by September 1, 2017 0 comments

The 72 day standoff in Doklam is finally over. Showing an unprecedented grit and deft diplomacy, India has managed to confound the dragon. Now, she must show the same maturity to bolster its stand in border disputes with the powerful neighbor

Writing in the fifth century BC, the ancient Chinese thinker Sun Tzu gives in his all time classic on war strategy  The Art of War a fundamental principle:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

The way the Chinese government conducted itself during the recent 72 day long Doklam stand-off it would appear that they were following this advice to the letter. There were empty threats, psychological war in the media, videos of military drills, intemperate statements by official spokespersons, reminders of India’s 1962 defeat and aggressive bluster.

On the contrary, both the Indian government and media showed a far more mature response by emphasizing that the solution lay not in a call to arms but on the negotiating table. Maintaining diplomatic dignity, MEA’s statement on 28th September announcing the agreement to pull out did not in any way show the Chinese down; on the contrary, as was widely observed, India gave China plenty of face-saving room. The Chinese statement by comparison was shrill emphasizing that it was the “trespassing” Indian troops that withdrew first and that Chinese troops shall in future continue to patrol the area. There was only a muted reference to making necessary adjustments in their troop deployments. This probably force the MEA to come out with a second statement clarifying that disengagement border personnel had been almost completed under verification from both the sides. It was clarified that both troops and road building equipment had been removed by China from the face-off point, implying the PLA’s construction of the road towards Jompelri wherein the genesis of the crisis lay, had been put off. Two days later MEA announced that Prime Minister Modi would be visiting China for the up- coming BRICS Summit during 3-9 September.

What are we to make out of this in hindsight? The full details of what transpired on the negotiating table shall never be known; there are many information gaps left in the statements put out by the MEA. Has there been any commitment by China not to try building the road in the future? If the area is disputed has insisted all along by the Indian side, and of course Bhutan, why has China been allowed to emphasize that its troops shall continue to patrol the area? Why was there not a corresponding assertion from the Indian or Bhutanese side that the latter’s troops shall also patrol the area under dispute?

From the haze of diplomatic jargon some clear aspects of the issue emerge. Militarily, for most of the 4000 km long LAC, India has the advantage of holding the higher ground; such was the case in the Doklam area also. In case of an armed conflict China would have needed to vastly outnumber Indian forces, according to some experts by a ratio of 9 to 1 to push back Indian troops. And with snowfall expected in September it would have been difficult for the Chinese despite their superior roads and infrastructure to hold their ground.

China had some domestic compulsions too. In the crucial national conference of Communist Party of China in mid-October, Xi Jinping is expected to be given a second five year term at the helm and a continuing, unresolved military face-off with India would have been seen to be a mishandling of the situation and the show weakness against the country that most Chinese believe to be significantly inferior in terms of military or economic prowess.

Internationally, China would have lost face in the event of India raising the issue on behalf of Bhutan in the BRICS Summit or alternatively, sending a low level representative delegation instead of personal attendance by the Indian Prime Minister. In fact, both India and Bhutan had absented themselves from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting in May 2017 much to China’s annoyance. In fact some observers had even linked that to the Doklam standoff.

Diplomatically, there have been reports that there was Russian pressure on both China and India to resolve the issue. Overtly however the rest of the world stayed away from the imbroglio with only Japan openly supporting India on the issue. Notwithstanding the US-China tensions over North Korea there was no mention of the issue by American authorities; it could have been logically expected by India that there would be some support from US considering Chinese entities/individuals have been placed under sanctions by the Trump Administration over the North Korean issue. Also, US has been supportive of India’s role while formulating its Afghan policy.

A matter of diplomatic concern for India was that after its initial response rebutting China’s claim over Doklam, Bhutan and assiduously maintained a discreet silence throughout the face off only expressing its hope that the matter would be resolved peacefully. In fact Bhutan’s lukewarm attitude nudged Sushma Swaraj into clarifying in the Indian Parliament that apart from the dispute that Bhutan had with China and in which India was treaty bound to help the former, there were Indian security interests also which made it necessary for India to intercede in the area.

It made economic sense for China given its trade and investment imperatives vis-a-vis India’s huge market not to aggravate the crisis militarily and have a diplomatic resolution without losing face. In fact during the ongoing crisis there were some faint murmurings on the part of the Indian government proposing changes in the criteria for foreign suppliers of power plant equipment which would hit Chinese manufacturers badly. In fact, the trade imbalance is heavily tilted towards China so India can leverage on this fact to push for course correction. China can ill afford to disturb the vast market like India that offers massive market to Chinese consumer durable and infra companies. Make in India program of Modi government will push Chinese manufacturing sector to limits in the years to come, and it will offer stiff competition to Chinese manufacturing companies soon.

 – Dr Pradeep Bajpai

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