Ourview Mak­ing the Dokalam stand-off use­ful for In­dia

Mint ST - - VIEWS -

Rather than rest­ing on its lau­rels, In­dia should be pre­pared with its diplo­matic

The In­dia-china stand-off in Dokalam, an area con­tested be­tween China and Bhutan, came to an end on Mon­day after more than two months. The con­tours of the dis­en­gage­ment are now much clearer: The In­dian side has with­drawn from Dokalam and China has ceased its road con­struc­tion ac­tiv­i­ties, which had trig­gered the stand-off in the first place.

While it is clear that it was Bei­jing that had to blink in the face of In­dia’s firm­ness, China has saved face by por­tray­ing the endgame as In­dia’s uni­lat­eral with­drawal to its do­mes­tic au­di­ence. The spokesper­son for the Chi­nese min­istry of for­eign af­fairs has said that their forces will con­tinue to pa­trol the Dokalam area—this was never the rea­son for the stand-off and Chi­nese and Bhutanese sol­diers have in­deed been pa­trolling the re­gion ear­lier as well—and the road build­ing plan will now take into ac­count var­i­ous fac­tors, in­clud­ing weather. The mean­ing is clear: The In­dian with­drawal has come in exchange for the Chi­nese con­ces­sion of not go­ing ahead with the road con­struc­tion. If Bei­jing goes back on its part of the bar­gain, In­dia has the op­tion of do­ing the same.

What made Bei­jing budge from its po­si­tion, es­pe­cially after un­leash­ing a bar­rage of In­dia-bash­ing rhetoric through its state­con­trolled me­dia? The most prob­a­ble rea­son is In­dia’s mil­i­tary ad­van­tage in the Sikkim sec­tor that would have made any es­ca­la­tion costly for China. Chi­nese con­cerns re­gard­ing the over­hang of Dokalam dur­ing the forth­com­ing Brics (in­volv­ing Brazil, Rus­sia, South Africa along with In­dia and China) sum­mit, which they will be host­ing in Xi­a­men, must have also played a part. And not least, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping would also have wanted to ward off even a re­mote chance of an em­bar­rass­ment be­fore the 19th na­tional congress of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party, to be held later this year.

While the Dokalam de­noue­ment may have vin­di­cated In­dia’s po­si­tion, there are im­por­tant lessons to be learnt from this pro­tracted stand-off. First, the fact that China has made a tac­ti­cal re­treat should not lull In­dia into a be­lief that the for­mer will stop de­ploy­ing its time-tested tech­nique of us­ing in­cur­sions into dis­puted or oth­ers’ ter­ri­to­ries as a means of em­bar­rass­ing its op­po­nents. As one has seen in the South China Sea, China is now in­creas­ingly adept at chang­ing the facts on dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries and wa­ters to present ri­val claimants with a fait ac­com­pli. But this trick did not work in Dokalam—as Ori­ana Sky­lar Mas­tro and Arzan Tara­pore have bril­liantly ex­plained (goo.gl/dafke1)—be­cause In­dia used de­nial tac­tics to phys­i­cally pre­vent China from al­ter­ing the facts on the ground. This meant that the onus of mil­i­tary es­ca­la­tion was left on Bei­jing. In con­trast, a strat­egy—like the US’ in the South China Sea—which threat­ens to re­tal­i­ate after Bei­jing has cre­ated new facts would leave the onus of es­ca­la­tion on China’s ri­val. How­ever, rather than rest­ing on its lau­rels, In­dia should be pre­pared with its diplo­matic and mil­i­tary ap­pa­ra­tus should China try Dokalam-type uni­lat­eral ad­ven­tur­ism again.

Sec­ond, China’s rise presents a daunt­ing chal­lenge to In­dia’s pri­macy in South Asia. The Dokalam foray was not so much to in­tim­i­date In­dia—bei­jing is well aware of its dis­ad­van­tages in Chumbi Val­ley—but more to cre­ate a rift be­tween New Delhi and Thimphu. This stand-off was the gravest threat ever to the spe­cial and unique Indo-bhutanese re­la­tion­ship. And thanks to Thimphu’s re­silience, the re­la­tion­ship has come out with fly­ing colours. While Bei­jing’s rhetor­i­cal fury was on full dis­play, Thimphu main­tained its calm and stated its po­si­tion in two crisp state­ments re­leased on 29 June and 29 Au­gust. In both, Thimphu en­dorsed In­dia’s po­si­tion by call­ing for a re­turn to the sta­tus quo ante.

But In­dia’s re­la­tions with other South Asian neigh­bours are not as strong as with Bhutan. For­get In­dia en­ter­ing their ter­ri­to­ries to stave off an in­tru­sion by the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army, most of them are busy pock­et­ing Chi­nese money to build in­fra­struc­ture in their own coun­tries. In­dia’s meth­ods there will have to be dif­fer­ent. New Delhi has met with some lim­ited suc­cess due to the pres­ence cur­rently of friendly regimes in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. But In­dia should also ex­ploit its ad­van­tages of ge­og­ra­phy and cul­tural affini­ties to present its eco­nomic growth as a ver­i­ta­ble op­por­tu­nity for neigh­bours through higher vol­umes of trade, greater in­vest­ment flows and bet­ter con­nec­tiv­ity.

Third, the China chal­lenge is much big­ger than episodes of bor­der stand-offs. In Pak­istan, China has fa­cil­i­tated the cre­ation of a nu­clear-armed state which de­ploys ter­ror­ists against In­dia to achieve its ter­ri­to­ri­ally re­vi­sion­ist goals. Another chal­lenge is headed In­dia’s way through the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Chi­nese navy in the In­dian Ocean. Sea de­nial, as Ab­hi­jit Singh has ar­gued in this news­pa­per (goo.gl/uw2wjw), is not re­ally a cred­i­ble op­tion. In­dia will need the abil­ity to project power in the West­ern Pa­cific.

Per­haps it is also time—in light of the changed cir­cum­stances that China’s rise presents—to dis­cuss an even closer mil­i­tary part­ner­ship with the US and Ja­pan. Such a move may have its down­sides but it is im­por­tant to weigh them against the ben­e­fits rather than con­tinue de­bat­ing the util­ity of con­cepts as out­dated as non­align­ment and as myth­i­cal as strate­gic au­ton­omy. If such a de­bate en­sues, the Dokalam stand-off would have done some real good.

What are the lessons In­dia should learn from the pro­longed stand­off in Dokalam? Tell us at views@livemint.com


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