Home > 2017 > Deterring the Dragon at Dokola: the Lessons of the Crisis

Mainstream, VOL LV No 45 New Delhi October 28, 2017

Deterring the Dragon at Dokola: the Lessons of the Crisis

Monday 30 October 2017

by Gouri Sankar Nag

What began in mid-June 2017 came somewhat unexpectedly to an end on August 28, 2017, when both China and India reached an agreement to withdraw their respective armed forces—hitherto taking up position face-to-face—from the Dokola area of the Doklam Plateau of Bhutan. This prima facie has dispersed the gloomy clouds hovering over of the South Asian sky for more than two months (73 days to be precise from June 16 to August 28, 2017) which saved the two Asian giants from the dangerous precipice of even greater military confrontation than that of 1962, thus forestalling another round of grave military escalation since the 1987 Sumdorong Chu crisis and resembling the mutual pull-out at Depsang and Chumar in Ladakh in 2013-14.

The reason why I thought the Doklam crisis, if it had gone out of control, would have reached a proportion of greater military intensity than that of 1962 was primarily because of the probability that this time it might open a war front on more than one area, dragging the Kashmir sector and with it Pakistan, either overtly or covertly. This was realised when our Army Chief, Bipin Rawat, remarked that Indian Army was prepared for a two-and-a-half front war. Although such comments were much criticised in the context of peaceful diplomacy to find a mutually agreeable solution to the ongoing row, one can hardly deny how Chinese behaviour has grown to be increasingly fulminating and that too in tune with the ‘dramatic growth of its military muscle’ in recent times. It is, therefore, investing substan-tially in a number of new military technological capabilities like unmanned aerial vehicles etc. that tend to pose a direct challenge to regional stability not only in the Asia-Pacific but in South Asia also. Although it was perceived that in line with its greater military might its political leadership would feel more secure, thus moderating its behaviour, in reality the opposite seems to hold true. Thus clearly China is bending towards a more hard-line bellicose approach of realpolitik to ‘achieve its objectives with force’.

BUT unlike previous occasions, the way the Dokola standoff started unfolding this time, not only with the aggressive consolidation of troops but also accompanied by intimidating rhetoric indulged in by the Chinese Foreign Office spokespersons, media and a section of its political elite, the episode was fraught with provocations, with the probability of rapidly deteriorating to the nadir. In the words of former BBC corres-pondent from South Asia, Subir Bhaumik, “The Chinese offensive has been coordinated and multipronged, straddling diplomatic, military and media spaces.” (The Telegraph dated August 9, 2017). Thus, the present scenario was much more tough as it was a mind-game Beijing has perfected with its ‘three warfare strategy’ devised by its Central Military Commission in 2003 and refined in 2010 that involves a triad of media war, psychological war and legal war simultaneously, writes Indrani Bagchi in her analysis in the Economic Times on August 29, 2017.
Having thus conceived and perpetrated, this ‘three warfare strategy’, although it proved ineffective before India’s tacit but well-guarded response to settle for a long haul at Doklam, is likely to leave scars deep enough on India’s mindscape, to mar the prospect of their future bonhomie, if not seriously offset the benefits of Sino-Indian collaborations across the spectrum ranging from trade and investment, cooperation on railway and smart city projects, on issues of climate change, space cooperation, greater people-to-people contacts and importantly, their mutual interactions and partnership vis-à-vis intensified regional reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, crisis in West Asia etc. Of course, at the September 3 BRICS summit at Xiamen, China subscribed to a joint statement to fight terrorism and protectionism, but a feel of surmise would obviously propel a stock-taking exercise and soul-searching as to what went wrong that triggered so much misperception amounting to animus and virulent war of words. According to B.R. Deepak, a prominent Sinologist and Professor at the Centre of Chinese and East Asian Studies, JNU, this war-mongering gung-ho crossed the limits of sanity so much so that there was a frightening feeling in the air that China was about to take recourse to war any time. Although on the Indian side, serious Chinese scholarship brushed these aside, nonetheless, there was a view that perhaps for the first time Chinese diplomacy had been hijacked by its print and social media. (SADF Comment, Issue No. 98 dated August 5, 2017)

So, there is no gainsaying about China upping the ante and also causing a hangover of telling bitterness, feeding and reinforcing the traditional perception of the ‘China threat’ nurtured by India’s strategic community. To put things in perspective, this is abetted by Uncle Sam also for the predictable nature of Sino-Indian clashes. According to a news analysis in Global Village Space, “the US is using India as its proxy for ‘containing’ China. Just as the US ‘flipped’ China against the USSR in the old Cold War by exploiting their pre-existing differences, so too it is doing the same with India against China and the multipolar world in the new Cold War.”(http://www.glkobalvillagespace.com/india-set-himalayan-blunder-2.0 accessed on July 5, 2017) Curiously in South Asia, the post-Cold War US policy has been to exploit this critical anti-China bandwagon particularly when facing a grave scenario of rapidly expanding Chinese influence via the OBOR and in the South-East Asian countries that might be appalling for Japan in the near future.

