A Mole­hill Out of a Moun­tain

Dokalam is an em­phatic win for In­dia, mark­ing the first se­ri­ous In­dian push­back to China

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Ab­hi­jit Iyer-Mi­tra

For some strange rea­son peo­ple in In­dia seem to think that In­dia is some­how on the back­foot in its lat­est show­down with China over the Dokalam tri­junc­tion. Some feel that should the sit­u­a­tion con­tinue or de­te­ri­o­rate, ‘strate­gic de­fi­ance’ may be the only op­tion. This, how­ever, is not the im­pres­sion in Bei­jing. In pri­vate, the Chi­nese feel that they, rather than In­dia, are caught in a bind, un­able to re­sort to the use of force for fear of de­stroy­ing the myth of nu­clear de­ter­rence, but still supremely con­fi­dent that strate­gic de­fi­ance by In­dia, on the other hand, will be eco­nom­i­cally and diplo­mat­i­cally dis­as­trous for In­dia.

As a dear friend in Bei­jing summed it up rather rudely, “In­dia is a dog. What­ever we do to you, you will first bark and snarl, but then ac­cept and come back wag­ging your tail. The prob­lem now is what we can do to you is also very lim­ited.”

This raises the ques­tion as to why In­dia feels it is los­ing con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion. And sec­ond, if this idea that In­dia will some­how fi­nally turn on China is based on re­al­ity or plain wish­ful think­ing.

Let us be clear about one thing — far from los­ing con­trol, this has, in fact, been one of the best man­aged crises by In­dia’s min­istry of ex­ter­nal af­fairs. In­dia’s tone has been per­sis­tently calm, not threat­en­ing ac- tion, but stick­ing to its guns. And for the first time in decades, it is stand­ing up to Chi­nese bul­ly­ing and star­ing it down. The ‘los­ing con­trol’ and ‘es­ca­lat­ing cri­sis’ nar­ra­tives seem to be emerg­ing only from a set of strate­gic com­men­ta­tors whose win­dow seems to be lim­ited to Xinhua and Global Times, and com­pletely de­void of pri­mary re­search.

No Es­ca­la­tion

Hav­ing toured the area over the last seven days, there seems to be no es­ca­la­tion in troop numbers what­so­ever. Land­ing in Lhasa, one could count about 12-14 Sukhoi fam­ily air­craft. And driv­ing past the Shi­gatse air­base, given the dif­fi­cul­ties of ob­serv­ing the tar­mac, one could count be­tween three and seven J-10 fight­ers. The en­tire Lhasa to Shi­gatse stretch also showed no signs of in­creased in­fantry ac­tiv­ity, no spurt in mil­i­tary lo­gis­tics and only some pa­rade/TV op­ti­mised ar­tillery lined up in Lhasa's mar­shalling yards along the Lhasa-Bei­jing rail­way.

Clearly then, the only real ‘es­ca­la­tion’ that can hap­pen is un­armed Chi­nese bor­der troops com­ing into and squat­ting in In­dian ter­ri­tory, as sug­gested by the Chi­nese min­istry of for­eign af­fairs ear­lier this week — a ma­jor ‘climb-down’, if one can call it that — from pre­vi­ous threats, which were omi­nous sim­ply be­cause of the lack of speci­ficity.

We also have a pat­tern of sim­i­lar ac­tion across the South China Sea to judge China by. It has re­sorted to sim­i­lar ‘sea grabs’ there, depend­ing purely on the fear of the other par­ties to the dis­pute to avoid es­ca­lat­ing the sit­u­a­tion to fa­tal­i­ties. That fear sim­ply doesn’t work with In­dia, for the sim­ple rea­son that both sides are nu­clear-armed. This is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant as the sit­u­a­tion thus far in­di­cates that while In­dia’s doc­trine of de­ter­rence may have failed on the western front (in all fair­ness, it was never di­rected against Pak­istan), it has had a clear suc­cess in the east (where it was di­rected all along) by putting hard lim­its on how far China can es­ca­late.

Stuck in Limbo

The diplo­matic and strate­gic costs of es­ca­la­tion for China now are se­vere, even if In­dian war­heads can’t reach the Chi­nese east­ern seaboard, tak­ing China down sev­eral pegs equat­ing it with rogue re­vi­sion­ist states like Pak­istan and de­stroy­ing the im­age of it be­ing a more or less ‘re­spon­si­ble’ player on the world stage. All in­di­ca­tors then are that short of an ex­tremely se­ri­ous mis­cal­cu­la­tion by the Chi­nese lead­er­ship, the sit­u­a­tion has plateaued. The only spikes will be ver­bal, and that too from the Chi­nese side.

Which also com­pli­cates things for the Chi­nese lead­er­ship when it chooses to de-es­ca­late. It, how­ever, seems to have re­alised its mis­take af­ter its first at­tempt to do so — claim­ing that In­dia had re­duced the num­ber of troops. The fu­ri­ous deni- al by In­dia caught it off guard with col­leagues in Bei­jing ad­mit­ting that they had mis­cal­cu­lated, and not fac­tored in how this would be per­ceived in In­dia do­mes­ti­cally.

All up, we seem stuck in limbo. Es­ca­la­tion is not an op­tion for China. But de-es­ca­la­tion also seems im­pos­si­ble, till pub­lic at­ten­tion is shifted else­where. On the other hand, it is high time the In­dian me­dia also re­alise what the MEA and PMO seemed to have long back — that In­dian strate­gic de­fi­ance is a non-starter.

China’s mas­sive in­fu­sion of fin­ished goods, such as mo­bile phones, are the core driv­ers of the In­dian econ­omy and im­pos­si­ble to sub­sti­tute. Equally, if we choose to go against China, we might as well kiss good­bye to any chance of UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and Nu­clear Sup­pli­ers’ Group (NSG) mem­ber­ship. In this sit­u­a­tion, Dokalam is a win, an em­phatic win, the best pos­si­ble un­der the cir­cum­stances, mark­ing the first se­ri­ous In­dian (and ar­guably global) push­back to Chi­nese salami tac­tics.

The writer is se­nior fel­low, In­sti­tute of Peace and Con­flict Stud­ies, New Delhi

Fi­nally, get­ting the hang of mar­tial arts

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