The Doklam Paradox
Commodore Somen Banerjee, Senior Fellow, VIF

Indian and Chinese troops were engaged in a tense standoff for over two and a half months at Doklam till its resolution on 28th Aug 17. The standoff was particularly marked by shrill and condescending voices from Chinese State run media. In addition, China resorted to live firing drills in Tibet, as also in the Indian Ocean, a first of its kind. Besides, treaties of the 19th century between the erstwhile empires were re-kindled to shroud the extant treaties of the later treaties. The sequencing and simultaneity of these actions had an uncanny resemblance to the standard operating procedures of Law-fare (Law Warfare), Psychological Warfare and Media Warfare, that China has habitually employed to settle territorial scores and exact deference from its adversaries.

To the relief of all, the impasse has finally fizzled through some deft diplomacy by both the sides. However, one is inclined to ponder, if such an abrupt resolution could really have been possible without the impending Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) Grroup Summit. The bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi during the 9th Annual Summit would have further normalised the relations. Interestingly, policy makers on both sides saw merit in burying their hatchets and moving-on.

At his opening address in Xiamen, President Xi’s did his part for restoring the regional peace, by urging members to “shelve their differences and accommodate each other’s concerns through mutual trust and strategic communication”.1 He further underscored the need to uphold the values of diplomacy for resolving “hotspot” issues2. President Xi also accorded a major diplomatic victory to Prime Minister Modi by acquiescing to Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed as terror groups, along with Taliban and al-Qaeda. These overtures could be construed as de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan by few. In other words, China’s political accommodation at the BRICS has been unprecedented. Both, the climax of Doklam and the anti-climax at the 9th BRICS Summit, have emerged as watershed events in Sino-India relations. The candid admissions and diplomatic concessions made by President Xi does hint at a significant shift in China’s policy towards India, although it may still be too early to draw firm conclusions. Post-Doklam, the Chinese leadership seem to have learnt a few hard lessons, i.e., if economic and diplomatic cooperation are to prevail between the Elephant and the Dragon, territorial disputes and strategic undercutting cannot be sustained beyond a point.

Contrary to the political and diplomatic bonhomie displayed at the 9th BRICS Summit, the military establishments on both sides could be expected to further bolster their capabilities and rehash their strategies. China’s constraints in conducting a swift ‘Fighting Regional Informatized War’ (FRI-War) or a successful coercion might be construed as a set-back by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in their internal review. Indian military establishment too would have identified their critical cap-gaps during the standoff. Gen Bipin Rawat, the Army Chief had recently cautioned that China is inclined to “change the status quo” and there could be “more Doklam like incidents in the future” 3.

Military competition between India and China seems inevitable, despite the enhanced political cooperation during BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Group of 20, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Plus, largely due to trust deficit. This will require the two giant neighbours to understand each other’s sensitivities. One of the major factors of India’s antagonism is the 2015 Defence White Paper. The White Paper provides an overtly aggressive direction to the PLA. It asserts that “China will build an armed force commensurate with China’s international standing” 4. To exacerbate the matter, China’s declared defence budget in 2015 has been a whooping US $145 bn5, almost 3-4 times of India’s defence budget. The phenomenal outlay coupled with military modernisation provides the PLA with greater capabilities and confidence to pursue its stated “Active Defence” and “protection of interest and rights” in the Indo-Pacific Region. Some of these policies overlap with the rights and claims of other nations. These ominous assertions in the White Paper create potentially hostile scenarios for the future and draws India to extra regional alliances.

The second primary reason for military competition between India and China is the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. Whilst on one hand, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) complicates the Indian military’s calculus in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, on the other hand, the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) is creating a ‘Play Go’ posturing and has the potential of establishing multiple warzones in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Development of infrastructure in smaller states of the sub-continent not only undermines India’s strategic space in South Asia but also ferments regional instability. Arthur M Eckstein, in the book China Goes to Sea, analyses the Roman Strategy during circa 201 BC when the littorals of Aegean Sea had many small and big states, similar to the present South Asia6. However, the main rivalry was between Greece and Macedonia, comparable to the India-Pakistan rivalry. At the behest of Macedonia (akin to Pakistan), the Romans (akin to China) established a sustainable ‘Balance of Weakness’ in the Aegean by marginalising Greece (akin to India). Likewise, China’s emergence as regional hegemon in the Asia-Pacific and its unconditional support to Pakistan would spawn a threat for India, potentially weakening India’s stature and increasing the risk of a nuclear conflict in the region.

The most overarching reason opined for conflict between India and China is the unsettled Line of Actual Control (LAC). China has settled its border disputes with most neighbours. Unsettled borders with India will continue to provide the trigger for many more Doklams. Thucydides famously said, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. Thus the Melians must give in to the Athens without violence” 7. The Doklam episode would have indicated to China that India is not going to accept the Melian’s fate. Therefore, expeditious demarcation of LAC between India and China remains the only alternative.

The Resolution at Doklam demonstrates that China will not hesitate to make short-term concessions against her long-term goals. An incident like the Doklam standoff or summits such as BRICS are unlikely to dissuade President Xi from pursuing his ‘China Dream’. Consequently, Indo-China relations is likely to witness frequent paradoxes like Doklam, viz, short-term deepening of diplomatic or economic cooperation and long-term intensification of military rivalry. Whilst India may afford to find satisfaction over Doklam and the 9th BRICS Summit for a while, a permanent resolution to Doklam like standoff can only be expected if China makes affirmative changes to the forthcoming 2017/18 ‘Defence White Paper’ and demarcates the LAC. China would also have to make palpable demonstrations of sensitivity to India’s concerns on the OBOR, as also support India in the UN for sanctions on all terror groups operating with impunity in the region.

Both China and India have turned a fresh chapter in their bilateral relations at the Xiamen BRICS Summit. The current thaw provides both the countries with an opportunity to address the contentious issues on security and regional stability and arrive at a modus vivendi. Foremost amongst them should be India’s sensitivities towards China’s White Paper, LAC, OBOR and terror. As quid pro quo, India too will have to be willing for reciprocity in equal measure.

Endnotes

1. Times of India, 03 Sep 17. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/china/xi-kicks-off-brics-summit-ask-members-to-shelve-differences/articleshow/60348368.cms.

2. Economic Times, 08 Sep 17. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/world-news/brics-must-uphold-value-of-diplomacy-to-resolve-hotspot-issues-xi-jinping/articleshow/60352346.cms.

3. Hindustan Times, 27 Aug 17. http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-trying-to-change-status-quo-doklam-like-incidents-possible-in-future-army-chief-rawat/story-U2zhBGoGF9TrIgNvdd40FI.html.

4. Ministry of National Defence, PRC, 26 May 2015. http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Press/2015-05/26/content_4586805_4.htm.

5. The New York Times, 04 Mar 15. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/05/world/asia/chinas-military-budget-increasing-10-for-2015-official-says.html.

6. Andrew Ericson et al, China Goes to Sea – Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis,2009, P81.

7. Robert Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the end of stable Pacific, Random House, 2014, P18.


Image Source: http://www.indiastrategic.in/topstories3925_Indian_Army_hosts_Chinese_PLA_on_Independence_Day.htm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
4 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us