Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

Experts assess India’s diplomatic policy with Bhutan and what bearing it’s had on the border dispute with China.

Published
India
9 min read
A signboard seen from the Indian side of the India-China border.
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A month into the Doklam standoff, the Pentagon, on Saturday, encouraged India and China to engage in direct dialogue aimed at reducing tensions and free of any coercive aspects. India has taken a strong position after refusing to let the PLA troops build a road through an 89 sq km pasture land in Sikkim. Later this month, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is expected to travel to Beijing to attend a meeting of BRICS.

The meeting would follow China’s briefing to foreign diplomats to assert that while the Chinese troops have been waiting patiently, they may not do so indefinitely. How should India read the Chinese threat and how should it react? The Quint asked the experts.

Q. China usually follows its bark with a bite – as in the case of the no fly zone in East China Sea despite America threatening to breach that rule and also, building military bases on reclaimed rocks in the South China sea. By adopting a threatening tone, is China trying to merely posture or is India being complacent in thinking that China will not follow up its threat with military action?

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

Jayadeva Ranade: Communist countries, and especially China, have honed the art of propaganda warfare and carefully calibrated escalation. In the cases cited, for instance the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and reclamation of rocky outcrops in the South China Sea, it is incorrect to say “there was a bark before the bite”.

In both cases, China first created a dispute by fabricating a so-called historical claim and then followed that up by either declaring the ADIZ or going ahead with reclamation work in the South China Sea till such time as it was opposed.

In the former, Beijing did not declare the ADIZ as a ‘no-fly zone’, but advised international carriers to inform its air traffic control when they enter the ADIZ. Obviously, countries and their carriers, because they did not want to risk passengers or cargo and because insurance companies were unwilling to cover the risk, opted to comply, thereby de-facto ‘legitimising’ the ADIZ. Incidentally, China’s is not the only ADIZ in the area. In the outcrops in the South China Sea, China has used a blend of coercion and force.

It advanced antiquity and historical claims – all dismissed as untenable last year by the Permanent Court of Arbitration – and seized these outcrops.

With reference to India, China has laid claim to, or seized, large chunks of Indian territory. Here too it has resorted to so-called old historical maps of the period when China’s land area was at its largest. Quite contrary to popular impression, China’s position on its territorial claims has changed as it grew in strength. China can be expected to advance its claims whenever it feels it is in a strong position or India is weak. This aggressiveness has increased since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 and Xi Jinping’s installation as CCP CC General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. He will try and follow through on his ambition if feasible.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

Kanwal Sibal: It is not true that China usually follows its bark with a bite. It barks a lot but is careful about who to bite. It tolerates a lot from the US because it recognises the disparity in power. It bullies countries that are weak, whether Mongolia, Philippines or Norway. It rails a lot at Japan but is careful in resorting to any military challenge.

It has no doubt declared a ‘no-fly zone’ in the East China Sea and US airlines are observing it but Japan is not. It has militarised the artificial islands in the South China Sea without the US preventing it, but US ships are sailing within 12 miles of these “islands” without China being able to respond, except verbally.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

It has adopted a threatening tone towards India for several reasons. One, it has got away with unlawful actions in the South China Sea and has succeeded in dividing ASEAN.

Two, it has become conscious of its economic and financial muscle and calculates that the economic interests of other countries will compel them to accommodate China’s ambitions.

Three, it is now openly pursuing its ambitions to dominate Asia, reflected in its Belt and Road Initiative, and wants India to endorse the project and hence its primacy in Asia, which India is unwilling to do.

Fourth, its growing military muscle is adding to its hubris. India is not a small South-east Asian country that China can bully, but its attitude towards India is patronising and condescending, partly because India has been tolerating China’s numerous provocations without a strong response. It is engaged in psychological warfare against India in which it is being assisted by some of our people in politics, academia and the media.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

The view will get consolidated that China’s rise will not be peaceful and that it has become a destabilising force regionally and globally. We are not being complacent as we know what is at stake. We want to resolve the issue diplomatically but if China takes military action we will have to defend ourselves. We have no choice.

Q. After Nepal and Myanmar, is China now drawing politically closer to Bhutan? There are indications that except for the king and to some extent the current prime minister, a large swathe of mainstream Bhutanese political opinion could be swaying towards China. If that change is indeed occurring, what should India do?

Jayadeva Ranade: China has for long been wanting to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan and establish an Embassy in Thimpu. Mao Zedong had famously said that China is like the palm of a hand and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and NEFA ( then the North East Frontier Agency) its five fingers!

A few years ago the Chinese Embassy in Delhi and visitors from China were active in trying to create pro-China lobbies in Bhutan to influence the general elections. They still are. General elections are due again next year.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

India has done well by going to Bhutan’s aid. India needs to do more to build people-to-people ties and strengthen Bhutan. There needs to be closer economic, security and all-round cooperation.

