Doklam: Sinister Strategic Lessons for Asian Region of a Rising China
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 09 Aug , 2017

In the mid-1990’s a “China Threat Theory” gained currency as a reaction to China’s huge progress in the economic, military and manufacturing sectors. In fact, its overall accumulation of its ‘Comprehensive National Power’ became a cause of concern, particularly in the Asian Region. As China acquired greater political, economic and military power, China wanted to assure and probably, assuage the neighbouring countries that its rise will not be a threat to peace and security in the region.

China’s success in achieving economic growth as a result of post-Mao reforms had given rise to speculation that China would rise as a great power in the twenty-first century.

When Deng Xiaoping took the helm after Mao’s death, he realized the China was weak after rounds of political turmoil’s and deficient’s in essential resources, therefore he advocated the philosophy of “Hide One’s Capabilities and Bide One’s Time”. While, in respect of the disputed territories, the principle applied was of “Putting Aside the Dispute and Cooperating in Development”. This pragmatic and practical method did benefit China greatly and at least ensure the stable and peaceful environment indispensable for Deng’s reform and opening up policy. However, the evasion of dispute settlement just postponed the outburst or even aggravated it in many cases. In various circles it was felt that this policy could result in China’s loss of actual control over some territories in long term which it considered essential for claiming of sovereignty.

As the Chinese economic development reached a new high, the new crop of paramount leaders, in particular Xi Jinping, felt it was time to wipe out the centuries of humiliation imposed by foreign powers. This stance has made them prone to taking hawkish stances over territory so as not only to appeal to the populism, nationalism and chauvinism which are beneficial to supplement their reign, but also to use the frenzy to distract Chinese people from paying more attention to more urgent internal reforms on sensitive issues such as political system and human rights from time to time. From this point, Chinese diplomacy on territory dispute is just the extension of domestic policies.[1]

China’s success in achieving economic growth as a result of post-Mao reforms had given rise to speculation that China would rise as a great power in the twenty-first century. Since the mid-1990’s western media had begun to report on China as a “coming power, an economic center of gravity in Asia, a military mover and shaker, and a peer of any of the Western powers that nibbled at China’s fringes and brought emperors low.”[2]

…As a rising power China would tend to use force rather than consultation in disputes with other nations.

China’s move towards becoming the center of the world’s post-Cold War security calculation has raised, once again, the age old question in diplomacy – how can the international community manage the ambitions of a rising power? From a realists point of view, some scholars have argued that the rising economic and military power of China, would, by its own accord, make China a threat to Asian and global security. The mere emergence of an economically and militarily stronger China would upset the balance of power in Asia and spark realignments by China’s neighbours. As a rising power China would tend to use force rather than consultation in disputes with other nations.[3]

The term proved controversial because the word ‘rise’ did fuel perceptions that China is a threat to the established order. China had realised a negative wave building up and immediately initiated steps to redeem its historically regarded image as a less aggressive empire. So since 2004 a more benign term China’s, that is ‘peaceful development’ has been used by the Chinese leadership. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, together, re-christened China’s ‘rise’ to ‘peaceful rise’ and further diluted it to ‘peaceful development’ in a conscious effort to ‘photoshop’ its ‘soft-power’ image and dispel any lingering apprehensions of it being a threat to its neighbours in particular.[4]

“Peaceful rise” is used primarily to reassure the nations of Asia that the rise of the in military and economic prominence will not pose a threat to peace and stability, and that other nations will benefit from China’s rising power and influence.

The idea emphasizes the importance of soft power and is based, in part, on the premise that good relations with its neighbours will enhance rather than diminish the Comprehensive National Power of the China. Part of this idea dictates that the China will avoid ‘neomercantilism’ and ‘protectionism’.

…a new kind of “tribute system” is emerging wherein patronage and protection is apportioned to countries in return for their recognition and acceptance of China’s core interests, sensitivities and superiority – a classic benevolent hegemonic system!!