In this perspective US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ visit to India in late September 2017 may be significant not from the viewpoint of a benign courtesy visit after the Trump Adminis-tration in the US started functioning but to pat Narendra Modi’s ‘extraordinary act of courage’ and defiance to undertake a hardline position in the Dokola affair which sent out a good signal and to count on Indian support as an “influential partner with broad mutual interests extending well beyond South Asia”, for example, in Afghanistan. (H.V. Pant, ‘Mattis comes to India’, orfonline.org)

Despite the Chinese spokespersons and media deliberately hurling to us sharply hostile, ‘extremely strident’ and unsavoury commen-taries to whip up tension which was anathema to established diplomatic norms and standards (and this is a new element as expressed by Ashok Kantha in an article published in The Indian Express), the credit goes to India for maintaining the composure, yet behaving firmly and responsibly without getting impatient or unduly reactive. “Our stand is that we maintain restraint in language and keep patience and engage in diplomacy,” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in Parliament on August 3, 2017 (http://www.financialexpress.com/india-news/pm-modis-hard-line-stance-towards-china-pushing-india-into-war-gambling-with-destiny-of-its-people-says-chinese-daily/795343/ accessed on August 8, 2017).

SO, while ruling out the chances of military solution from the very outset, India realised that it was a battle of nerves rather, which was why she was ready to take up the gauntlet in the asymmetric military power position with required warfare capabilities. For this what was required was taking steps to extend the strategic reach of the Indian Army and be able to operate effectively even when away from the Indian mainland as we have seen to some extent in the Dokola case. This process of integration of capabilities in terms of ground force and advanced weapons system was evident when adequate military mobilisations from the Eastern command were made with the Hercules plane, helicopters functional for the high altitude warfare and a new series of howitzer guns. No doubt this gave India a certain level of confidence to handle Chinese hegemony. To back up, we have some other parameters to fortify our position. For instance, according to new data on international arms transfer published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on March 14, 2011 India overtook China as the world’s largest arms importer. (https://bargad.org/2011/03/14/india-world-largest-arms-importer-sipri/ accessed on 25 September, 2017)

Moreover, India’s shift from a policy of ‘non-alignment to a policy of ‘poly-alignment’ also worked to boost her self-image. For example, India was increasingly building strategic partnerships with states that are already established or emerging global leaders in order to acquire higher international standing and clout. In particular, India has dramatically improved her military and defence ties with the US, thus transitioning towards adopting a more realist stance of late internationally. This has a flip side also insofar as it might tell upon India’s much-vaunted strategic autonomy as Subir Bhaumik suspected in one of his recent takes published online by the Quint on June 12, 2017. According to him, “India remains a credible model for the developing world so long as it does not compromise on its democracy and strategic autonomy—not by becoming a US lackey if Pakistan becomes a Chinese surrogate.” (‘India’s China Policy: Face the Dragon with Self-confidence’) Moreover, psychologically she felt emboldened when in the midst of this soaring tension the Army Chief Bipin Rawat visited the place and even the newly elected President Ram Nath Kovind met the Indian Army at Ladakh, another disputed terrain we share with China. But this new nationalistic posture notwithstanding, that created sort of imbalance in India’s approach, the wires of diplomatic parleys were kept open and used all through so that the heat of the military build-up could be moderated by constructive talks to break the impasse peacefully. Thus while an idea of retreat would have been politically imprudent and unsaleable for the domestic constituency of the government, the intelligent mix of force and restraint conspicuous in India’s exposition culminated as she adopted the judicious decision to withdraw forces from the Dokola area which was neither abrupt nor a unilateral compromise but conciliatory and a welcome move indeed.