Kanwal Sibal: I don’t think China is getting politically closer to Bhutan. It is not as if Bhutan has not noted Chinese muscle-flexing towards its smaller neighbours, even towards a Buddhist country like Mongolia. After all, China is claiming Bhutanese territory in the north and the west. India is not claiming any Bhutanese territory.

Here is one of the biggest countries in the world bullying one of the smallest territorially. How can Bhutan fall into China’s trap by ceding the Doklam plateau to China against China giving up its claims in the north? Will Bhutan take a conscious decision to endanger India’s security?

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

India is being very mindful of Bhutanese sovereignty concerns, which we should continue to do. What will the Bhutanese gain by antagonising India? Look at the mess Nepal is in and they have played the Chinese card against India for years. I don’t think we have any serious problem with Bhutan, though China can try to play mischief.

Q. Has Bhutan done enough in this standoff to “be seen with India”, or is it playing a “tactically silent” role as a signal of its growing closeness to China? Is this the reason that China has upped the rhetoric so much in this instance, since it may be a bit more confident about its growing proximity to Bhutan?

Jayadeva Ranade: Bhutan’s response to China’s intrusions over the years and on this occasion have been clear and categoric. There is a limit to which a nation of approx 28,000 sq kms with very limited military and fiscal resources can confront a country of 3.7 million sq miles bent on occupying what it claims as its territory.

Kanwal Sibal: I don’t think Bhutan needs to do more to be seen with India. They have issued a statement that the Chinese have violated bilateral understandings with them.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

We will not accept an aggravation of the Chinese threat to the Siliguri corridor in an area where the trijunction is not demarcated. This is linked to but also separate from the China-Bhutan problem. I think China has upped its rhetoric because India has thwarted its efforts and the Chinese have become so arrogant that they cannot tolerate this rebuff.

Q. How do you explain China pulling “Kashmir” into the narrative, something it has not been that keen on doing in the past?

Jayadeva Ranade: It is incorrect to say China has not been keen on drawing Kashmir into the narrative. After 1962, China’s position vis-a-vis Kashmir has changed and alternated between calling it disputed or claiming it.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

In May 2013, China restated its claim to Ladakh, calling it “Little Tibet”! The cessation of the Shaksgam Valley by Pakistan to China is additional evidence of their collusion.

Kanwal Sibal: On Kashmir they have provoked us in the past by resorting to stapled visas for residents of J&K, denying a visa to our Army Commander there and so on. Far more objectionably, they have initiated the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through Indian territory illegally occupied by Pakistan. Pulling Kashmir into the narrative, as you say, is not important.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

Q. India says it is defending the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ region that connects the Northeast. Is there any other strategic reasoning behind India’s decision not to back down?

Jayadeva Ranade: The 37-km wide Siliguri Corridor, or Chicken’s Neck, is India’s only land link to the eight Northeastern states. It is a vital transportation artery. It is important too for ensuring further integration between the Northeast and the Indian mainland and securing Arunachal Pradesh against Chinese adventurism.

Kanwal Sibal: The primary reason is the defence of the Chicken’s Neck region. Beyond that, if India backs down we will have signalled that the Chinese can do what they want unilaterally and India is too afraid to react. We would have conveyed to our neighbours and Asia at large that India, despite being an equal of China in many respects, is not willing to challenge China’s hegemonic ambitions.

Q. Would India’s decision not to back down in the future constitute a miscalculation?

Jayadeva Ranade: Failure to stand up to China’s bullying will irretrievably damage India’s standing in South Asia and among other nations. It will also undermine India’s security and play into China’s hands as what Beijing wants is a subservient India.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

The CPEC was announced without consulting India and ignoring India’s sovereign and territorial interests. It takes two to tango and, therefore, China should also want peace with its neighbour.

Kanwal Sibal: Appeasing China now and succumbing to its threats would be a serious miscalculation. China is being utterly disrespectful and even contemptuous of India. It is issuing ultimatums. It has to be shown its place if it refuses a logical and sensible solution to the situation it has wilfully created, as outlined by Sushma Swaraj’s statement in the parliament, which is conciliatory but firm.

Q. In the event of an escalation in the region, can India take on China? What does India stand to lose or gain?

Jayadeva Ranade: China’s military calculations are for a short, swift, decisive ‘local’ war where it brings overwhelming fire-power to bear on the adversary to win a clear victory. This will not happen in any showdown with India. I would expect any hostilities to be protracted, bloody and without any clear victory, but with damage to life, property and assets of both.

Should India Take China’s Doklam Threat Seriously? Experts Speak

Kanwal Sibal: Yes, we can take on China if it escalates the situation. We are, of course, not talking of an all-out war, but a clash on the border. Both sides will lose if it happens. We want to focus on building our economy and that project will suffer. A conflict should be avoided, but if it becomes inevitable, we will be freed from many constraints that we have imposed on ourselves despite China’s unceasing provocations, whether in Tibet, Taiwan, East Turkestan and so on.

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