China, India officials meet amid border impasse

(From far left) Brazil's Institutional Security Minister Sergio Etchegoyen, India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, South Africa's Minister of State Security David Mahlobo and Russia's Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev meeting China'
(From left) Brazil's Institutional Security Minister Sergio Etchegoyen, India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, South Africa's Minister of State Security David Mahlobo and Russia's Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev meeting China's President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Row over Bhutan boundary set to deepen mistrust between neighbours, warn analysts

Top Chinese and Indian officials have held meetings in Beijing amid a tense border stand-off in the Himalayas.

Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday met India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval during his session with Brics security officials, while Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi met Mr Doval during the group's meetings on Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

The Brics officials were in Beijing for meetings ahead of the organisation's summit in China in September. Brics gathers five emerging economies - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The meetings with Mr Doval were the first high-level ones involving China and India since the dispute began last month in a mountainous border area near Bhutan.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Mr Yang exchanged views separately on Thursday with the officials of India, South Africa and Brazil on bilateral relations, international and regional issues, and multilateral affairs.

Analysts said the current border stand-off between China and India is the result of strategic mistrust, particularly on the part of India.

Professor Jia Qingguo of Peking University noted that the row was not a direct border dispute between China and India but rather one between China and Bhutan.

NOT READY FOR A FIGHT

The leaders on both sides are not prepared for war, especially India.

INDIA EXPERT YU LONGYU of Shenzhen University.

But "India thinks it affects its sphere of influence and therefore, it wants to intervene", he said.

Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan kingdom on the north-eastern border of India under New Delhi's influence, with the two sides having signed a treaty in 1949 under which they are to consult closely on Bhutan's foreign policy and defence.

But, said India expert Yu Longyu of Shenzhen University, a road that China is building in the disputed Donglang plateau - Doklam to India - "will bring China closer to Bhutan", something the Indians do not want to see. China's building of the road triggered the stand-off, with India sending troops into the area on June 16 in an attempt to halt the construction. Since the deadlock began, Bhutan has lodged a protest with China over the road building and released a statement urging China to maintain the status quo.

Indian analysts have said the road threatens India's security as it brings China closer to a narrow strip of land called the "chicken's neck" that links India's north-eastern states to the rest of the country.

Some have also accused China of trying to create a rift between India and Bhutan.

The scale of this impasse is larger than previous frictions, noted Associate Professor Li Mingjiang from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, with both sides sending more troops than before. There are also stronger mobilisation efforts, including exercises and major logistics supply activity, "in preparation for the worst-case scenario".

Diplomatically, both sides have taken tough positions, he said, with the Chinese making it clear that talks can take place only after India has withdrawn its troops. India has shown no sign that it will acquiesce.

But while small-scale skirmishes may occur, there is unlikely to be war, said Professor Yu. "The leaders on both sides are not prepared for war, especially India."

Indeed, Reuters reported earlier this week that the two sides' diplomats are quietly trying to ensure the stand-off does not escalate and find a way for both sides to back down without losing face.

However, even after the current stalemate is resolved, it will have a negative impact on China's relationship with India, analysts say.

"It will further increase strategic mistrust between the two countries and may also help propel India to move closer to the United States and Japan, especially the US in terms of defence and security cooperation," said Prof Li.

Prof Jia was of the view that India needed to slowly learn to adjust to China's rise.

"China's rise means that its influence will slowly expand, including in the South Asian region, which is India's traditional sphere of influence," he said.

But China is not an expansionist state and seeks only to protect its growing overseas interests, he said.

For its own interests, India should grasp the opportunities that China's rise has brought it and "develop together with China", he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2017, with the headline 'China, India officials meet amid border impasse'. Print Edition | Subscribe