Doklam: India at an Inflection Point in its Quest for Regional/Global Power Status
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Issue Vol. 32.3 Jul-Sep 2017 | Date : 14 Sep , 2017

Doklam, was an innocuous and routine local initiative by the troops on ground. The commander there felt the need to ensure that the existing Agreements and Treaties between India and China are abided by in letter and spirit. The Chinese road makers were stoutly confronted by this courageous sub-unit of soldiers who stood up to stop any construction in the territory that belonged to Bhutan – despite the Chinese vehemently continuing to claim otherwise. This uncomplicated straightforward military stance taken by India troops has acquired such import that it now signals to the region and the world of the time when India transcends into the realm of a “great power” to be reckoned with.

China has been aggressively persistent in its efforts to make strategic inroads in India’s immediate neighbourhood, resulting in India being left with a constricted space to exercise its influence.

What India has done displays the Governments ‘steely’ WILL to pursue what it believes and knows is right. Diplomacy, under the sterling leadership of the Minister, has been forthright and firm. Her iteration in the Lok Sabha adequately indicates the sagacity of the government’s actions:

“War is not a solution to anything. Even after war, there has to be a dialogue. So, have dialogue without a war… Patience, control on comments and diplomacy can resolve problems,” the minister said. “If patience is lost, there can be provocation on the other side. We will keep patience to resolve the issue, we will keep engaging with China to resolve the dispute.”

The Chinese, on their part, have let loose a vitriolic diatribe through their state controlled media showing themselves in poor light. The world has been watching and all of China’s neighbours and supporters around the world must have concluded that in future they should not expect a fair deal from a ‘rising China’ which is given to such vituperative bluster. It is unworthy to even bother or recount the didactic statements made in the process and that too in the most patronizing tones. In fact, these could be compiled to illustrate the poorest examples of diplomacy and conduct of international relations at all institutions and universities highlighting this aspect of how diplomacy should NEVER be conducted by mature nations.

India’s maturity stood out in that it did not choose to reciprocate under the Hammurabi principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ to what was being churned out daily in the Chinese media and by the statements of the spokespersons of the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs. It stood firm on the ground for dialogue.

China’s needling continued by provocative intrusions in Barahoti in Uttrakhand sector and Pangong Tso in Ladakh sector. It has even raised a bogus dispute with regard to the western tri-junction of India-Tibet-Nepal. In fact, China contends all tri-junctions along India’s northern boundary: India-Tibet-Myanmar in the Lohit sector of Arunachal Pradesh; Eastern tri-junction of India-Tibet-Bhutan in the Tawang sector; Batang La in the Eastern Sikkim (Doklam); Finger in North Sikkim not far from the Eastern tri-junction of India-Tibet-Nepal; and now the Western tri-junction of India-Tibet-Nepal in the Kalapani-Lipulekh sector.

As a matter of fact by their claim China has willy-nilly increased the length of the LAC by around 20 km (Batang La- Gamochen) and that is a major alteration of the status quo.

Capacity and capability building do not, by themselves, constitute a tangible threat. Judging the ‘intention’ of a nation gives the necessary fillip to any notion of a threat. From the above, China’s intentions do indicate a ‘real threat’ to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India.

It would be appropriate to say here that the Indian policy of ‘Act East’ has been given flesh by India coming to the aid of Bhutan in Doklam. Earlier, Indian diplomacy had compelled Sri Lanka to modify the terms of its lease of the Hambantota Port with China. However, rash statements by China that if India can come to the aid of Bhutan in Doklam, China can also come to the aid of Pakistan in Kashmir cannot be dismissed as a casual analogy. In the first instance the whole of Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh is Indian territory and China needs to clear its mistaken notion of it being Pakistani territory. Pakistan, through armed action by irregulars, had come to illegally control a portion of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh which does not make it Pakistani territory. China Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh is a violation of Indian sovereignty. So any intervention to assist Pakistan in Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh will be a direct assault on India’s sovereignty.

China has been aggressively persistent in its efforts to make strategic inroads in India’s immediate neighbourhood, resulting in India being left with a constricted space to exercise its influence. On the other hand, India has seemingly displayed casualness or may be reticence in doing the same in China’s immediate neighbourhood. This reticence, arguably, stemmed from the lack of confidence in India’s own abilities and India’s obsessive and at times, it’s overly debilitating focus on domestic politics. It is also true that often the smaller countries play ‘hard to get’ to extract the most out of these two large countries contenting for influence. Creditably, today it is the same crop of diplomats doing a stupendous job in building India’s image as a staunch ally in the region. Probably it just required political will, vision and strong leadership at the helm to bring about this transformation.

