Shifting dynamics post Doklam standoff

Published: November 29, 2017 - 12:49 Updated: December 15, 2017 - 16:35

The coming months will witness China’s continued use of tactics and strategies through coercive diplomacy and media campaigns. It is imperative that New Delhi must not become a chicken in the game of snowdrift

Seen as a ‘face–saving formula,’ the termination of the Doklam standoff was apparently timed to ease tensions ahead of a high-profile BRICS summit in Xiamen (China) from September 3-5, 2017. During the three day summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he wants to put the relationship on the “right track.” Both leaders held an hour-long meeting, which Modi described as “fruitful.”

It is time, hence, beyond these official pronouncements for introspection as to what this standoff means for the relationship of these two major Asian powers and how it may shape power equations in Asia. Does this standoff mark a turning point in their relationship or will it be a continuation of the status quo? Does it portend a trend of increased belligerence and distrust that could bring the two giants on a collision course? Or will they adopt a more conciliatory approach if such incidents were to reoccur? 

Change or return to the status quo

A fragile peace has been maintained on the 3,488-kilometre un-demarcated India China border for several decades. However, it camouflages a disconcertingly tactical situation along select portions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), wherein the two countries do not have an agreement on the location of the LAC neither on the ground nor on the map. As a result, hundreds of transgressions by Chinese border patrols occur annually.

The dispute in Doklam, which began with the Chinese road building project, drew both countries into a tense face off in a third country, signifying a larger competition for regional and global influence. And in the end, China’s decision to refrain from executing its road building project helped end the six-week-long standoff in the Himalayas. The fact of the matter, however, remains that neither side can afford a war at this point in time.


The bilateral trade remains skewed. According to recent estimates, the total Chinese investments in India so far do not exceed more than $4 billion. India lost to China nearly $400 billion in trade deficit in the last decade. China needs to stem the cash flow by investment. It has invested less than $2bn so far. Chinese markets remain closed to India due to opacity in their systems. In addition to water diversion project involving the Brahmaputra, cyber and space domains could be new areas of competition.

Domestic compulsions and changing geopolitical configurations

The reasons for China’s reluctance to escalate the crisis in Doklam emanated primarily from its domestic constraints—President Xi Jinping was attempting to consolidate his position during the 19th Party Congress. A prolonged face off which provides no clear winner would not only have impacted his standing within the party, but also would have tainted China’s international image and undermined the internationalism which it is trying to promote through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

According to Chinese scholars, the disengagement of troops was a ‘win-win’ for both the countries. While China did manage to salvage some pride, the event certainly does not mark the last of the stand offs between the two countries. China has been growing increasingly more assertive about sovereignty claims in its neighbourhood, particularly in the East and South China seas, including Japanese-claimed Senkaku islands. During the 18th Party Congress in 2012, China had been reluctant to include India in the “new type of major power” category.  Moreover, the emphasis on a greater role for the PLA was followed by major Chinese forays in the Indian Ocean Region, with China opening a naval base at Djibouti, in addition to port facilities built at Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan.

At the 19th Congress of the CCP, which began on October 18 in Beijing, besides consolidation of power and sweeping reforms of the military to enhance combat readiness and operational efficiency, Xi has devoted time and effort to the modernisation of the PLA and directed its leadership to streamline the organisational and command structures for a more effective fighting force. According to his vision, the PLA should become one of the world’s greatest armies by 2050, along with other interim goals such as building a modernised army by 2035.

Evolving contours of a new China policy

Not surprisingly, Doklam was only one of the many instances of a new Indian policy towards China, which is the result of piled up frustrations in New Delhi vis-a-vis China’s unending series of anti-India initiatives. Beijing had responded to Prime Minister Modi’s attempt to forge a strong personal relationship with Xi by a series of steps, including efforts at blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), repeated shielding of Pakistan-based terrorists from UN sanctions, providing continued transfer of nuclear and missile technologies to Pakistan and implementing the CPEC project in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). To an extent, China making inroads into both the Indian Ocean and the subcontinent, particularly with India’s neighbours like Nepal and Sri Lanka, including dispatch of several submarines to Colombo, Karachi and to the Indian Ocean, constituted other irritants.

All these left New Delhi with little choice other than heralding a new era of its China policy. New Delhi shunned the OBOR summit in May (Bhutan followed suit), permitted the Dalai Lama and the US ambassador to visit Arunachal Pradesh, and supported an arbitration that ruled against China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Since the standoff began, Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh has renewed an oil exploration contract with Vietnam in South China Sea, a major source of hydrocarbons and an area disputed by China.

Moreover, India’s increased cooperation with the US, particularly on Afghanistan and Indo-Pacific, and its aligning with the US and Japanese navies through the Malabar exercises in the Indian Ocean have further underlined its strategic choices. In November 2016, the Indian Air force successfully landed the C-17 Globemaster in Mechuka, Arunachal Pradesh, which will aid faster deployment of Indian troops to the border in case of a conflict. Consequently, India has worked on projects which would ensure rapid deployment of troops to Sikkim and maintain a reliable supply chain to the 350 Indian armed personnel stationed at Doklam.

The bilateral trade remains skewed. According to recent estimates, the total Chinese investments in India so far do not exceed more than $4 billion. India lost to China nearly $400 billion in trade deficit in the last decade. China needs to stem the cash flow by investment. It has invested less than $2bn so far. Chinese markets remain closed to India due to opacity in their systems. In addition to water diversion project involving the Brahmaputra, cyber and space domains could be new areas of competition.

The trajectory and policy markers

The coming months will witness China’s continued use of tactics and strategies through coercive diplomacy and media campaigns. New Delhi must not become a chicken in the game of snowdrift. If India continues to demonstrate an ‘independent’ line, for the Chinese it is a loss of face and a bad example which the other countries will follow. It would, however, help India retain its image of a major regional power against a ‘bullying power,’ especially in South East Asia. India seeking to balance Chinese power in Asia by joining a quadrilateral arrangement, including US, Japan, Australia—grouping of countries that seek to balance China using an international rule-based order—could be an effective counter to China’s hegemonistic designs.

Since the 19th Party Congress has highlighted that China aspires to be at “centre stage,” there will be an increase in tensions as Beijing seeks to expand its influence and reach in the region. With Xi firmly in saddle, and his successor already chosen, bilateral tensions could escalate 2019 onwards. While every attempt must be made to avoid brinkmanship and introduction of uncontrollable risks, combination of determined posture and astute diplomacy will protect India’s interests in its neighbourhood.

This story is from print issue of HardNews

ADVERTISEMENT