It was conciliatory because China also understandably agreed, albeit reluctantly, to accept the deal of a ‘mutual pullback’ requiring it to make “necessary adjustments” of its troop position for disengagement. We do not, however, know still what exactly the Chinese assurance was for leaving the project of motorable road construction in the plateau because China publicly declared its intention to garrison the disputed patch of land even thereafter. As such, vagueness is writ large because China’s approach is guided by own interpretation of historical pacts and conventions.

THIS approach is problematic for three reasons. First, as the former Foreign Secretary of India, Shyam Saran, aptly said, ‘China uses templates of the past as instruments of legitimation, to construct a modern narrative of power.’ One key element of the narrative is understandably to resuscitate China’s role as Asia’s dominant power by seeking to restore a position the nation occupied throughout most of history. Obviously, therefore, it’s not the historicity proper but another version of purposive reconstruction of history underscored by a feel of pride and China’s self-perception of a non-status quo power.

Secondly, writing in the same vein Praggya Surana, Research Assistant at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi, opines that China interprets treaties as per its own convenience. It obfuscates facts, invents historical proof and conveniently blames the colonial past for anything that does not fit in with its perception of agreed borders. It refuses to acknowledge the McMohan Line with respect to its border with India, while accepting the same treaty for setting its boundary dispute with Myanmar. (‘Three Warfare: Arunachal Pradesh’ in Indian Defence Review blog dated August 28, 2017)

Thirdly, most of the boundary disputes in South Asia today are the products of the colonial era which we have inherited from British India. This is why parties to such conflicts are often obliged to observe ‘convenient consensus’ or intentional ignorance which so far has contri-buted to maintain peace in the region. But China’s one-after-another claim, for India’s Arunachal Pradesh, then South China Sea, and now Bhutan’s Doklam, renders its peaceful rise theory a matter of contentious proposition.

Uneasy though, the decision of withdrawal was sensible on the part of India because the Doklam Plateau falls within the jurisdiction of the Bhutanese state, which is also claimed by China. The Chinese side has upheld the 1890 treaty between Sikkim and Tibet, saying that the territory belongs to China in spite of Bhutanese claim to the contrary. So, apparently there was little space whereby India could justifiably intervene in their bilateral feud. From another aspect, however, India’s intervention was legitimate on the ground of her commitment in terms of the Indo-Bhutan friendship treaty, 1949 to fortify Bhutan’s security umbrella against possible foreign incursion. On the other hand, if we take into account Chinese attempts over past years to construct several roads running into areas under Bhutanese control it would clear doubts regarding the nefarious Chinese design of besieging Bhutan. Besides, India was justified to act according to the supreme realist logic of national interest prompting her to interfere to prevent China’s road construction at the Dokola area within the very arc of the Bhutanese border. Since there was palpable apprehension that on successfully completing the road China would be able to inch closer to the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ of the slim Siliguri corridor, just 12 miles wide at its narrowest point serving as the gateway of entire North-East India.

Given this scenario, India’s pathology of anxiety for the strategic vulnerability was undoubted. This could be a raison d’être for India’s first of sorts move where troops were despatched to a third country (that is, Bhutan) to defend national security. Nevertheless, it would have been better for India to assure Thimpu first and secure its informed consent before a brigade group of Indian Army’s forward move into Bhutanese territory. Alternatively we could contemplate to exert pressure tactics on Bhutan to counter China or to keep vigil on the Bhutan-China negotiations, without inhibitory tactic however.

From this angle, India’s action was somewhat hasty. But that does not mean that India’s intervention catalysed the chances of war. On the contrary, India wished to caution China which was definitely a display of matured attitude. Because without such caution it would have been a quiet encouragement to China to go for sabre-rattling and muscle-flexing not only vis-à-vis India but also carrying even more ominous signal for other small neighbours of India in the South Asia region at large. So, while studying the modus operandi of Chinese activities it is important to keep in mind as one expert in his discussion on the Chinese expansionist tactic and the necessity of deterring it in a different context however, has mentioned: “China will not seek to resolve its expansionist aims through overt aggression. Consistent with its strategic culture, it wants to slowly but inexorably shift the regional military balance in its favour, leaving the rest of the region with little choice but to submit to Chinese coercion.” (‘How to Deter China: The Case of Archipelagic Defense’ by Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr in Foreign Affairs, vol.94, no.2, March-April 2015) This is why experts like Sumit Ganguly view it from the point of deeper strategic issues at stake beyond apparent tactical threat to India’s security. So, ‘the latest Chinese activities along the troubled border represents Beijing’s latest attempt to undermine India’s close ties with some of its neighbours so that they move away from India’. If China could browbeat India into abandoning her protégé Bhutan, it would set up an important precedent, thereby increasing the chances that other Asian nations would buckle before coming to the aid of neighbours facing Chinese pressure. As what happened ‘in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 when Bhutan in fact started to doubt India’s ability to protect her against China’. (Dr. Rajesh Dogra’s article on Bhutan in World Focus, August, 2015)

