Doklam Denouement: Change in Rules of Engagement

After 70 days of apparently irreconcilable positions, China and India ultimately opted for ‘expeditious disengagement’ at Doklam early this week. Both the countries finally displayed maturity and let diplomacy trump posturing. The jury is still out on what precipitated the seemingly sudden resolution. The upcoming BRICS summit is the top suspect, of course. The logic is that BRICS is fast becoming one of the key instruments of China’s power projection and that had India chosen to give it a go by, a la the Belt and Road conference earlier this year, BRICS as a platform would have been severely undermined, embarrassing the hosts and pushing the ongoing conflict between the two countries to a dangerous tipping point. That’s a valid argument.

However, my own sense is that while the timing of the ‘disengagement’ is quite visibly influenced by the compulsion of holding a successful BRICS summit, the resolution of the stalemate has more to do with the increasingly untenable position of China on the issue.  Beijing never expected that construction of a road in Doklam plateau would elicit such a strong reaction from India. It was unprecedented for India to cross the border to enter the territory of another country – Bhutan’s, from Indian perspective – and physically stop Chinese army from constructing the road in what China believes is its territory.  The extraordinarily strident rhetoric arising from China, both in the foreign office and the state owned media is evidence that China was exceptionally riled by this move from an ‘upstart’ India.  Therefore, I would argue that China did not ‘choose’ Doklam for a face- off.  What supports this hypothesis is the fact that at Doklam India commands the heights and is, therefore, in tactically superior position. Had China pressed the issue militarily it would have come out the poorer.  China did try to intimidate India for more than two months but in vain.  Its options were shrinking with time as India was not responding to the verbal threats at all and China was in no position to force a military solution at Doklam.  The longer the fracas continued, the more it would erode China’s position as the pre-eminent power in Asia. Then, there was a trend emerging, disturbing from the Chinese perspective, of important countries gradually coming out in support of India, starting with Japan.

The majority view in the foreign media is that India has come out better off in this relatively minor clash between the two civilizational states.  It is not just about the outcome i.e. protecting territorial interests of an ally, protecting own security interests and calling China’s bluff.  It’s equally about the process.  From day one, while China had been doling out a shrill rhetoric, which in hindsight proved to be empty threats, India refused to take the bait. China was increasingly coming across as petulant and the scuffle at Pangong lake which found the forces of the two nuclear powers indulging in kicking, punching and throwing of stones was symptomatic of this petulance and frustration. Throughout this period, India displayed calm nerves, restrained official statements, military preparedness and firm resolve. India also came across as a better practitioner of statecraft and exploited China’s anxieties with regard to the impending BRICS summit. India’s refusal to stand down and its deft use of diplomacy should add to India’s image in the comity of nations.

Yet, as I have argued in my earlier blog on the issue (Sino-Indian Standoff: History is Turning Page), Doklam will not be the last time the two Asian giants sparred.  Doklam was merely a manifestation of the inherent and inevitable clash of the worldview the two great civilizations hold.  Strong imperatives like China’s need to be seen as a benign power interested in a peaceful rise, India’s compulsions emanating from an economic lag and both countries’ obsession with economic growth, for now, will delay and cushion this clash in the immediate future.  But, more often than not, the two countries will find themselves on the opposite side of the geo-strategic equations even though they are inclined to cooperate with each other in the economic sphere.

Well, even the present disengagement at Doklam has a look of impermanence about it. Many in India expect China to violate the understanding sometime in near future, as it did with the Philippines in case of Scarborough shoal standoff in 2012. That may be misplaced apprehension given the difference in heft between India and Philippines. But, one may still expect interesting sequels from the Doklam standoff. There are two distinct possibilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive. One, after the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China in October this year, China may revisit the issue and look for an opportunity to ‘teach India a lesson’ at an appropriate time and at a tactically more suitable place.  Two, China and India may impart greater impetus to the resolution of the larger border dispute lingering since 1962.  China has settled land disputes with all its neighbours, except India.  It may want to demarcate its border with India as well before the uneasy equilibrium between the two powers gives way to an uncompromising equilibrium based on economic and military parity. India would also want an early demarcation of the eastern border to materially dilute the ‘two and a half front’ situation it finds itself in.

But that is crystal gazing.  For now, the most important outcome of the Doklam standoff is that it has changed the rules of engagement between China and India, for good.  Ever since 1962 debacle, India has exhibited disproportionate sensitivity to Chinese perspective on any issue of import.  Notwithstanding instances of significantly successful responses to Chinese aggression in 1967 at Nathu La and in 1986-87 in the larger eastern theatre around Sumdorong Chu, India has always shown a remarkable diffidence when it comes to dealing with China.  With Doklam, India has irrevocably made that a thing of past.  Not only did it cross the border to physically stop the Chinese army, protecting the territory of a smaller ally/ protectorate, it held its own admirably in face of grave provocation and ultimately forced the restoration of the status quo.  While Chinese foreign minister has advised India to ‘learn the lessons’ from Doklam, I am sure China must have learnt a lesson or two herself.  Post Doklam, China will expect India to respond immediately and firmly to any perceived threat to the latter’s national interest, the definition of which also seems to have expanded in the meantime.  India has already initiated steps that will support such a response.  Construction of roads along the border with China has acquired a new urgency, military reforms are being put in place and Chinese footprint in communication hardware in India is being put to scrutiny.

What is equally important is the implications of the Doklam denouement for Asia Pacific and South Asia.   ASEAN, in general, and countries like Japan and Vietnam, in particular, will take heart from India’s successful standing up to the mighty China and can be expected to be more assertive in their dealings with the dragon. The US and Russia too will take note of the change in rules of engagement between India and China and tweak their foreign policy responses accordingly. Pakistan, which has been putting all its eggs in the Chinese basket for quite some time now may want to reflect on the same, though it is not exactly spoilt for choice.  Smaller neighbours of India in South Asia will also note that India did not abandon Bhutan in its hour of need.

History has indeed turned a page at Doklam.