1 August 2017

Doklam–Malabar : A Dangerous Concoction for India

The 2017 trilateral Malabar naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal ended with RearAdmiral William D Byrne of the UnitedStates (US) navy promising India that in the event of an “international crisis in the Indian Ocean, US and Japan will come down to help.” For many Indian journalists reporting from USS Nimitz, the American admiral’s words were manna from heaven, especially in the wake of the ongoing Doklam crisis on the China–Bhutan border. Incidentally, during the 2015 Malabar naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal, the Indian army was playing the fifth version of the “hand-in-hand” joint operation with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Kunming. Such drastic deterioration in India–China relations does not portend well for regional peace.

The admiral’s pronouncement offriendship and assistance reminded me of the Adventures of Tintin: Tintin in Tibet. The comic book narrates the story of Tintin’s commitment to friendship. He moves through the most torturous snow-clad mountains to save his friend Chang, an air-crash victim, marooned in the Himalayas. Tintin receives intelligence and material help from a Tibetan monastery in the mountains to locate Chang and bring him back to Nepal. It is hard not to see a correlation between Tintin in Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa. The comic book was produced in 1959, the same year in which the Dalai Lama was clandestinely brought to India. The comic series represents the typical use of popular culture or soft power to serve international power games. Admiral Byrne is no Tintin. He represents the American hard power. However, both—hard and soft power—convey the same message: the US will travel miles and go in harm’s way to save its friends from China.

A majority of the Indian security experts believe that the US’s backing is essential to handle India–China asymmetries. Many want India’s China strategy to take a cue from Pakistan’s “asymmetric strategy” that advocates the use of proxy war and terrorism to counter India’s superiority. This means constantly subjecting China to a thousand bruises. Raja Mohan believes that the only way for a weak India to deal with a strong China is to develop alliances with China’s enemies and emulate the Pakistan army, which has used the “asymmetric strategy of cross-border terrorism during the last two and a half decades as a way to neutralise India’s superior capabilities” (Mohan 2013).

Such strategic prescriptions to settle the power differential with China areself-destructive. Pakistan’s obsession withKashmir has consumed it. Regressiverealism has made Pakistan a US puppet and pawn. Pakistan buys US weapons to fight US wars. It sacrifices its military manpower to give the US a victory in Afghanistan. Asymmetric strategy has only aided the Pakistani military elite and landed gentry in getting their domestic and international properties underwritten by Washington. Despite this, India is expected to imitate Pakistan. “Nonalignment 2.0, A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century,” a document by eminent Indian thinkers, unashamedly suggested, “The fork in the road we need to choose is the politico-military strategy of quid pro quo and asymmetry as a means to defend our borders with China” (Khilnani et al 2012: 41).

Forget imbibing any lessons from the Pakistani experience, we are not even willing to learn from our past. Our infatuation with the US continues. The Indianright-wing elite’s (liberal and conservative)associationwith the US grew when the US was allowed to use Indian soil and resources to foment trouble in Tibet. The high point of the Indian elite’s relationship with the US was the arrival of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. It peaked with the implementation of the forward policy on the India–China border that eventually culminated in a war. India did not gain anything, but we lost 3,000 young soldiers in a war that changed nothing on the ground. The Chinese continued to hold Aksai Chin and India retained Tawang.

In fact, till the late 1950s, the Chinese had never broached the subject of the Indian presence in Tawang. When the Indian national flag was hoisted in Tawang in 1951, the Chinese did not object. Beijing never protested aboutTawang duringthe signing of the 1954 Indo–Tibetan trade agreement. The formation of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) in 1954 was also ignored by China. This means that Tawang entered the Indo–China dispute vocabulary only after the Indian elite had dugout Aksai Chin in the late 1950s and made the road from Xinjiang to Tibet a security and sovereignty concern. Thus, theIndia–China border issue that was almost non-existent till the mid-1950s flared up later, resulting in a futile war that only benefited the US establishment and the Indian anti-communist elite.

Ever since the US announced its “pivot to Asia,” India has adopted a self-destructive path to make China its chief enemy. If China was a bad communist, it continues to be a bad capitalist in India’s eyes. The Doklam crisis has brought out the India–China differences in the open. However, if the matter has to be resolved in the larger interest of the region, then we must try and understand what has triggered the crisis.

