Catching the Chinese dragon off-guard: India’s hardline stance at Doklam
On a remote Himalayan pass on the Doklam plateau, India and China, two nuclear powers, have neared the precipice of military conflict. As this standoff continues into its third month, two things have become blatantly evident:
- One, the deadlock — over an unpaved road — is one of the worst border disputes between the two regional powers since the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
- Two, this sliver of land has, by a certain twist of fate, become the territorial locus of a geopolitical tussle for regional supremacy between the two Asian rivals.
The stalemate dates to June 2017 when Indian troops entered a plateau claimed by both China and Bhutan, on the latter’s behest, to halt the Chinese from extending an undeveloped road. India, which undertakes Bhutan’s security, stressed that the road — which would overlook the tri-junction boundary where Tibet, Bhutan, and the Indian state of Sikkim converge — endangered its own security.
Elsewhere, Beijing’s stance pivots on an ambiguously-worded 1890 border treaty between the erstwhile British India and China’s Qing dynasty. According to China’s interpretation of that treaty, the disputed Doklam plateau falls resolutely in Chinese territory; whereas according to Bhutan’s reading, the disputed territory falls within Bhutan. India, as is evident, supports the latter interpretation. Additionally, until 1959, China made no claims on Bhutanese territory, affirming that there were no inconsistencies in its maps and those of Bhutan. However, in the late 1960s, the Chinese upped their ante, which ultimately led to the signing of a status quo agreement in 1988, which Bhutan claims China seems to have brushed aside.
For months now, China has been bullying India with dreadful reprisal for what it asserts is an illegal trespass into its den on the Doklam plateau: the country’s state-run media outlets have taken to political rapid-fire. The China Daily, in an editorial titled ‘New Delhi should come to its senses while it has time’, blamed “India’s audacity in challenging China’s sovereignty” on a “sense of inferiority and insecurity in the face of China’s rapid rise.” The Global Times’ harrowing headline screamed ‘India will suffer worse losses than 1962 if it incites border clash’, further decrying: “This time, we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.”
More recently, the Xinhua News Agency has issued a video with blatantly racist overtones; a shot at cheap humour that features a man with a turban and a fake beard — an ostensible parody of a Sikh — who is shown to be speaking in the way Indians are perceived to speak English. (Additionally, Chinese media controllers even tried to silence its critics by taking down articles on the internet that condemned the crude caricature.)
There is some obvious worrying to do, for this aggressive rhetoric has previously propelled Vietnam into the embrace of arch-enemy United States and compelled Japan to scramble its fighters at levels not seen since the height of the Cold War.
India’s measured response:
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, in a recent piece, argued that: “The more power China has accumulated, the more it has attempted to achieve its foreign-policy objectives with bluff, bluster, and bullying. But, as its Himalayan border standoff with India’s military continues, the limits of this approach are becoming increasingly apparent.”
New Delhi’s uncharacteristically assertive response has raised a few eyebrows, for few countries have an appetite to take the Chinese dragon’s regional aspirations head-on. Notwithstanding all of this, the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has responded with distinctive nonchalance, rebuffing Chinese threats and refusing to withdraw its forces. Even so much as a month before the initial standoff, India boycotted the inauguration of President Xi Jinping’s signature “One Belt, One Road” project, stating that the proposal ignored “core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
In a move deprived of precedent, Indian troops have interceded in support of the Royal Bhutan Army, after the Chinese People’s Liberation Army refused to budge. As New Delhi has a close treaty relationship with Bhutan, Indian bureaucrats gloss over the uncommon feat of interfering in a territorial dispute where, strictly speaking, India isn’t a disputant. In similar stead, the Chinese contend that India should back out since it posits no claim to the region in question.
From the Indian viewpoint, China’s move to construct a thoroughfare on disputed territory looks akin to its erection of islands in the South China Sea — an endeavor to gain militaristic primacy by constructing infrastructure.
