Until recently, Nepal had maintained silence on the Doklam standoff.
By Hari Bansh Jha
The standoff between the Indian and Chinese troops along the Bhutan-India-China tri-junction in the Doklam region has been continuing unabated ever since 16 June when China accused Indian troops of intrusion into Chinese territory. [i] Ever since then, there is no sign of de-escalation of the situation from either side.
China claims that it is constructing a road in its part of the territory in the Doklam region, while Bhutan’s government treats it as the case of intrusion in its territory. China maintains that whatever it has been doing in the Doklam region is an issue that concerns only China and Bhutan and not India. It blames India for its aggressive posture and accuses its troops of crossing into the Chinese territory. It wants Indian troops to return back from its present position.
On the other hand, India maintains that its troops had moved to the Doklam region only after Bhutan lodged a diplomatic protest with China on the ground of intrusion of Chinese troops into its territory. [ii] India defends its position in the Doklam areas as it is committed to safeguarding the security of Bhutan as per the 1949 Treaty of Friendship between the two countries.
India charges China of violating the written understanding of December 2012 between the two sides in which they had agreed not to change the status quo at the tri-junction point without the consent of the third country, which obviously means Bhutan. [iii] It feels that China has no ground to change the status quo at the tri-junction point with Bhutan unilaterally either through the construction of roads or by engaging in any other activity across the line of control (LOC) in Bhutanese territory.
In order to stop the Chinese army from moving forward in the Doklam region, India sent nearly 400 of its troops there to ensure the security of Bhutan as well as its own security. China too has placed heavy troops and sophisticated machinery on its side at the tri-junction point to face any eventuality.
In order to assert its position in the Doklam areas, China has not only used undiplomatic languages against India and its leaders, but it has also been threatening India of serious consequences in case it did not withdraw its troops. It warns of even ‘military’ action to resolve the crisis. In certain quarters, it was said that China plan to launch small-scale military operation within two weeks in its bid to expel the Indian troops from the Doklam region. [iv]
It appears that India at no cost could back out from its position in Doklam areas as that would mean a threat to its most sensitive region called ‘chicken neck’ of Siliguri areas that join the country’s entire Northeastern states with other parts of the country. Since this region is quite close to the tri-junction point, any change in the status quo in the Doklam region would directly affect Indian security.
The standoff between the world’s two largest armies — of India and China — in the Doklam region has become a matter of concern for the entire global community. It is more so for Nepal as the Doklam region is right across the small Indian state of Sikkim that borders Nepal. Additionally, Nepal, like Bhutan, is sandwiched between India and China, and it also entered into a security pact with India through its 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship in the same way as Bhutan and India are bound through the security pact of 1949.
Moreover, Nepal finds itself in a quandary as its border with India and China at the tri-junction points both in the northwest at Lipulekh and northwest at Jhinsang Chuli is not yet settled like that of the tri-junction point at Bhutan, India and China border, [v] though Nepal and China resolved almost all of their boundary issues through the Boundary Treaty on 5 October 1961. [vi] Significantly, in 2015 India and China had made a decision to conduct trade through the Lipulekh pass that Nepal treats as its territory. [vii]
Until recently, Nepal had maintained silence on the Doklam standoff. But on Monday (7 August), it made its position on this issue clear. Krishna Bahadur Mahara, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Nepal, categorically stated that Nepal would not align on the Doklam issue with any of its neighbours as the country pursues an independent foreign policy. [viii] However, he appealed to the two neighbours to settle the issue peacefully through diplomatic negotiations.
This position is not new as far as the country’s foreign policy is concerned. Even during the war between India and China in 1962, Nepal had maintained a neutral stand despite the fact that it had security pact with India.
Nepal’s neutrality between India and China was also reflected in 1969 when the then Nepalese Prime Minister, Kirti Nidhi Bista, during the monarchical period under the Panchayat system, had threatened to go on hunger strike if India did not withdraw its troops from its northern front. India had to withdraw its troops and Military Mission from Nepal under this compulsion.
Even during the Sino-Indian war of 1962, Indian troops were present in Nepal’s northern part. By compelling India to withdraw its troops from Nepal, the country wanted to show that it maintained a neutral and equidistant policy with its neighbours.
What is, however, feared is the situation in which Nepal could be dragged to take the side of one of the two neighbours in case the tension in the Doklam region aggravates? Will Nepal be able to maintain neutrality then? Presently, both Beijing and New Delhi appear to be wooing Nepal on this issue, considering the extremely sensitive location that Nepal maintains between the two neighbours. [ix] The Chinese deputy chief of mission in Kathmandu has already briefed Kathmandu about his country’s position on the Doklam issue and made it amply clear that India should withdraw its troops from Doklam. Further, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang, during his visit to Nepal on 14 August, is likely to discuss this issue with Nepalese leaders. [x] But India is yet to brief Nepal. Possibly, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj might touch upon this issue with Nepal when she visits the country on August 10 in the wake of the BIMSTEC meeting.
The foreign affairs experts in Nepal seems to be worried over the standoff. They treat this development as a dangerous signal for Nepal. As such, they want Nepal to give priority to its national interest while taking any stand on the issue, which is ambiguous in character.
So far, most of the political parties have maintained silence on the issue — both in the Parliament and outside. [xi] However, there is a general perception that Nepal should back Bhutan on this issue. In case Nepal fails to do so, the international community might not be sympathetic to Nepal in a similar situation when it could be coerced by any outside forces.
The more the standoff continues in the Doklam region, the more it will get complicated as both countries would find it increasingly difficult to retreat from the LOC and thereby resolve the crisis. Such a situation does not augur good for the security of the two countries and also for the region. But it would be Himalayan blunders if any country thinks to seek a military solution, instead of the diplomatic one, to resolve the crisis. As Nepal is friendly to both India and China, it could no more remain a silent spectator and should rather use its soft power to pursue the two countries to simultaneously withdraw their troops from the LOC in the Doklam region to ensure long-term peace and stability in the region.
[i] Jacob, Jayanath, “At the heart of Doklam standoff is China’s attempts to drive wedge into Indo-Bhutan ties,” Hindustan Times, 4 August 2017.
[iv] Dasgupta, Saibal, “Chinese daily talks of military operations in Doklam,” The Times of India, 6 August 2017.
[v] Baral, Biswas, “The View from Nepal on Doklam Stand-off,” My Republica, 20 July 2017, in https://thewire.in/159792/doklam-standoff-india-china-nepal/
[vi] Shrestha, Buddhi Narayan, “Border Issues of Nepal – With Special Reference to India,” WordPress.com, 17 January 2010, in https://borderissuesofnepal.wordpress.com/
[vii] Parasar, Sachin, “India wary as China takes up Doklam issue with Nepal,” The Times of India, 6 August 2017.
[viii] Republica, “Nepal won’t align with India or China on Doklam issue,” My Republica, 8 August 2017.
[ix] HT Correspondent, “India, China courting Nepal and border stand-off,” Hindustan Times, 3 Auguest 2017, in http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/india-china-courting-nepal-amid-border-standoff/story-s7wIPVWjimuTLK9DXWZpjM.html
[x] Parasar, no. vii.
[xi] Republica, “Nepal should not keep mum over Doklam issue: Lawmaker Gyawali,” My Republica, 24 July 2017, in http://www.myrepublica.com/news/24412/