Doklam Standoff and its Strategic Implications on Asia; By Sudhir Singh

CAS article no. 0042/2017

The ongoing Doklam issue which started on June 16 2017, concerns disputed area in Bhutan. Doklam is situated at the trijunction of India, Tibet and Bhutan. This area which is claimed by China is proximal to India and particularly overlooks the ‘chicken’s neck corridor’ which connects the Indian mainland to the Northeast states. China’s govenment made this move thinking that Bhutan would not oppose Beijing’s extension of Chinese roads into Doklam, due to Thimpu’s lack of adequate military power. However China had not expected India to step in. Indian’s move of deploying its army to defend the territorial integrity of Bhutan has taken China by surprise.

China seems to keep taking such kind of steps frequently to demoralize the morale of neighboring countries. We have witnessed a gamut of such violations on the LAC which demarcates the working border between India and Tibet. According to latest reports, China violates the LAC almost 300 times annually. Since the last one decade these incidents have been increased. India gave its rights over Tibet to China through Panchseel treaty to China in 1954. The idealist PM Nehru thought that China will be satisfied with this unilateral sacrifice of India and it will propel his dream to emerge as an Asian power. Within the next 5 years, China annexed Tibet. Through this Himalayan blunder, Nehru brings China to our border.

On the other hand, Bhutan has been extremely close to India since our independence. A small Himalayan state, it has been known for its concept of ‘Gross Domestic Happiness’. Bhutan doesn’t have diplomatic relations with China therefore Bhutan is doing diplomatic business through its New Delhi mission with China. In South Asia , Bhutan is considered as India’s best friend. Despite its size, Bhutan has vast natural resources and sells almost 70% of its hydro electric power to India.

Given this rich bonhomie of bilateral relations, India was duty bound to defend Bhutan. Even before Doklam, the Indian army has been providing training to the Bhutanese army. We have not forgotten that PM Modi’s maiden foreign visit was to Bhutan, soon after taking office in May 2014.

PLA has kept violating Bhutanese territorial integrity since decades. Doklam is the latest of this series. The trijunction where Doklam is situated is strategically important. In 1967 there were violent clashes between India and China near Doklam. Indian army gave a ‘bloody nose’ to the PLA in this conflict and since then Indian army has been keeping dominant position in this area. According to Lt. General (ret.) D.B. Shtatkar , who spent four decades in services and has witnessed wars including 1962 and 1999, India has a dominant position in this area and the PLA has to deploy 9 soldiers to contain 1 Indian soldiers. China has been ardent to alter the situation. It could be only possible when PLA would have control over important strategic points of this area. Doklam is extremely important to fulfill these strategic aspirations to the PLA.
Doklam has put China under a major strategic dilemma. Since June 2003, when PM A.B. Vajpayee visited Beijing and high power dialogue process has been put in place to resolve thorny border problem, 19 rounds has taken place. Despite these 19 rounds of high decibel dialogue to resolve the border dispute, nothing has been achieved. China keeps opening new disputes and some times even opens closed disputes. During the Doklam standoff they have threatened to reopen the Sikkim issue. The Chinese seek to test the patience of Modi government which has taken bold steps to expand infrastructure in close proximity of LAC. Modi government has also adopted Kautilyan policy of asymmetrical mode of diplomacy to contain China within Asia. Modi government has upgraded its relations with Japan, ASEAN countries, South Korea and United States. On the South China Sea issue, it has taken a bold step to advice all disputant parties to be abide by the relevant international laws. It has also upgraded its relations with other stakeholders of the global order.

Our NSA was in China for a BRICS meeting ( 27-28 July 2017). During his stay in China, the official Chinese media opined a positive note for the resolution of the standoff. They also accused USA of provoking India to have confrontation with China. The essence of these opinions expressed in the Chinese media have been that China and India must resolve the matter. However soon after the NSA visit , the Chinese president appeared in military uniform in a PLA parade and declared that PLA is capable to defeat any intruding army.

During his stay in China, the NSA met the Chinese President and may have conveyed Indian desire to resolve the standoff peacefully. PM Modi is also expected to attend the BRICS submit meeting in September 2017 to be held in China. The billion dollor question remains unanswered: will Doklam be resolved before September?

One believes that the Chinese are in greater strategic dilemma over Doklam. They are trying to build the road in Bhutanese territory that is overlooking the strategic Silliguri corridor. Needless to say that, its sustainability is vital for India for connecting Northeastern states. China is anticipating breaking this corridor in case of future conflict. But in this spree, the Chinese have forgotten that the global ambience is not positive in the prevailing security architecture. USA , Japan and ASEAN countries are against any kind of Chinese serious attempt to dominate Asia and in the Doklam standoff they are with India. Through this standoff, the Chinese are also perceived as an aggressor because they are intruding into the Bhutanese territory. Bhutan is not only a small country but is also known for its inclination for global peace. It has also been vindicated through this standoff that only Pakistan and North Korea is with China out of 14 neibhours. this is the reality, despite the Chinese president’s ambitious OBOR project. The South China Sea dispute has further accelerated ASEAN countries’ suspicions against China.

India has done well to challenge Chinese aggression in Bhutan. This standoff demonstrates Chinese posturing against India to test how far a determined Modi government is going to contain China. The Modi government has emerged more dedicated in this acid test. It has also garnered global support against Chinese aggression. This standoff has also proved that the Chinese dream to be unipolar power in Asia is still a remote dream. The prevailing security architecture of Asia is turbulent and Indian attitude has ensured that it must be multipolar. It has also negated the idea that the 21st century will be an Asian century, as the Asian powers are fighting and not cooperating to achieve this concept. This standoff has further pushed back the idea for decades. The prevailing trust deficit between India and China will be also a major roadblock for south-south cooperation and establishment of new international economic order based on justice.

In the backdrop of the above discussion , it cannot be claimed that a possibility of war is not looming. It is a fact that it will be determinantal for both countries but could be extremely painful for China. India has many cards to play against China. In case of even a limited war, India must provide recognition to Tibet as an independent country while dismissing Panchsheel (1954). Although this standoff will be resolved peacefully, India must give a serious thought to reciprocate Chinese encouragement of concealed war tactics against India. Needless to say that besides Tibet and Xingjiang which are more than 1/3 of Chinese territory, there are other turbulent spots in China where India can think of reciprocating. In international relations ‘tit for tat’ is the oldest diplomacy. Modi government has followed Kautilyan policy to deal with China till date. A defining moment has come for India to sustain this policy.

(Dr. Sudhir Singh has completed his Ph.D from School of International Relations, JNU and is teaching in Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi. Dr. Singh regularly appears on TV channels for debates on diverse issues of foreign policy. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of CAS or C3S. )

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