India and China, both nuclear powers, are at loggerheads at Doklam located at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. It has sent shock waves across the region and beyond. The neighboring countries and the powerful countries across the world have remained loudly silent on the issue, which could prove devastating for the region and the world.
Reportedly, the dispute escalated when the Chinese came with bulldozers and excavators to repair the road in the area claimed by both China and Bhutan. India, responsible for Bhutan’s defense under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, sent its troops and built bunkers there. As India did not heed its request to dismantle the bunkers, China bulldozed some of them on the Sikkim side and denied Indian pilgrims the permission to visit Mansarovar through the route, opened in 2015.
Border disputes and skirmishes between India and China are not new. Both countries have conflicting claims at several places of their common border, including in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. Skirmishes had occurred between the two countries near Doklam, the current flash point, in 2008 as well.
Obviously, territorial disputes occur when two or more countries claim the same land based on legal and historical evidence. Until the rival claimants go for arbitration, there is no way to know whose claim is stronger. So such disputes prove a minefield for friends and allies, more so if they occur between big powers. If the friends and allies step at the wrong place, they will wound themselves politically and economically.
Perhaps that is why the international community has remained largely quiet about Doklam. But that is a wrong option for China and India’s neighbors, which will be directly and seriously affect if a full-scale war breaks out between these countries.
The neighbors have three options. First, they can leave the two countries to sort out the problem whatever way they like, including war. Second, they can undertake shuttle diplomacy to bring the two sides to an amicable resolution and failing that, to maintain the status quo ante. Third, they can ask both countries to take the case to the International Court of Justice or some other mutually agreed framework and accept the judgment.
The famous painter Pablo Picasso has said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” So Nepal should shed its inferiority complex, get out, and try to do something.
Because its options are limited, Nepal should take up the issue carefully and in a balanced and matured matter. Let me start with the second option. Usually, shuttle diplomacy succeeds when the mediator is a powerful and rich country that has the capacity to reward or punish the parties to dispute or when it is a neutral small country without any vested interest. Nepal does not in a position to reward or punish the disputing parties. Nor is a completely neutral party because of the 1950 Treaty with India.
To make our case worse, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is visiting India at this inopportune time. If he can use this visit to voice Nepal’s view on the Doklam Dispute, he should certainly visit New Delhi. Otherwise, he should postpone the visit for now and wait until normal times.
Though the third option has worked in several places between small countries to resolve their border disputes, it rarely works for the big and powerful nations. The disputing party whose claim is weaker will not accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ and the arbitration by the ICJ or any other mechanism. So, the third option could be stillborn.
That leaves only the first option, in a strictly limited context, for countries like Nepal: Call both sides to find a peaceful solution. Will India and China listen to Nepal? Perhaps not. But that does not mean Nepal should not try its best or be seen trying to do it. Friends should help each other and not let friends fight and shed blood.
That indeed is the only option that is available for Nepal to pursue in the Doklam Dispute. But sitting quietly is not an option. If we do, our friends will not come to help us when we need them. We need measured but proactive diplomacy that takes into account our limited capacity to influence our neighbors but understands the imperative to try to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible.
If the dispute is allowed to fester, it will have a direct impact on the lives of Indians, Chineses and other people around them. There will be epidemics, economic hardships, social dislocation, political instability, refugees. The problems faced by the region when India and Pakistan fought over East Pakistan before the birth of Bangladesh is still fresh in our mind.
The thing is a China-India was will be several times more devastating because of their killing capacities.
Lao Tzu has said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” So, Nepal should not be swimming in the pond of inferiority complex. It should get out and try to do something to diffuse the dispute in Doklam just for the sake of good will if nothing else.