India’s refusal to back off from Dokalam standoff despite heavy pressure mounted by China will have a wider resonance in the region against Beijing’s assertive behaviour, former Indian Ambassador to China Ashok Kantha said. India and China on Monday ended their standoff in Dokalam by withdrawing their troops from the area. Troops of the two countries had been locked in a standoff in Dokalam since June 16 after Indian troops stopped the Chinese Army from building a road in the strategically key Dokalam region, a disputed area between China and Bhutan. “The way India dealt with Dokalam standoff has wider resonance. Because what the Chinese are trying to do in Dokalam is part of a larger pattern,” Kantha, who served as India’s envoy here from 2013 to January last year, told PTI in a wide ranging interview on the Dokalam issue from Delhi over phone.
China is trying to achieve its contested territorial claims though unilateral actions like the disputed South China Sea, where smaller states have accepted Beijing expansive territorial claims as a “new normal”. “But that did not happen in Dokalam. India and Bhutan did not follow the script, so China has to back off and revisit their position,” Kantha, now Director of a New Delhi-based think tank, the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), said. “If India succumbed to Chinese pressure, it would have made it even more difficult for China’s smaller neighbours to stand up. It would have undermined India’s credibility, first in Bhutan and other South Asian neighbours,” he said.
“How we dealt with it definitely has resonance in terms of encouraging greater pushback in the region to China’s assertive behaviour. This also may lead to some introspection on the part of China, specially why the rise of China and its behaviour is creating anxieties among its neighbours”, he said. Both India and Bhutan challenged changing facts on the ground catching China by surprise, while showing restraint on the ground, he said.
Also, India “very deliberately and consciously made an effort not to indulge in tit for tat polemics as only through a quiet diplomacy a solution can be found”, he said. Also, the assessment on the Indian side is that there was no real risk of war breaking out and war was not an option for either side including on the Chinese side so that there is space to convey our concerns and interests, he said.
“China also realised that finding resolution by taking recourse through force is really not an option. Notwithstanding what they were saying, they had to find a diplomatic solution. Since India maintained a firm position, given the BRICS summit was around the corner, China didn’t want it to be overshadowed by Dokalam standoff,” he said. While there will be greater clarity in the coming days about the understanding reached between India and China to end the 73-day standoff, India has achieved its objective to prevent China from building the road close to the narrow Chicken Neck connecting the North-Eastern states, he said. “That was the provocation for Indian personnel to step into the area of standoff. The objective has been achieved and we have also managed to defuse the situation,” without India yielding space he said.
Kantha said China also has shown flexibility after initial belligerence. “Initially they said there has to be unilateral Indian withdrawal to enter into meaningful talks. They changed their position and agreed on mutual engagement, which has been achieved through bilateral understanding. Now they also indulged in war like rhetoric, but came around to accepting that the use of force is not an option for them,” he said. India on the contrary dealt with Dokalam in a more mature and sensible way. Though both the countries have managed to defuse the current situation, Dokalam standoff has seriously affected the bilateral relations, he said.