So, while the stand-off was continuing, India by acting swiftly and proactively not only wanted to gain an upper hand but conversely she also came under conspicuous pressure. If India had capitulated she would have lost all her credibility in the South Asian neighbour-hood and in the theatre of the ASEAN region also where she was posing not only as a major player but also as a security provider. Internally, India was worried also because there was information that China was supplying arms and ammunition to the Naga insurgent outfits, namely, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (IM) to stoke unrest in India’s North-East. Therefore, although initially we appre-hended that the Dokola standoff would have an adverse impact on the Naga peace process, in reality, the crisis was a blessing in disguise in the sense it gave a positive impetus to the ongoing negotiations between the Government of India and the NSCN (IM) leaders. According to a report published in The Week by Namrata Biji Ahuja, the draft for the final accord would be based on the concept of “shared sovereignty” instead of complete and separate sovereignty, which the Nagas had demanded in the past with the support of China. (http://www.theweek.in/theweek/specials/countdown-to-peace.html, accessed on August 23, 2017)

Secondly, underlying the events running up to the stand-off and the mapping of its probable consequences was a thread of a Chinese gambit that in case of actual military flare-up India would not probably receive any assistance from Nepal. This was calculated on the lingering memory of India imposing blockade on Nepal and the strong anti-India sentiments among the Pahadis. Besides, the monarchists and the xenophobic elements of the Army might have little hesitation to cooperate with China which is of concern to New Delhi.

Thirdly, what was disturbing from the perspective of India was the quietude of the European Union unruffled by the crisis. India could notice how the EU increasingly gravitated towards the Chinese orbit through the Belt and Road Initiative. Probably for this reason the EU could not take a firm stand when the crisis was intensifying each day.

Fourthly, even if it seems there is some apparent nexus between the Doklam crisis and the Tibetan question, the fact of the matter indicates deeper underlying connection. According to Rajiv Kumar and Santosh Kumar, India cannot fight shy of the responsibility so long she was not squarely raising the Tibetan issue or in the present context the issue of expatriate Tibetans in India. The reason why China time and again shows red eye to India is due to India’s unsystematic approach to and for use of the Tibetan card. China, however, knows very well that a major conflict along the border with India will not be in its interest, particularly for Tibet’s stability. Specially after the launch of the OBOR, Tibet is now a non-negotiable issue. Nevertheless in the event of any future conflict it is more than sure that Tibetan expatriates in India might play the sabotage role along the border against China. So from that angle, territorial domination over the Dokola area could be an intelligent game plan to pressurise India to drop the Tibetan point indirectly.

IT logically follows therefore that the Doklam crisis is neither purely related to military deployment nor border management, however outwardly it seems so. Unlike the western sector where we usually put more concentration, yet where our border management is relatively well with quicker response and to some extent better co-ordination as in Amritsar, the issue in the eastern sector revealed from demographic composition of the border tribes with palpable Chinese ethnic predominance, is of more complicated character compounded by ideological warfare.

The question is whether China subscribes to liberal stability the world over. Whether it is good or bad is a different value question. But as Professor G. John Ikenberry’s analysis ‘The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive’, published in Foreign Affairs January-February 2008, carries strong suggestion that China might not prefer a US dominated Western-oriented world order, rather its grand rise might leverage it to go for an Asian-centred world order (also see ‘China and the World: Dealing with a Reluctant Power’ by Evan A. Feigenbaum, published in Foreign Affairs January-February 2017).

So, today when Indian foreign policy is trying to forge closer ties with the US on the one hand and also moves to deepen strategic interface with many other powers not traditionally friendly towards China like Japan through application of soft power and reviving the channels of ‘remembered pathways of history and culture’ on the other, in order to achieve due recognition of her power ambition in the world, not to speak of the UN, all these might go to sharpen the Chinese antagonism vis-à-vis India. Needless to say, it harbours deep-seated antipathy towards the Indian political system. Thus, ideologically speaking, the Doklam crisis might be China’s ruling party’s and its military wing’s challenge to India’s liberal democratic set-up.

Dr Gouri Sankar Nag is an Associate Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia (West Bengal).

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62