There is a widespread belief in the ‘think-tank’ circles that there has been a global power shift, as long anticipated. China has managed its relationship with the other global power (US of A) through deft jugglery of managing competition and co-dependence. At the same time it seemingly is creating a new world order through initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and OBOR etc. The “Middle Kingdom” syndrome of Chinese centricity is now manifesting in its behaviour. China looks at the world going back to the period of economic predominance as it existed prior to the exploitation of the ‘planet’ by the colonial powers. But, despite successive dynasties’ efforts to write pacifism and “virtue” into China’s foreign relations, China has often – especially during times of military and political dominance over neighbouring states – behaved in ways that belie its pacifist self-image.

What is it that has today positioned India at an inflexion point in its quest for global/regional power status? Doklam has brought India and China under the blinding arc lights as regional competitors.

It is worth noting the emergence in recent years of an active discourse of exceptionalism among Chinese policy elite. Invocations of China’s “difference” and “singularity” (to use Kissinger’s term) are presented as exclusive methods/concepts under the banner of “with Chinese characteristics”. China claims that it will not seek, as so many other modern great powers have, to remake the status quo in its own favour. China, they contend, is an exception to the modern international rule that as great powers rise, those that invariably seek to impose their will on the international system, as well as on the individual states that compose it.

National strategy entails an understanding of the nuanced application of elements of national power and that is the hall mark of a great power. Juggling with the need for appropriate deployment of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power and/or a combination thereof, to secure a nations interest are the strategic games governments play. Diplomacy not backed by hard power will invariable mean that the only fall back option is likely to be an unrequited compromise that is forced upon the weaker nation. But diplomacy backed by hard power has a greater chance of securing a solution which furthers the national interest. This formula has been evident in the Doklam episode. China has continued to insist that Doklam is Chinese territory, despite Bhutan emphatically stating that the territory belongs to Bhutan. As a matter of fact by their claim China has willy-nilly increased the length of the LAC by around 20 km (Batang La- Gamochen) and that is a major alteration of the status quo. In fact when a Joint Working Group was set up post 1988 visit of the then Indian Prime Minister to China, both sides accepted and identified eight “disputed areas”. Since then due to the People’s Liberation Army’s aggressive patrolling virtually the whole LAC is being disputed!! If both sides start to consider their claims as final irrespective of the others claims then the situation spirals into a confrontation. China has displayed this unsavoury irredentist propensity too often.

Von Clausewitz had propounded that ‘war is an extension of government policy’. Therefore, war is not simply a clash of two opposing militaries! It is two nations at war. War is as much directed at the mind of the government in power. China has, through its media, generated such hype in the population that, allegedly, some passengers on a Chinese airlines flight from the American continent through Shanghai to India were mistreated and hassled by the Chinese cabin crew during its routine halt at Shanghai. On the Indian side there is an undercurrent amongst the people to boycott Chinese goods and is being done in a big way. A nation at war means more than placard or flag waving crowds on the streets or even fiery debates on television. War strains every sinew of the fabric of a nation. Modern wars start well before the first bullet is fired on the borders. There is therefore the need to activate all such agencies and departments that contribute to the protection of the country both externally and internally. Signs of this activation are not evident. Political one-up-man-ship as indulged by opposition parties and enacted for consumption by domestic audiences is a sign of their abject strategic immaturity. Such groups/parties can be exploited by inimical forces to subvert the WILL of the nation.

It would be prudent to start discussions on all the tri-junctions on the India-China boundary to pre-empt China’s next move.

What is it that has today positioned India at an inflexion point in its quest for global/regional power status? First, Doklam has brought India and China under the blinding arc lights as regional competitors. Second, China, the regional hegemon, is meeting a stern unexpected challenge right on its periphery. Third, it has brought forth that historical claims and one sided treaties have only that much cognisance vis-à-vis current agreements and treaties which have been formalised by dialogue. So if China stakes its claim on Arunachal based on the argument that it did not sign or ratify the Shimla Agreement of 1914, then by that very analogy neither did Tibet, Sikkim nor Bhutan (the latter two were not directly under the British rule) sign or endorse the 1890 Anglo-Chinese Treaty. Fourth, the impasse at Doklam has gone on for over 70 days, it is testing the country’s political resolve and ability to continue all other functions of governance as normal. Fifth, there is a realignment of allies and supporters for either side.

The available options to resolve the issue arising from the Doklam impasse need to be weighed and its implications assessed. First, that India is not buckling to Chinese pressure is as important for India as the need to ‘save face’ is for China. Therefore it is essential that both governments continue indirect dialogue on the sidelines of other forums and simultaneously China tones down its undiplomatic tirade against India in its media. Coupled with these moves it must be ensured that there is no change forced on ground by the troops of either side. Second, if China activates sectors in Arunachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand and/or Ladakh, India will be forced to reciprocate in equal measure. In such a situation there is a greater chance of an escalation spiralling into a shooting skirmish or even war. Third, both countries agree to disengage and move back to their original positions as existed before 15 June 2017. It is hoped that such a proposal comes about post the two leaders meeting on the sidelines of BRICS Summit in early September 2017 or may be forced on by onset of heavy snowfall in mid winter. Post winter, having learnt a lesson in 1986 from the Sumdrong Chu instance, the situation is likely to be revert to an impasse if a diplomatic dialogue fails. Fourth, both sides agree to stop all patrolling activity for one year so as to refrain from creating new areas of dispute. Having started with eight mutually agreed disputed areas after 1988 when the Joint Working groups were set up and began meetings, these have multiplied manifold, probably, due to failure of dialogue!! It would be prudent to start discussions on all the tri-junctions on the India-China boundary to pre-empt China’s next move.

