korea in 1962(soon after the Korean War) when it was “induced” to sign an agreement delineating the 1416 km long border with the giant neighbour.  In the case of Kazakhstan, with which it shares a border of 1700 km, China settled the issue in 1998 by offering a lucrative economic package, including investment in one of Kazakhstan’s biggest oil fields, a 3,000-km gas pipeline across Kazakhstan and a 15-year economic co-operation programme.  It has played the same route of economic-inducement in stabilizing border issues with Afghanistan, Pakistan (includes parts of Kashmir) and Myanmar.

In fact, in the case of Myanmar, China has even abdicated its opposition to the “unequal treaties” imposed on it by the imperial powers. For instance, it is totally opposed to the McMahon Line of 1914 that marked the effective boundary  between Tibet and India, and which India is committed to in settling the issue with China even now. But China has always rejected the Indian suggestion by describing the McMahon Line as “the product of imperialism”. But China did not hesitate to accept the validity of the eastern end of the same line as the basis to delimit a section of the Sino-Burma border in the boundary agreement with Myanmar in 1960. In reality, China needed friendship with Myanmar for a variety of reasons stretching from exploiting that country’s oil and natural resources to the strategic linkage through roads, bridges and river-way between the Bay of Bengal and its Yunan province.

There is a corollary to this second principle of China’s border-settlement, which we may refer as the third. Under this, economic inducement will be the primary motivation for the other party to agree with the Chinese, but in order to ensure that this succeeds, the Chinese will stake a very big claim on the territory to begin with, but all of a sudden they will get down to be seen as the most reasonable and accommodative for a friendly relationship with you. This the Chinese have done with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.


China and Kyrgyzstan reached an agreement in 1999, defining 900 out of 1,100 km of the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. Accordingly, Kyrgyzstan received “70% of the disputed territory”.  The demarcation of the boundary was finally completed in 2009. In the meantime, China has offered to help Kyrgyzstan build a power grid in the South, which would be the largest inter-governmental project between the two countries. That this agreement is still unpopular in Kyrgyzstan and there have been ethnic tensions over the issue (because of which China had temporarily closed its border in 2010) is a different issue.

Similarly, China reached an agreement with Tajikistan in 1999, by forgoing “95 percent” of its original territorial claims. Apart from offering substantial economic assistance and investments, China was prepared for substantial concessions as it thought that a border settlement with the Tajiks will be helpful in controlling the surge of violence in its Xinjiang province that is beset with Islamic fundamentalism and Uighur separatism.

It is obvious that none of the above three principles of China has exactly worked with India, at least so far. It cannot overwhelm India militarily; it cannot cite international factors to be unfavourable to India to seek a compromise; and it cannot afford to induce India economically for complying with the Chinese boundary- position. Nor for that matter has China enhanced its reputation as a sincere party, given its scant regards for its own promises towards a compromise in the border issues.

In 1960 and then in between 1980-85,  China was talking of a “package deal”, by which it was prepared to accept an alignment in the Eastern Sector as understood by  the McMahon Line, provided  India  conceded Aksai Chin to China in the Western Sector. But after 1985, China went back on the offer and claimed territories in the eastern sector. In 2005, China had said that any eventual border agreement with India would not affect ‘settled population’, but now it has broken that promise by hardening its claim on Tawang, a major town in Arunachal Pradesh.

China has a serious credibility-paucity. In 1998, it signed a peace agreement with Bhutan, promising to ‘maintain peace and tranquility on the Bhutan-China Border Areas’. And it now it talks of 1890 –Convention between British India and China that apparently demarcated borders between Sikkim and Tibet. China claims that under this convention, the Doklam valley, where the Indian and Bhutanese troops have stopped the Chinese transgression, came under Tibet.

But then, as Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in 1959, “This Convention of 1890 also defined the boundary between Sikkim and Tibet; and the boundary was later, in 1895, demarcated. There is thus no dispute regarding the boundary of Sikkim with the Tibet region. This clearly refers to northern Sikkim and not to the tri-junction which needed to be discussed with Bhutan and Sikkim and which is today the contentious area. And once more, let us not forget that the 1890 Treaty was an unequal treaty as Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan were not involved.” (

Nothing could be said more aptly than this on the Chinese duplicity.

By Prakash Nanda

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.