Doklam standoff may be prolonged, needs proper handling: Shyam Saran

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New Delhi, July 20 (IANS) Calling the month-long military stand-off between India and China at Doklam part of a mind game, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on Thursday said there was a possibility of a prolonged impasse and even “punitive action” caused by Chinese “frustration” over confrontation with India in a third nation’s territory.

Saran added that while there have been incursions in the Doklam region in the past, it appeared that the Chinese intention this time was to establish a permanent presence in the region, and unless properly handled there could be more such incidents.

“My sense is that the Chinese believed the Bhutanese would protest as they have done in the past, and that there may be some standoff, but they were quite confident that they would be able to continue their activity.

“They would have thought, India would be unhappy with the situation but ultimately India would be unlikely to face-off with China in Bhutanese territory – a third country’s territory,” Saran said at the inaugural lecture of the lecture series jointly organised by Institute of Chinese Studies and India International Centre.

He said that this assumption was belied by the reaction from Bhutan and India this time, and what they thought would be a low-risk activity has now been transformed into a potentially high-risk one.

“And hence the high decibel and threatening posture designed to compel a stand-down by Indian forces which would from their point of view validate their original assumption with which they began their operation,” Saran said.

The military tension over the Himalayan tri-junction between the two countries that share a 3,500-km boundary started more than a month ago when Indian troops stopped Chinese soldiers from building a road at the stretch where India and China connect with Bhutan.

The stand-off has hit India-China ties with Chinese experts threatening a war if New Delhi did not buckle.

Saran said that the Chinese strategy was part of a mind game also seen in the South China Sea where through incremental activity, it slowly changed the facts on the ground and established a permanent presence without encountering any serious opposition, including from the United States.

“I certainly believe that much of this is mind game – the very peculiar Chinese brand of psychological warfare – but of course, it would be prudent not to rule out the possibility of frustration driving punitive action. So one should be prepared for that,” he said.

Saran added that whatever India does to manage the situation, it should take Bhutan’s interests into account “which is an independent and a proud nation”.

“I welcome the fact that the Indian side has been restrained and mature in its reaction. Let China raise the decibel. There is no need for India to respond in the same way but focus on strengthening its own position,” he said.

The former Foreign Secretary, who also served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar, Indonesia and Nepal, said that India’s biggest challenge comes from the rise of China which would seek to narrow India’s strategic space by penetrating India’s own neighbourhood. He said what is happening in Doklam should be seen in this context.

“The enhanced Chinese activity would have been directed towards weakening India’s close and privileged relations with Bhutan, opening the door to Chinese entry into the country and seek the settlement of the Sino-Bhutan border which would have advanced Chinese security interests vis-a-vis India,” Saran said.

He added that the limited human and economic resources that India has must be redirected to securing the neighbourhood even if it means a reordering of priorities.

“We need to pick and choose what are the really key issues on which we need to confront China. There may be Chinese actions which may cause us annoyance but may not be vital to our interests — the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is, but UN listing of Pakistan-based terrorist groups is not,” he said.

–IANS

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