In diplomacy, the idea calls for less assertiveness in border disputes such as those concerning the Spratly Islands, Senkaku Islands, and South Tibet. There is a joke regarding China’s principles over territory disputes – “when poor we shall put aside the dispute and cooperate in development; when rich we shall insist the territories belong to China since the ancient time. Then they are sacred and inviolable.” In fact China has simmering territorial disputes with most of the 14 neighbours which even includes those it has signed the much touted Boundary Agreements.

Analysts suggest that a new kind of “tribute system” is emerging wherein patronage and protection is apportioned to countries in return for their recognition and acceptance of China’s core interests, sensitivities and superiority – a classic benevolent hegemonic system!! China has built a capability for deterrence and coercion and with the past precedent of resorting to punitive forays to ‘teach a lesson’, the use of military might will remain a ‘threat in being’ even while, on the face of it, the tactic will be to command respect and ‘obeisance through patronage and predominant power’.[5]

China has not been able to wish away the “China Threat Theory”. It has focused on economic diplomacy to reassure the smaller countries around it and augment its political clout in the Asia-Pacific region, Central Asia and even Europe. The Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is a recent example in this line of diplomacy. It is using its economic muscle to convince the global community that its benign rise is a win-win scenario on the business and trade fronts.

So what has the Chinese bombastic stance in Doklam proved? It has disproved all that China has been shrilly trumpeting as to what “peaceful rise” is all about. It has thus emphatically proved that a Rising China is a threat to its neighbours.

…India is in for a turbulent and patchy relationship with China in the near-term at least. National solidarity is essential for India to stand up to the challenge.

The sinister strategic lessons that emerge are that:-

  • It has stated in unambiguous terms that China will use force in its boundary disputes and dispense with any form of consultations.
  • China will pursue its irredentist ambitions to take by force all territories it has its evil dragon eye on.
  • China will entice and lure India’s neighbours to bandwagon with China and if it sees any reluctance it will bully/coerce these tiny nations into submission.
  • It will continue to exert diplomatic pressure on Bhutan and is likely to raise the issue of the Eastern Tri-junction of Bhutan-Tibet-India in the Tawang sector next summer.
  • It is also instigating Nepal to raise a dispute with regard to the Western Tri-junction of Nepal-Tibet-India in the Kalapani-Lipulekh Pass area where, in fact, none exists.
  • It will raise the South Tibet issue to the level of a “core interest” and compel countries to endorse it.
  • With a slowdown in its economy thereby diluting China’s geo-economic strategy of globally isolating Taiwan, it is more likely that China will increase the presence of PLAN in the Taiwan Straits to continue its policy of isolating the island nation.
  • It will ratchet up the South China Sea matter and even interfere with freedom of navigation of merchant ships. It will also impose an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the region. Recently, talks between Chinese and Vietnamese Foreign Ministers broke off in a huff, inter alia, on this issue.
  • It will up the ante in East China Sea and implement the ADIZ over the area to challenge Japan on the Senkaku claims.
  • It will pressurise the Central Asian Nations into allowing selective entry of nations to negotiate trade and infrastructure deals with them.
  • It will keep India out of Afghanistan and attempt to hinder its ongoing infrastructure projects including those connected to Chabahar Port.
  • It could force India into a war that will put back India’s economy by ten years. Thus eliminating it as a challenger in the region.

Considering the foregoing, India is in for a turbulent and patchy relationship with China in the near-term at least. National solidarity is essential for India to stand up to the challenge. Strategic naivety and immaturity emanating from short-sighted parochial political compulsions are uncalled for and need to be vociferously condemned through strong public discourse. National security is too important to be given mere casual fragmented attention.


[1] Chen, Jason,

[2] Bajwa, Lt Gen JS, “Modernisation of the Chinese PLA: From Massed Militia to Force Projection, Lancer Publishers, New Delhi, 2002, p 292.

[3] Ibid, p 292-93.

[4] Bajwa, Lt Gen JS, Editor, “China: Threat or Challenge?” Lancer Publishers, New Delhi, 2017, p ix.

