‘Explaining the India-China Standoff at Doklam: Causes and Implications’, Aakrosh, Vol. 20, No. 77, October 2017, pp. 60-76.
In mid-June 2017, India and China began a long standoff in the Doklam area of Bhutan that came to an end only in late August. The crisis originated when a Chinese road-building party moved into an area that was part of a dispute with Bhutan, an activity that the Indian side deemed was an attempt to change the status quo in an area uncomfortably close to the sensitive ‘Chicken’s neck’ corridor connecting mainland India with Northeast India. As long as the area – part of the trilateral meeting point of the borders between Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan – only saw grazers or the occasional patrol party from China and Bhutan visiting, there really was no major cause for concern. But the Indians refused to countenance permanent Chinese construction in the area and on apparent request from their Bhutanese counterparts moved to physcially block the Chinese from continuing with their activity. The Chinese were clearly surprised, not expecting the Indians to intervene so decisively on the side of the Bhutanese in territory that after all did not belong to India and was the subject of another bilateral dispute altogether. The Chinese reactions in turn were a cause of much surprise for the Indians – the Chinese Foreign Ministry and state-run media began a campaign of vociferous protests and open threats quite unlike usual Chinese practice of either ignoring Indian reports of Chinese transgressions or of giving pro forma responses. In the Doklam case however, there were repeated Chinese calls to India to ‘immediately pull back’ Indian troops to their side of the boundary. The Chinese kept stressing for a long time that this was ‘the precondition for any meaningful talks between the two sides aiming at resolving the issue’. Chinese rhetoric constantly suggested that India not doubt China’s demand for Indian troop withdrawal or that it would do what it took to have India out of ‘Chinese territory’, even suggesting ‘a military response may become inevitable’. The Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was, for instance, targeted by name in several Global Times editorials or op-eds. In the end, the Indians stood their ground and the Chinese had to climb down but there are important considerations for India from the entire episode and the way the vehement Chinese criticism of India through the incident and after.
Explaining Chinese Vituperation
The Legal Dimension
Impact on India-China Relations
The Bhutan Factor
While the Indian and Chinese governments each put out differing versions of the exact terms of the Doklam settlement, it is certain that status quo before 16 June this year was restored. The Chinese stopped their road construction in the area, which had led to the Indian action in the first place and Indian troops have pulled back to their positions. The Chinese government has sought to sell the deal as a case of the Indians having blinked, of having bowed to Chinese threats and coercion. It is doubtful that the line has much purchase even within China where the netizen community might have constraints on their conversations but are not stupid and not entirely without access to information from the outside world. That said, this is unlikely to be the last of confrontations on the boundary between India and China. Following Doklam and their climb-down, the Chinese will certainly view India in a new light. Indian observers might like to think that this might lead to a greater respect for India but it will more likely be the case that Beijing will now want to avenge its loss of face and work harder to prevent India from challenging and resisting Chinese hegemony. It should not surprise Indian defence planners, therefore, if the Chinese test and prod the Indian military by opening up road-building, patrolling and other forms of activity in areas along the disputed boundary that have hitherto remained dormant or not seen any such activity at all. And the most likely venue for such increased activity will be along those parts of their disputed boundary where India faces comparatively greater difficulty of access and of maintiaining logistics supplies. International relations being what they are and given India’s weaker place in the international order currently, India’s leaders should seek to balance their country’s security interests with its other economic and political interests. And in the latter respect, it also benefits India to give the Chinese some face-saving way post-Doklam by offering China incentives particularly on the economic front – clearing the various regulatory and infrastructure hurdles to the Chinese industrial parks that were agreed to by both nations at the highest levels is one way. For India’s domestic audience, it must be reiterated that this tradeoff, all said and done, is mutually beneficial. At the same time, India’s basic policy of countering China’s bullying behaviour must remain clear and unadulterated. It is equally important that India stand up for its own liberal and democratic values and principles in its international relations, all the more to mark the difference between itself and China. This last is not a soft, woolly-headed approach as many in New Delhi might think but an extremely realist and necessary long-term approach necessary to both to prevent repeats of incidents like Doklam as well as to help build up more spine in the region to stand up to China.