The illusion of conflict – an analysis of the present Sino-Indian standoff at Doklam
Most educated Indians have heard of Rezang La and Thag La – made famous and infamous by army actions during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict. Yet, few would be able to identify the locations on a map with any satisfactory precision, leaving fingers to circle vaguely over Ladakh, while eyes well up with tears for the valorous sacrifices made by Indian troops against overwhelming odds at the Battle of Rezang La. Similarly, the Thag La ridge, over which the Chinese burst through, towards the plains of the Brahmaputra Valley, is ‘somewhere in the North East’. The situation appears to be no different half a century later, when a curious confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops appears to be developing at Doklam in the Chumbi Valley – a sliver of Tibet which protrudes southwards from the Himalayas, bordered to the west and south by Sikkim, and to the east by Bhutan. As usual, India’s voluble press has grasped the subject but not the point, forcing readers and viewers to accept sound bites for data, and debates as analysis. Tendencies swing between extremes of alarmism and denial; headlines are filled with stories of the Sino-Indian standoff. India’s principal opposition party, the Congress, is seeking to raise the issue in parliament, bemoaning the abrupt decline in Sino-Indian relations; and, to use that to further demonstrate the illogicality of Prime Minister Modi’s efforts. And more; when the Chinese press saucily advised India to ‘remember 1962’ before embarking on adventures, it took the sobriety of Union Minister Arun Jaitley to remind everyone – and China – that this was not the India of 1962.
Minister Jaitley is right: this is not the India of 1962, and how times have changed! For one thing, the present political leadership has not sought, in contrast to Pandit Nehru, to pursue two opposing policies with China simultaneously. Also, if in 1965, the threat of Delhi falling was real enough for citizens to grow wary, today, internet wags humbly submit that foreign occupation of Delhi is most welcome – if only the invaders would promise to get rid of Mr. Kejriwal. Similarly, when the Chinese press injudiciously printed a story in January 2017, that it would take Chinese troops only 48 hours to reach Delhi, Twitter erupted in unsolicited advice, ranging from ‘yes, 48 hours to Delhi, and then 48 more to get to Connaught Place!’, to ‘don’t take Moolchand during rush hour’, and my personal favorite: ‘Let them come. Kohli dauda-daudake marega’ – a cheeky reference to Indian Test Cricket Captain Virat Kohli, who scored four double-centuries in four consecutive series.
Thankfully, foreign policy formulations are not undertaken on Twitter or in TV studios, since diplomacy works best in the dark. India appears to have finally learnt this. So to analyze the present situation, we must first ask ourselves an oblique question: When is a standoff not a standoff? Answer: when it is about something else. And in that answer lies a glimpse of Prime Minister Modi’s approach to geopolitics, and China’s response.
Doklam area circled in red
The story begins with a visit Mr. Modi made to China as Chief Minister of Gujarat, in 2011. Addressing a select audience in Beijing, he asked them rhetorically: if China is a friend to Pakistan, and if Pakistan is not one to India, what does that make China to India? He answered his own question during his inauguration in 2014, when he invited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the Prime Ministerial swearing-in ceremony; and then, hosting Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at Modi’s own Ahmedabad during a state visit in September that same year. At that time, the CPEC – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – was only rarely mentioned in public. Note: the CPEC is an ambitious, 50 billion dollar Chinese road-rail project aiming to connect western China with the Pakistani port of Gwadar – thereby entirely circumventing the maritime trade vicissitudes of the South China Sea, the Malacca Straits and the Indian Ocean. This is much like the Chinese efforts in the 1950’s to develop a Trans-Tibetan link road from Yunnan Province in the east to Xingiang Province in the west, which passed through Aksai Chin, and provided China secure, strategic east-west access in the shelter of the Himalayas. Just as the Aksai Chin road gave China a vital westward link at a time when the Sino-Soviet split was peaking in the late 1950’s, the CPEC too, is designed to provide China with an uninterruptable trade route westwards, irrespective of any designs America may have on containing a growing dragon.
The initial courting notwithstanding, a clear correlation has now however emerged over the past three years: the more that Indian efforts to engineer an Indo-Pak rapprochement failed, the more CPEC began to be mentioned in reports – to the extent that by late 2016, analysts in China themselves began to admit, that the CPEC had little chance of ever being operationalized without India’s blessings. This was Modi reminding China of his 2011 query, asking China to choose between Pakistan and India. Denuded of ‘diplomatese’, it is a simple political objective: to force or entice Pakistan’s patrons to give up their support to that state, so that India may force the hand of peace more deftly – and with greater effect. To this end, the present Indian government has devised a process of intense diplomatic engagement, which culminated in a particularly hectic June 2017, and an unexpected, if somewhat surreal standoff in the Eastern Himalayas.
