18 August 2017


Pravin Sawhney

Present stand-off is the result of India's tenuous hold on LAC. Unlike most times, when New Delhi downplayed Chinese transgressions, this time, with Bhutan involved, it is not doing so

As the Doklam crisis between India and Chinaenters its third month, two questions worth deliberation are: What is the future of this crisis/how will it end? How to diffuse future crises?

The good thing about this crisis is that neither side wants war. Both nations want peace to fulfil the grand agenda that each has clearly spelt out: China’s Belt and Road initiative, and India’s Act East policy and Think West policy. Notwithstanding the congruous peaceful upwards trajectory of both nations, if cooperation with strategic mutual trust is still not there, the reasons are not difficult to find. China does not assess India to be its rival in Asia. Instead it sees itself pitted against the United States for supremacy in the Eurasian landmass; and the Western-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Since China believes that it can shape a unipolar Asia which India contests, geo-strategic rivalry becomes obvious. Matters are accentuated since both leaders have strong nationalistic images at home.

Moreover, China has deftly positioned itself much better — legally and militarily — on the disputed border. From the 1980s when China had offered a give-and-take solution to India to resolve the border dispute, it, today, wants it all. According to China, it now has a 2,000-km long Line of Actual Control [LAC] (as against India’s assertion of 3,488-km) with India, which excludes Ladakh. Moreover, the LAC, which comprises all of Arunachal Pradesh (called south Tibet by China) is claimed by Beijing. This is not all. Chinese President Xi Jinping has spurned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to mutually agree to the LAC alignment so that transgressions would minimise.

The Doklam crisis is the result of India’s tenuous hold on the LAC. Unlike most times, when India has downplayed Chinese regular transgressions across the LAC, this time, with Bhutan involved, it was not possible to do so. With two sides having set difficult demands to withdraw forces from the Doklam plateau, the situation has become sensitive, requiring urgent solution without either side losing face.

Unfortunately, unlike the 1986-87 Sumdorong Chu crisis, where both sides remained militarily engaged for seven years, this time, it will not be possible. For one, China will be perceived as India’s equal — in however limited military aspect — which it will not countenance. For another, India is not militarily prepared for an escalation which has its own dynamics. Given China’s impressive militarily capabilities in various war domains, there is a lot it can do below the nuclear weapons threshold, including take recourse to available inter-operability between the Chinese and Pakistani militaries to fight together.

Given the stakes for both sides, it is essential that they talk. Since China has set the condition that talks will follow and not precede withdrawal of Indian troops from Doklam, third party intervention — albeit discreetly — becomes necessary.

For this reason, Russia could help break the logjam at the coming Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in China from September 3 to 5. The agenda of the Brics summit, which is ‘stronger partnership for a brighter future’ is what is needed to bring China and India to the negotiating table.

The Modi Government would do well to get in touch with Russia at the highest level so that a successful mechanism for mutual disengagement of forces in Doklam is worked out at the earliest. India should not repeat the mistake which precipitated the Doklam crisis.

For instance, three weeks before the Chinese road construction party moved into the disputed Doklam plateau on June 16, it had twice informed India about its intentions. Yet, instead of talking, India purportedly kept quiet, and allowed its Army to block road construction on June 18, resulting in the face-off.

On the issue of how to handle similar crisis in the future, something more than mechanisms for confidence building measures (CBMs) needs to be done. India and China have innumerable such mechanisms at the field, diplomatic and even political representative levels, yet they have not helped in resolving Doklam. Instead of introspecting on their futility, a former National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, has suggested the need for strategic communications to handle future Doklams, implying more mechanisms between the two sides. Since CBMs are only as good as the political will, these will not help.

What India needs is real — and not perceived — military power, coupled with a roadmap to build strategic cooperation with China. Once done, India will find it easier to shape its rise through the Act East and Think West policy.

Building military power, however, will not be easy because it requires transformational rather than incremental changes. India needs insightful military reforms to build and synergise various war domains with complete involvement of the political leadership. This has never been done.

For example, the Arun Singh committee report of 2002 and the Naresh Chandra committee report a decade later, had restricted themselves to bureaucratic-military reforms while keeping the political leadership out of the ambit. This will not work.

This writer has suggested a roadmap to build military power in the co-authored book, ‘Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power’. These could become the starting point for a wider debate on this subject. Genuine steps by India to build military power will not go unnoticed in China where the People’s Liberation Army forms the pivot of the Belt and Road initiative.

Building strategic cooperation is both easy and difficult. Easy because all it requires is for both sides to be sensitive about each other’s mutual concerns. While India should be sensitive about Tibet, China should be sensitive about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which will pass through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Delhi must remember that Tibet (along with Taiwan) are China’s core concerns over which it would go to war. Hence, any future visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh should be handled with care and sensitivity.

Similarly, there are numerous ways in which the CPEC alignment could still be made more acceptable to India. This requires Beijing to initiate talks with India rather than present it with a fait accompli. Since Delhi understands that the CPEC is the flagship of the Belt and Road initiative, it could, if bilateral talks were held, help find an acceptable solution to the conundrum.

The difficult part which prohibits strategic cooperation are India’s ideological baggage and China’s assessment of its position in the world. Even when it is impossible for India to get PoK back from Pakistan, Right-wing ideologues believe that it is possible. This is where Prime Minister Modi needs to step in and accept a realpolitik way forward.

This approach would not only help make peace with China, but with Pakistan as well. China, on the other hand, ought to be sensitive to India’s desire for a multi-polar Asia. Notwithstanding the yawning gap in national power between India and China, India is simply too big with enormous potential to be assessed as a swing state.

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