Doklam–Malabar Connection

India–China relations are in the doldrums. The Doklam conundrum has worsened. An all-out confrontation could be on the cards. The problem started with China building a road in the territory that is also claimed by Bhutan. India thwarted the Chinese move by militarily occupying the disputed Doklam plateau. India claims that Doklam is Bhutanese property and it is treaty-bound to back Bhutan’s territorial claims. The Chinese feel that India has violated its sovereignty. “Border line is the bottom line for China.” India is refusing to vacate. China is refusing to negotiate. Chinese media is sending warning signals. Indian media is dutifully broadcasting Chinese threats. The dispute has assumed dangerous proportions and has jeopardised the future of India–China relations. Under the circumstances, it is tempting to follow the herd, join the chorus—calling China aggressive, irredentist, colonialist and a regional bully—and earn all the “likes.” But, looking at the situation objectively is a little tough.

Incidentally, the Doklam crisis that began in mid-June preceded the 2017 Malabar Naval Exercise, the trilateral naval exercise, jointly conducted by India, Japan and the US in the Indian Ocean. Is there a link between Doklam and Malabar?

One possible connection could be that the Chinese have deliberately lured the Indian military into Doklam to disrupt the biggest version of the Malabar naval exercises. But, the question is, why would the Chinese invite a third party to occupy the land that they claim? Why would China cede territory to a party that has no claims over it? Was the Chinese policy directed at proving India to be an aggressive monster? If that was the objective, then China is far from achieving its objectives.

The Chinese road-building in Doklam is also blamed on power-games within the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping’s quest to consolidate their hold on China. This logic suggests that Xi was desperate for a military victory and, therefore, he instigated the Doklam crisis. But, the fact is that Doklam is a blot on Xi’s reputation. Another explanation could be that Xi’s rival has used the PLA to discredit him.

Conversely, the Chinese could argue that the Doklam adventure could be one strand in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2019 election campaign plan. Modi’s performance on the economic and social fronts has been below par. His surgical strikes against Pakistan have given India no substantial victory. His military achievement against a bunch of stone pelters in Kashmir is at best a Pyrrhic victory.

However, a more plausible explanation for the Doklam imbroglio can be located in the maritime strategy of sea powers. According to naval strategist Julian Corbett, war at sea is not enough to settle issues between nations; victory on land is quintessential. Corbett advocated joint army–navy action to achieve results. Substantiating Corbett’s postulations, British First Sea Lord (1904–10) Admiral Jackie Fisher stated, “The army is a projectile to be fired by the navy” (ME6 Khoo 1998: 3).

The navy has the ability to reach distant locations, but lacks adequate numerical strength to withstand enemy attack if the latter decides to concentrate all its forces in protection of the coastline. It is a naval need, therefore, to ensure that the enemy land forces remain widely dispersed. The British followed a similar policy in the 1841 Opium War. The Royal Navy would have failed to withstand the Chinese onslaught had the Chinese not sent a part of their army to defend Tibet. The British encouraged Gulab Singh, the ruler of Ladakh, to attack Tibet. This led the Chinese to send a part of their forces to protect Tibet. The British won their war against China, but a gullible Gulab Singh lost against Tibet (Bhardwaj 2014: 34).

In 1962, a similar land–maritime combination was used by the US to put the Soviet Union in a dilemma. While the maritime action on the Cuban coast between the Soviet Union and the US was on, a trigger on the India–China border added to Soviet problems. The Soviets were in a dilemma, whether to protect their interests in Cuba or support their communist ally in Asia. The Soviets decided to abandon China and gain India, causing a rift in the communist camp. India lost the war, but its elite were able to use the war to defeat their class enemy, the Communist Party of India.

In the Tintin comics, the protagonist is always accompanied by his sailor buddy, Captain Haddock. Whether it is in Tintin in Tibet or in The Red Sea Sharks, the land and maritime components always work in tandem. All their action is in consonance with the Western doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) smaller powers from evil powers. The fulfilment of R2P requires local assistance that can be conveniently sacrificed for the larger imperial aims. Limited wars in which small and medium powers indulge are a larger part of the same game. It is important to understand the limitations of limited wars. Neither the proxy, nor the frivolous limited wars that Pakistan has waged against India have given their nation anything in return. The Doklam crisis must be resolved. The slide towards war must halt and the Indian elite’s desire for violence must be checkmated. We must not have a repeat of 1962. India cannot afford to get sucked into another war.

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