Modi began his first travels of the year only in May 2017, with a visit to Sri Lanka. This was followed by a four-leg European tour where, surprisingly, he spent two full days in Russia [sandwiched between Germany, Spain and France]. A week after spending time with Russian President Putin, the two met again at Astana in Kazakhstan, where India along with Pakistan were formally granted full membership into the SCO – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. For years, China had worried that India would be an American Trojan horse, in this very Asian grouping originally conceived as a foil to NATO; by this fear, India’s accession to the SCO was delayed for a year. However, Montenegro’s decision to join NATO this year [formalized on 5th June], and its resultant impact on proposed Russian gas pipelines into Europe via the Balkans, forced pragmatism to rule over fears – making Indian’s formal membership of the SCO a fait accompli. A fortnight after his return from Astana, Modi left for Washington DC where, symbolically, Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin was designated as a global terrorist by the Trump administration. With the Kashmir valley on the boil since mid-2016, surgical strikes by Indian troops into Pak-occupied Kashmir, a grand electoral victory for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, and increasing political irrelevance of the Congress Party, Modi’s busy, busy travels looked like they just might isolate Pakistan internationally – to the extent necessary for India to force a peace. India, Modi appeared to be saying at every given opportunity, had the right to pursue her national interests, and secure her borders and citizenry against threats by all available means. This included, vitally, the employment of diplomacy as a principal tool for achieving state policy. In Beijing, it must have seemed like a throwback to 2011, and Modi’s query on China’s choices.
But for China, this is not a choice that can be made easily, since they know that an India finally unshackled from the millstone of Pakistan would be a painfully important world power, with the economic and military clout to tilt the global balance. Thus, what is interesting is that the first reports of China building a road in the Doklam area, appeared in the press not a week after the SCO summit concluded in Astana. On the face of it, the situation makes no sense: why would China behave in a provocative manner and reopen a border story which had been closed for decades now? And why act thus, so soon after China acceded to India’s full membership to the SCO? There are reasons:
If India acts against Pakistan, the hardest hit would ironically be China; without positive control of the CPEC running through Pak-occupied Kashmir, China would be forced to depend on control of the seas to ensure the security of the bulk of its trade – for the foreseeable future; or worse, depend upon the sufferance of Indian goodwill to let goods flow unhampered across the Karakoram Range. The first, and most direct result of that, would be a revival of American opportunity to put naval pressure on China – at any one of a hundred choke points along thousands of kilometers of international waters. The second would be the cost factor; transporting goods by rail is far cheaper than by ship. And third, it would render infructuous, their 50 billion dollar investment on the CPEC. Meaning that in one fell swoop, the tremendous strategic value of the CPEC to China’s long-term economic security, would amount to nil. This is a terrible position for the world’s largest economy to be in – and Modi knows that.
There exists an alternative, of course, for China – of dumping Pakistan and choosing India as a strategic trading partner. But in Beijing’s eyes, that would be too great a risk. An Indian General who today confidently asserts that the forces are prepared for a two-an-a-half front war, would tomorrow have at his disposal a million-man army for what is effectively a half-front of potential conflict. And no, this is not an over-simplification; the cold truth is that India and China are not just separated by the highest, longest chain of mountains in the world, and the impassable Tibetan plateau, but by a weather window as well. The Himalayan winter, and the two monsoons [both of which lash the North East] leave less than five months of freedom for operations in a year. Worse, in the absence of any material threat from Pakistan, the entire Indian Navy would in that eventuality, be available for concentration in the Indian Ocean – or elsewhere.
Thus, for Beijing, the Doklam standoff is a last-ditch effort to try and force Modi to reduce the pressures he has been mounting on Pakistan – moral, political, economic, diplomatic and, operational. Moral, by demonstrating the injustice of Pakistan using state-sponsored terrorism as a tool of national policy; political, by highlighting the true power of the Pakistani Army, and the fiction of civilian governance in Islamabad; economic, by raising the cost of war and seeking to cut aid to Pakistan; diplomatic, by endeavoring to isolate the state; and operational, by pushing the fight against terrorism onto Pakistan-occupied soil, with an increased, now-visible lethality.
The Chinese have no illusions; they know that this is the first government in Delhi, in living memory, which has openly begun to demand the return of Pak-occupied Kashmir to India. They know that this government is led by a party which, not recognizing differences between races or caste or religion, seeks at a civilizational level to overturn partition – or at least the ills of it. They also know that the weakening of Pakistan – or indeed, the off-chance of India reclaiming Pak-occupied Kashmir in fuller measure – is an eventuality that would be to China’s detriment. They know that the political opposition in too incompetent to put Modi on the back foot – as evidenced by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s recent, absurdly-managed meeting with the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi. They also know that Modi has hit back hard, by encouraging J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti to state in public that China is now meddling in Kashmir. Hence a standoff at the other end of the Himalayas, and frankly hollow protestations on the invalidity of Sikkim’s membership in the Indian Union.
Therefore in conclusion, this Sino-Indian standoff in Doklam has actually very little to do with existing Sino-Indian border issues, and is instead emblematic of Chinese efforts to prevent the Indian government from raising the stakes with Pakistan. It is this writer’s forecast then, that the present standoff, this present illusion of conflict, will peter out in shape, size, form and intensity as the months pass, and, as the process of Sino-Indian engagement recommences more meaningfully – initially, with NSA Ajit Doval’s proposed trip to Beijing later this month. But it will not go away fully either, for it is in China’s interest to try and force pressure on their border with India, as a tool to ease mounting of pressure on Pakistan. Perhaps a new issue will be created at some other border section – like at Demchok, on the Himachal-Tibet border, or the disputed tri-junction between Tibet, Uttarakhand and Nepal immediately south of Mount Kailas. We cannot say. What we can say however, with a fair degree of confidence, is that this new border dispute will probably not be settled by a re-drawing of the McMahon line, but by that of the LOC or the Radcliffe line instead! How that happens will be an interesting story to follow or predict – more interesting than the diversionary illusions of conflict being presented to us today at Doklam.
Venu Gopal Narayanan
16th July 2017