[5] Op. cit. Bajwa, “Modernisation of the Chinese PLA……”, p 294.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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11 thoughts on “Doklam: Sinister Strategic Lessons for Asian Region of a Rising China

  1. Very succinctly analysed and hope people in right places take note and prepare accordingly diplomatically as well as militarily. Issues enunciated are and would be a matter of concern. Need to solve all the internal problems in the East and north east and bring about acceptance by public. Politically also no opposition is acceptable.
    A well thought out strategy with back up wherewithal is very essential now. Eraseing 1962 memories will raise National morale and prestige. May be very strict centralised control in the east will help.
    My Compliments to the author for putting things in clear perspective.

  2. 6.Used low cost strategy and its working till date!
    7.Risked 4 times against the bigger neighbour and got defeated and… still trying hard!
    8.COnstructed Gwadar and made accessibility hard unlike Karachi.

    Our eastern Neighbour:
    1.Copied the Mig21 even when 250 documents were’nt provided!
    2.Copied the kilo into Yuan and its derivatives.
    3.SOld such equipment to others against the competition of the OEMs!
    4.Mixed defence and trade in its relation with its neighbours!
    5.Improved internal efficiency of its economy.
    6.They have problems with 14 of its neighbours! i repeat 14! It indicates such a confidence in their ability either to pick a fight to conclusion or to solve it peacefully!
    7.No one will call India and give anything on a platter.It’s we who should utilise the opportunity as and when they arise! or we should create them.
    8.COpied SU27 and still Russia is selling them Su35 and S400!
    9.They do everything by hook or crook but…for the country. Here we do for profits for a few. The state is monolithic but here…
    10.They float their currency as a new reserve currency and the world responds to it!
    11.Hired FSU engineers to develop their technical capability.
    12.Bought Varyag as a recreational platform only to recreate it!

    For a certain kind of thing happening in our country we need a separate TV channel! 365 by24 by7!
    We make rules.Lots of them.Are we abiding by them?

    With such a setup of internal disequilibrium how to establish equilibrium outside? Three times food, good water and air will make the body fit to fight external infections!
    If we aspire to compete we need to remove our inconsistencies first.
    Certainly We need lots of introspection.

  3. Resp.Sir,
    As a neutral observer:
    When we try to compete with others we should compete as in the Climax oF BenHur! and that’s competition. Rest all Repetition!
    Some of the opportunities we missed:
    1.After shankul HDW sub, one sub every 3-4 years could have been produced. Specialised manpower (High pr.welding) would have survived and developed industrial base in India.
    2.License manf.of AK series rifles when USSR was in generous terms.
    3.Mig29 assembly line when USSR offered India.
    4.When Mirage 2000 production line was shut down in France we could have bought it.
    5.Mig21 production line closure without experimenting anything.
    6.Second hand planes when they were available (UAE-Mirages) and with our expertise we could have easily turned them into lethal platforms with our capabilities in less time.
    7.Border infrastructure (roads) in the north-east.(50 years! really long time by any standard)
    8.Emphasis on indigenous production of arms upto the last bolt and nut even if it is the .303 copy! (Remembering Air Marshal Arjan Singhji)
    NB: Gunsmiths of Munger are doing it for generations!
    10.Last decade…Lost decade!
    11.Military men in decision making framework.
    12.Failure to mix defence and trade with our friends and neighbours.
    13.No clarity whether we are assertive or timid with ourselves.
    We think that the world should respect us for our standing but it is not always working. We need to actively manage our position in the world like the DCT in the subs!

    “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”
    – Norman Schwarzkopf

    and what they did…

    Our western neighbour:
    1.After 1971 bought F7 airguard from our eastern neighbour (cheap copies!)
    2. Formed strategic alliance with the eastern neighbour
    3.Played small brother to the big brother and now playing the reverse!
    4.Always gave more importance to the preparedness viz., equipment
    5.Was never complacent.
    6.Used low cost strategy and its wor

  4. “… It … is likely to raise the issue of the Eastern Tri-junction of Bhutan-Tibet-India in the Tawang sector next summer ” -
    This is really an incisive observation to make to date. Could the respected General please give his assessment to us non-military readers following him in IDR on whether the Indian Army is strategically as well poised in Tawang sector as in Doklam plateau to blunt a Chinese attack there? I note that in Sikkim sector IA occupies higher ground facing PLA in Chumbi Valley. …

    I look forward to your military judgement, General.