Furthermore, New Delhi fears that — if left unchecked — the roadwork would make it easier for China to cut off the strategically important Siliguri Corridor or ‘Chicken’s Neck’, a narrow belt of land that links northeastern India to the rest of the country.
India has long worried that this relic of the British decolonization process could be used by China as a geopolitical choke point in a future conflict, “cutting off 45 million Indians and an area the size of the United Kingdom.”
At its slimmest point, as Ankit Panda reminds us, the Siliguri “puts less than a marathon’s distance between the Bangladeshi and Nepalese borders (14 miles).” The strategic importance of this geographical curse is further heightened by the fact that, given the absence of a free trade agreement between India and Bangladesh, “All land trade between the North East and the rest of the country happens through this corridor.”
For India, the Chumbi valley — a strategic Himalayan passageway in China — is akin to a geographic dagger aimed towards the vulnerable ‘Chicken’s Neck’. However, India’s topographical endowment has its own merits. Sikkim, for one, presents India a strategic advantage, affording it the opportunity — in the event of war — to attack Chinese troops stationed in the Chumbi valley from two fronts: Sikkim itself and the Indian presence stationed in Ha, Bhutan.
Tenzing Lamsang, Editor-in-Chief and Founder of The Bhutanese, extrapolated the geopolitical significance of the crisis for Chinese and Indian regional hegemony: China has already constructed a major highway till the Yadong town in the Chumbi valley. China’s attempt in Doklam is a move to control as much infrastructure as it can from there to the Indian and Bhutanese borders in the vicinity. Beijing worries that, despite having territory in the Chumbi valley, “it lacks the ‘strategic shoulders’ due to the narrowness of the entire area with India and Bhutan one both sides.”
This is precisely why, Lamsang explains, “China is claiming 269 sq km of Bhutanese territory in the area as it would get the necessary strategic shoulders and space to operate more freely.” The strategic importance of this region to China is underscored by the fact that, China, “in a package deal in 1996 ‘offered’ to ‘give up’ its claims to 495 sq km of land in the Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys in Bhutan’s north-central sector of Bumthang in return for giving up the 269 sq km in Doklam to China.”
However, India’s act of defiance seems to have gained it support amongst China’s other neighbours; nations themselves wary of the Chinese dragon’s rise. The Japanese Ambassador to India, Kenji Hiramatsu, commented his disdain at China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo at Doklam by force. Another report in The Indian Express stated that Tokyo had conveyed, through diplomatic channels, its unequivocal support to New Delhi and Thimphu. Elsewhere, Vietnam has reportedly struck a deal with India for the supply of BrahMos supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. Here, one can see an overall realignment of regional forces against China, for the latter’s “provocative rise is increasingly turning away bandwagoners and making them work together to balance China.”
If China does act on its current rhetoric and engage in an outright military conflict, it would be destructive for its own strategic goals in Asia and the wider international arena. It would discredit the notion of its self-proclaimed peaceful rise, intensify India’s strategic convergence with China’s global and regional rivals such as the United States and Japan, and augment the hitherto increasing distrust in Chinese intentions (especially amongst its smaller neighbours in and around the South China Sea). As Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations stated, the Doklam standoff is a “conflict that China has created.” Besides, the “Chinese military has more to lose” and, should the clash move against its favour, would result in “a very embarrassing loss of face.”
As is clear, both nations have vital interests at stake: territorial sovereignty and the ability to construct a strategic bulwark for China; whereas, national security and alliance credibility for India. It can be said — to borrow from Steve Inskeep — that in South and Southeast Asia, there are two types of countries: “There’s China, and there are all of China’s neighbors.” As the latter rally behind India one after the other, it is yet to see what the Chinese dragon’s response will be.
Whatever happens, it is evident that India’s tough stance has emboldened the other neighbours who, until now, had been silenced by Chinese intimidations. As for the road the Chinese wanted to build in Doklam? “That dream,” as Brahma Chellaney quipped, “most likely died when India called the Chinese bully’s bluff.”