The Dragon Breathes Fire at Doklam: Should India be Prepared for Limited War?
Why did China, on June 16, 2017, try to change the status quo in the China-India-Bhutan land dispute, by trying to occupy the strategic Doklam plateau on the Bhutanese side of the boundary tri-junction – an action which triggered the ongoing stand-off with Indian troops? What will be the foreseeable outcome of this ongoing incident, which so far has seen the Chinese media hyperventilating and holding out all sorts of threats against India, ostensibly on behalf of its government?
To understand these issues, one can start by going back into China’s recent history when, in 1990, Chairman Deng Xiaoping encapsulated China’s ‘24 character strategy’ – an interim security policy for China to ‘hide its capacities ………. bide its time ……..maintain a low profile………not claim leadership’ – while it strengthened itself economically and militarily, before claiming its ‘rightful’ place as a global superpower and the ‘second pole’ in a future bipolar world. Since recent times, especially since President Xi Jinping took over reins in 2013, China appears to have moved beyond to the next stage, which includes a more assertive approach to stake its territorial claims, by first securing its core area of interest along its periphery. Thus, China’s neighbours in the East and South China Seas as well as potential rivals elsewhere have been subjected to more assertive and hostile behavior from China, both directly and in concert with China’s proxies North Korea and Pakistan, especially in the last three years. All of China’s neighbours are well aware of China’s propensity to changing facts on the ground and slowly altering the status quo in its favour, as evident from its frenetic island building activities in South China Sea.
The other related issue is China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. The OBOR is President Xi Jinping’s major initiative towards China achieving its future regional and global ambitions. It is obvious that President Xi Jinping has invested heavily in this project, which symbolizes China’s entry onto the global stage. India has taken a considered decision not to participate in the OBOR because the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a critical part of China’s OBOR, traverses through territory that clearly belongs to India. To that extent, non-participation by India and Bhutan in the inaugural OBOR Conference conducted at Beijing in mid May 2017 was perceived not only as an affront by China but also seen as having the potential to raise a question mark on China’s grand plans – because India can well turn out to be a rallying point, not only for those who are skeptical of the OBOR but also for those who have apprehensions about China’s not-so-peaceful rise.
It is the author’s belief that the unilateral attempt by China to change the status quo in Doklam a month later, in June 2017, contrary to the letter and spirit of the India-China Border Peace & Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) of 1993 and the agreement of 2012 between the Special Representatives of India and China, is a truculent response by China towards the potential ‘spoilers’ of OBOR – India and Bhutan. Had the intrusion succeeded, it was also meant as an implicit warning to India for the future. Clearly, it was also an attempt to cause fissures in the time-tested relationship between India and Bhutan, as a precursor to include the latter in China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategic encirclement project. However, not unpredictably, Indian troops intervened immediately to block advance of the Chinese road construction team and the accompanying troops, who attempted to cross the disputed border into Bhutan. Since then, both sides have reinforced their troops in the area and stand-off is still continuing.
Much has been written in the media about India’s vulnerability vis a vis China in the area of the narrow Siliguri Corridor, just South of the Doklam Plateau. It is well known that it is critically important for India’s security interests that the Doklam Plateau is not controlled by forces inimical to India. Hence, it is not intended to elucidate any further on that aspect in this article.
On the other hand, it is important to understand Bhutan’s role in the tripartite relationship to get a sense of the issues which are at play in this particular incident. Bhutan and India have a very close, time-tested relationship, facilitated by historical and cultural bonds as well as geo-strategic and economic factors. China has been making efforts for a long time to weaken this relationship by creating and playing on fears that India will annex Bhutan – an aspect that the China has not missed out on trying to exploit even during the ongoing incident. Predictably, the Bhutanese leadership and people have not been influenced by the threats, negative propaganda and enticements targeting the India-Bhutan relationship, flowing out from Beijing.
That brings us to the next question: What is likely to be the outcome of this incident?
Clearly, it is China that has attempted to change the status quo, in contravention of existing agreements, which were meant to ensure continuing peace and stability on the mutual borders. Thus, the initiative to escalate further or the onus for return to status quo ante clearly rest with China.
As far as China is concerned, despite holding out repeated threats of initiating military confrontation, its options appear to be quite limited. ‘All-out war’ appears almost out of the question considering that India is nuclear armed, and also, a large scale confrontation would draw international opprobrium, and possibly, intervention in some form by the US. This would be very damaging for China’s long term ambitions to achieve superpower status and challenge US uni-polarity. As for a ‘limited war’ option, China would be aware that the outcome can go either way. In fact, the Indian military is much better positioned motivationally and logistically for conduct of such operations in the current circumstances. Moreover, China would have to reverse all existing peace agreements with India and Bhutan, starting with the 1993 BPTA with India, before it can opt to use lethal force. Use of lethal force by China would prematurely kill the concept of ‘peaceful rise’ and set alarm bells ringing in its neighbourhood and all across the world. Furthermore, it would be risking its economic relationship with India, where it has invested heavily and with whom it currently enjoys a huge trade surplus.
For India too, the options are limited. Backing down and pulling out is not an option as it would tantamount to letting down Bhutan, a time tested ally. India also sees itself as a future Asian leader, alongside China, and thus is not likely to go for this ‘weaker option.’ India is also aware that, given terrain advantages and the advantages of its Air Force, a ‘limited war’ or ‘skirmish,’ on the lines of Nathu La 1967, would be a best case option, which could yield favourable dividends, both strategic and tactical.
The writing on the wall is clear. Despite all the threats held out by China, mostly through the targeted bluster of its government controlled English language media, India is not likely to budge from its principled stand of not allowing China to disturb the status quo. Not doing so is seen as being vastly detrimental to India’s long term strategic and security interests. Hence, the stand-off is likely to continue, without any immediate end in sight. Peace negotiations, followed by a pull-back at some stage, appear to be the best option for all sides. In the meanwhile, Indian troops must keep their ‘eyes and ears open’ and their ‘powder dry,’ to meet any unforeseen eventualities.