Ajit Doval’s China visit may have cooled off border tension, say analysts


New Delhi: Indian national security advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval’s visit to China last week, in the midst of a tense military standoff between India and China, seems to have resulted in a cooling of temperatures raised mainly by a barrage of comments from the Chinese side, analysts say.

This, in turn, could give both sides the opportunity to engage in the quiet diplomacy New Delhi has been advocating to resolve the dispute, one analyst said.

Doval was in Beijing last week to attend a meeting of national security advisors of Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) emerging economies but he also met state councillor Yang Jiechi, his counterpart for discussions on border issues between India and China. According to a brief readout from the Chinese side, Yang brought up “bilateral issues” and “major problems” during the meeting.

That the Chinese side engaged with Doval is being seen a step forward—by analysts—given that sections of the Chinese state-controlled media were of the view that no meaningful discussions could happen during Doval’s visit unless India pulled back troops from the Dokalam plateau in Bhutan where soldiers from the two countries have been involved in a standoff since 16 June.

The Indian government is yet to formally comment on the outcome of the visit.

“There has certainly been a cooling of rhetoric and this does give some space to both sides to reframe the border issue. But the underlying divergences still remain,”said Harsh Pant, professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College.

Swaran Singh, a professor of disarmament at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, was of the view that the atmospherics at the Doval-Yang meeting as well as the fact that the Indian NSA was “seated closest to President Xi Jinping” during a meeting on Friday with the visiting national security advisors “are both symbolic as well as provide advantage in diplomacy.”

“So yes, apparently the Chinese side was not avoiding to engage him which is a positive sign,” he said.

India and China have a dispute over their boundaries dating back to the 1962 war and are in talks to resolve their differences. Tensions between the neighbours have been high for the past month with Chinese troops trying to construct a road on the Dokalam plateau in Bhutan to which the Bhutanese have objected. Indian troops stationed in Bhutan under a special security arrangement have intervened to keep Chinese troops at bay, triggering the face-off.

Doka La is the Indian name for the region which Bhutan recognizes as Dokalam, while China claims it as part of its Donglang region.

India has called for both sides to withdraw forces while China has said that India should withdraw its troops before the two sides engage in talks about Dokalam.

According to analysts, the meeting between Doval and Yang on Friday could give the two sides some room to manoeuvre. The two are expected to meet in India for another round of regular talks on the border dispute though it is not clear whether this would happen before Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits China in September for the BRICS summit.

“China would like to ensure the Dokalam standoff does not impact BRICS summit. The Chinese are very conscious of making flawless and ceremonial presentations on such events. India so far has promised to ensure success of 2017 BRICS summit when it hands over the chair to Beijing. The Indian approach so far has been very positive: from calling for dialogue, to calling for all sides jointly withdrawing forces,” said Singh.

But with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 19th Party Congress—where five of the seven members of the powerful Politbureau Standing Committee (PSC) will be newly appointed—scheduled to come up in October/November, analysts say the room to manoeuvre is limited.

On Sunday, Chinese president Xi Jinping who heads the Central Military Commission and who was addressing the People’s Liberation Army on its 90th foundation day said he firmly believed that China’s “gallant military has both confidence and ability to defeat all invading enemies.” Though Xi did not refer to any specific instances of invasion, previously, the Chinese government and state controlled media have accused India of trespassing into Chinese territory at Dokalam.

“Xi cannot be seen as compromising on his image of protector of China’s core interests as that would empower rival factions in determining China’s future direction as also selection of the post-Xi leadership,” Singh said.