It would be prudent to start discussions on all the tri-junctions on the India-China boundary to pre-empt China’s next move.

India has learnt very bitter lessons from the 1962 war. In a war today neither side will win. It will be seen as an ill-considered rash action and failure of the leadership as neither will have secured anything towards their country’s national interest. Internally the countries will be weakened giving room to fissiparous tendencies to further weaken the fabric of the country. The militaries and the economies of both the countries will be seriously battered and mauled.

So it is evident that if India buckles under pressure, it will, for a long time to come, become a subordinate power in the Asian Region and will have no place on the global arena. On the other hand, China will emerge as the dominant power, a regional hegemon feared by its smaller neighbours and straining at the leash to brandish its power on the global stage and change the world order in a hurry. China needs to remember that by it being a power does not, by default, make the others ‘powerless’!!

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Alternatively, if the Doklam issue is resolved amicably without resorting to military force, the stock of both nations will rise regionally and globally. It will pave the way for dialogue to negotiate and resolve the long pending boundary dispute.

India is, thus, at a crucial ‘inflection point’ in its onward march into the future.

NB. As the Indian Defence Review goes to print, the Doklam issue has been amicably resolved wherein troops of both sides reverted to their pre 15 June 2017 positions. It led to the Government announcing that the Indian Prime Minister would be attending the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, China from 3-5 September 2017. However, issues brought out in the editorial remain relevant and India needs to stay on course.

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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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5 thoughts on “Doklam: India at an Inflection Point in its Quest for Regional/Global Power Status

  1. It’a not the so called Indian abomination’s superior strength that brought about this situation, rather its the Chinese taking priority; a war on its eastern front, if DPRK vs US war begins, China has to enter the scene. While this being so, they defered the contest with the HInidian regime, but that may not be the end of the story. They would have planned for a better strike, something that may even shed a single Chinese drop of blood. As long as there are corrupt individuals in all walks of life, they will find ample of oppotunities to derail Hindian train.

  2. Inferiority complex and cowardice was the real policy in defence and foreign affairs ever since independence. Both these ministries were ensured to be infested with those persons whose credentials were firstly anti-Indian, secondly pro-communist and lastly pro-Muslim League. This has resulted in ensuring one-third J&K to remain under Pak control, by taking domestic issue to UNO, engrafting special status for J&K merely because it had Muslim majority. For appeasing the Muslims in the rest of India, Tashkent Declaration was signed in January 1966 to restore back our own territory won by army to the enemy. The planting of Krishna Menon as Defence Minister was the extension of the mindset to ensure that Indian soldiers remained ever deficient with their confidence levels dissipated, and 1962 event as documented by Henderson Brooks is a living testimony. The refusal to exchange POK with POWs was to convert the illegal migrants as permanent vote banks, so that the rulers of India were elected by the vote of foreigners. The refusal and revulsion to retaliate at Kandhar 1999 and Mumbai 26/11 is the manifestation of the entrenched outlook. The enemy had the audacity to threaten us even during 26/11 and the journos of Indian TV channels did not feel any sense of shame to indulge in live reporting to help the enemy to get into better positions to attack Indian commandos. The snakes which were reared for generations in the corridors of power, have become termites which have become difficult to eradicate or annihiliate.

  3. What tilted the scales? Our PM’s intent not to attend BRICK summit which would have forced China to cancel the same which they could ill-afford. Similarly Economic corridor would sooner or later collapse as China will not be able to please and meet all Pakistan terrorist chieftains demands who have got used to luxurious lifestyle courtesy free flow of funds from ISI/Saudi and some from Indian traitors like Hurriyat. It’s only a matter of time before the cookie crumbles.

  4. Sir, In this incidence India did well but committed one grave, in my view, PR mistake. Politicians claimed that the offending road threatened India. They should not have said that, instead shouted loudly about a small country’s sovereignty being violated by big china. That created confusion in the minds of other countries. There was no need to try and make India look big and powerful.
    In my view, India should refrain from mentioning aspirations of being a regional power. It is obvious to anyone what is what. Instead it should be steadfast, determined and emphasise law and order at the world stage.
    India is a nuclear power and in the end it should be prepared to use these weapons and all should not be in any doubt about it. Otherwise there is no point acting big and beating the chest.
    Indian leaders of various political parties have been shown to be a big disappointment. Amazingly there was no unity shown in the face of a threat by a big bully. I think Indian people deserve better than that.AUTER

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