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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

Doklam crisis: Is China pushing India back for its ‘assertive bilateral diplomacy’?

China’s motivations for initiating the crisis through building the road at Doklam are still a matter of guesswork. It may be seeking to achieve several purposes at once.

opinion Updated: Oct 07, 2017 10:28 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
This file photo taken on July 10, 2008, shows a Chinese soldier (L) gesturing next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in India's Sikkim state.
This file photo taken on July 10, 2008, shows a Chinese soldier (L) gesturing next to an Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China in India's Sikkim state. (AFP File Photo)

A series of media reports indicate that the India-China tensions over Doklam are far from resolved. The Chinese have reportedly stationed 1,500 to 1,700 troops a few hundred meters from the site of the 71-day standoff between Indian and Chinese forces. China has started fresh construction on an existing track around 10 kilometres from the standoff site. The Indian Express reported that around 1,000 Chinese troops are still on the plateau, “a few hundred metres from the faceoff site.” Indian and Chinese troops moved back around 150 metres each on August 28 as per the decision to disengage but status quo ante as on June 16 has not yet been restored.

The immediate implication of this is that the August 28 disengagement may no longer be considered as a diplomatic victory for India. Analysts were quick to applaud India for holding firm and stated that India had shown the world how to stand up to Chinese coercion. That appears to be a hasty claim since the situation is still unfolding and it reflects a view that underestimates how important notions of status and primacy in Asia are for Chinese policymakers – especially now when they aim to challenge the US in the continent. Analysts may well have misconstrued China’s tactical retreat before the BRICS summit in Xiamen as weakened strategic resolve.

That said China’s motivations for initiating the crisis through building the road at Doklam are still a matter of guesswork. It may be seeking to achieve several purposes at once. These include improving its negotiating position to extract concessions elsewhere on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), making inroads to threaten the narrow Siliguri corridor that connects Northeast states to the rest of India and driving a wedge between India and Bhutan. All this is really a precipitous decline in ties from two years ago in 2015 when the two countries enthused about realising the “Asian century” saying that development goals and security interests “must unfold in a mutually supportive manner with both sides showing mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations.”

Beijing’s views on India have clearly changed since then. A fascinating paper by Prof. Kanti Bajpai that was published in the journal International Affairs earlier this year explores the reasons as to why China now sees the relationship in adversarial terms. In the paper titled “Narendra Modi’s Pakistan and China policy: assertive bilateral diplomacy, active coalition diplomacy”, Bajpai argues that Modi has made two distinctive shifts in foreign affairs: He has emphasised assertiveness at the expense of “cautious prudence” and he has set aside Delhi’s aversion to alliances and focused on international coalition-building – directed at the two neighbours.

Modi’s approach, in Bajpai’s view, features a “cooperation-defection dynamic” whereby exuberant high-level summitry is preceded or succeeded by “strategic coalition-building” with other nations. In the case of Pakistan during 2014-15, this entailed attempting high-level contact with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while attempting to isolate Pakistan on the issue of terrorism.

Modi has tried this approach with China as well. The Indian PM invited President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014 and himself visited Beijing in May 2015, but this phase was also marked by Delhi’s outreach to other powers in the region in way that will have rankled Beijing. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, for instance, Modi himself and the Indian President Pranab Mukherjeee “made trips to the two most anti-Chinese states in east Asia, Vietnam and Japan, prior to Xi’s India visit.” Modi visited Japan three weeks before Xi’s visit while Mukherjee was in Vietnam a day before the Chinese President landed in India. Modi also adopted a harder military line when PLA troops confronted Indian soldiers at Chumar in Ladakh, during Xi’s visit.

Soon after he visited the US for the UN General Assembly session in September 2014, Vietnam in October and Australia in November. Obama arrived in India in January 2015 where the two sides signed the ‘joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region.’ India has been not only strengthening military cooperation with the US, Japan, Vietnam and Australia but it is also consolidating links with key Indian Ocean states. Modi visited Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in 2015 as part of an effort to build a “maritime coalition to block China’s growing diplomatic and military inroads” into the Indian Ocean region.

India’s assertiveness is also evident in its rhetoric and other policy moves. Modi and Barack Obama co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed in 2014 pledging to “jointly work to maintain freedom of navigation and lawful commerce across the seas”, thus referring to a partnership in the East and South China Seas. Modi “publicly derided” China in Japan only days before Xi’s visit to India. Talking to business leaders in Tokyo he said, “The world is divided in two camps. One camp believes in expansionist policies [i.e. China], while the other believes in development. We have to decide whether the world should get caught in the grip of expansionist policies or we should lead it on the path of development.” Bajpai plots other points of friction in his research, including Delhi’s pressure on Beijing to put terrorist Maulana Masood Azhar on a sanctions list and India pressing China to support its admittance to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (and subsequently blaming China when it did not happen). India also went on to oppose the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as is well-known.

What Bajpai’s paper shows is that at the time China was seeking to establish dominance in Asia, India was simultaneously pursuing a set of coalition-building strategies to contest Beijing’s primacy. Given how perceptions matter to aspiring great powers Beijing could not have been seen as taking India’s balancing attempts lightly. The crisis over Doklam may thus have been intended to reset the terms of the bilateral relationship.

How should India view the situation? Its policymakers are well within their rights to argue that Delhi’s assertiveness was necessary to counter China’s backing of Pakistan, its periodic incursions on the LAC or its encircling tactics through the putative “string of pearls” approach or subsequently the BRI and its elements like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

But the Doklam crisis is an opportune moment to ask if Delhi’s assertive diplomacy has been effective. Bajpai writes that one of Modi’s motivations for his policy was to push China towards a border settlement, in the hope that peace would lead to normalisation, rather than the other way around as has been the belief so far. That objective has clearly not been achieved as the border question has been further complicated by the Doklam standoff.

There are a couple of factors for India to consider hereon. One that confrontation with China works only if India has the economic, military and intellectual resources to sustain it. With the growth rates being what they are and universities the state they are in and ammunition reserves only capable of lasting 10 days in a war, India may be better off with an engagement strategy that bides its time, addresses its own weaknesses and is more judicious about which battles to pick with Beijing. Delhi will also know that Asian geopolitics are in a state of drift with a Trump administration in disarray or otherwise preoccupied with North Korea. India will accordingly need to calibrate its ties with a distracted Washington and a rising China in ways that advance its own interests.

Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao has recently argued that China is, all said and done, an adversary that India can be pragmatic with. Doklam may yet be an opportunity to reset the terms of how Asia’s two biggest countries deal with each other, if the right lessons are learnt.

The author’s Twitter handle is @SushilAaron.

View expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Oct 07, 2017 10:27 IST