    • Hi Sankar,
      The Eastern Tri-Junction of Bhutan-India-Tibet is disputed due to to fundamental dispute on the alignment of the McMahon Line. India had stated way back in the 1950′s that while there may be an difference of opinion in the interpreting the alignment of the McMahon Line. This would be due to the limited level of cartographic expertise and small scale of the Map used when marking this line way back in 1912-14. Then there was the need to transpose this line first on “inch maps” in the 1960/1970″s and later on to ‘meter maps’ as they became available with improved techniques in cartography. India’s stated position has been that this line, as even Henry McMahon put down in a note, would follow the highest watershed of the Himalayas. Thagla Ridge is India’s interpretation of being the main watershed but Chinese go by their direct projection of the alignment of the McMahon Line which is the ridge further south even beyond Namka Chu. This was the contention which led to the the 1962 war.
      So to continue to bully and pressurise Bhutan they instigate India, they could rake up this issue again.
      Hope its gives a clearer picture of the matter?

      • Thank you General for your input.
        To my mind, in the long past there was no technology like GPS of present days for demarcating positions on the boundary of a state precisely as at present. My understanding is, historically boundaries were agreed upon among the states by some principles such as defining watershed etc. which could be somewhat fuzzy from modern standpoint true.
        When that was not followed, nations created and safeguarded their boundaries by fighting wars as it happened in Europe. And that is the crux of the problem here – India’s boundary with China will be defined as time goes on by fighting war or by the threat of war to freeze the “boundary” along LAC. Indian Armed forces are going to play the crucial role in this matter.
        The real disaster for India has been Nehru’s policy of accepting Tibet as a part of China which was never the case historically. There is an excellent article by the former FS Sibal in the Economictimes which has been linked in this edition of IDR. Reading through the comments there, I came across the post by some “BM” which I quote as an eye-opener in this context:
        “Why China do not recognize McMahon line in Arunachal ? Chumbi Valley was part of Sikkim till Tibet (not China) annexed it by force form Sikkim in 1790 and Sikkim never accepted it. In 1904, Chogyal of Sikkim entertained British officer Yonghusband in his palace in Chumbi Valley. Who are British to hand over another country to China ? Tibet was independent in 1014 and China illegally annexed it by military force.”
        I note that China has settled her boundary with Myanmar on the basis of the same McMahon Line which she rejected in the case for India.

        Best regards.

  5. Lt.Gen JS Bajwa has clearly and correctly analyzed the rise of Communist China and PLA. Its implication to its smaller neighbours.Its border dispute with many countries.The claiming of S.China Seas as its own territory.Its island building.We can see from here that China built up its economy first ,then went on with its territory ambitions with the rise of PLA. China has also become a threat to India .Indian leaders should take China seriously and devise a strategic plan to boost its economy and later strenghten its military. a plan should be devised to sabotage and weaken Pakistan .India as a nuclear power should show its power to smaller countries like Sri Lanka.Not to be bullied by them.

  6. Gen Bajwa has lucidly and comprehensively sewn the political, military, economic and diplomatic facets into an all interwoven mesh for world in general and Asia in particular as to what China portends.
    Apart from what the General has envisioned, India needs to at least and at last realise that the fulcrum of the security of own and of the region hinges on military capability encompassing men, forces morale and arsenal. India for far too long has deliberately ommitted this vital aspect of projection of national power so much so that even weak and small neighbours attempt to bully us and get away. Disaster in Sri Lanka in the form of Op Pawan and subsequent Op Parakram damp squib are too recent and fresh in the memory of our neighbours, even though our politico-babu have taken “Ostrich” approach naively thinking that by pressin del button it will go away; least realising that in international relations catches are rather huge and recall is in nano seconds. Superior demonstratable military power which can be brought to bear on China can only replace the cache. Feeble attempts at so called coercive diplomacy minus convincingly demonstratable military power by neta-babu combine has no steam and is a mere “Geedar Bhabki”.
    There is no alternative to building military strength in terms of capabilities, morale of forces and potent arsenal to stand up to Bully China notwithstanding the shrill rhetoric that it is not 1962 by conveniently forgetting recent military events.

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