Border Stand-off : China is angry because Modi’s India has changed the rules of the game
All the elements of drama in high places are there. Six thousand soldiers from the world’s two largest countries are eyeball-to-eyeball, sometimes literally, on a remote chunk of Himalayan rock. The official discourse is becoming increasingly undiplomatic. The media on both sides is baying for blood. Amid all this the leaders of both countries are crossing paths in a far-off continent, trying to avoid discussing the crisis. One reason they aren’t: neither has a formula for resolution besides the other side playing dead. Best then to wait, watch and keep your powder dry.
The real story may be elsewhere. India and China have some spectacular run-ins every few years. The present stand-off is dwarfed by the Sumdorong Chu incident along the northern border of what is today called Arunachal Pradesh. That lasted from the summer of 1986 to the fall of 1987 and, at one point, China and India had mobilised over 100,000 soldiers between them. Not only did the two sides eventually agree to pull back, it paved the way for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s historic state visit to China. What seems to decide whether a bump-in-the-Himalayan fog becomes a big fandango are the other untied threads running through the fabric of Sino-Indian relations — and that the pattern they weave keeps changing.
The question to ask about the present Dokalam standoff is to ask how this is different from previous such incidents. On one parameter, reassuringly, that Dokalam does not differ from previous incidents is that none of the troops involved are using weapons. The soldiers are involved in a bit of push and shove but they are abiding closely by the existing border management agreements – meaning the two armies would look to Dabangg and not Rambo for their rules of engagement.
The differences arise elsewhere.
One is that India is decisively intervening on behalf of Bhutan. The Chinese have long nibbled at Bhutan’s borders without India doing too much about it. Atop the Dokalam plateau the Chinese army has been making paths, converting them into roads and then pouring concrete on them as part of a pattern of slowly encroaching on the Bhutanese claim area. Standard Sun Tzu-meets-Chinese bulldozers stuff. The Indian military are quite clear this plateau matters to them. If China were to take it over, the tri-junction of the India-China-Bhutanese border would actually move southward several kilometres. In jawan-speak that would bring a swathe of Sikkim and North Bengal under long-range Chinese artillery fire.
What is more important is the strategic messaging.
One, there is no evidence Beijing would not move the goalposts of its territorial claim further south if it were able to secure the Doklam plateau. As the last United States president, Barack Obama, said of the Chinese regime, “You also have to be pretty firm with them, because they will push as hard as they can until they meet resistance. They’re not sentimental…so simple appeals to international norms are insufficient.” He conceded most of the South China Sea before he grasped this.
The second message is in India’s decision to stand up for its closest ally. Until now, Thimpu has buckled before Beijing in part because it was uncertain if India would have their back. Many “friends of India” have been eaten by geopolitical lions simply because they ran into trouble at a time when New Delhi had slipped into a bout of navel-gazing. In this case, the Narendra Modi government decided to block the Chinese military road-building team and say, “Bhutan’s fight is our fight.” Much of Beijing’s outrage is its surprise that, in its eyes, India has unilaterally changed the rules of the game.
It is not only India which has suddenly begun drawing its friends closer. In recent years Beijing has aligned itself even more closely with Pakistan, effectively giving Islamabad a veto over anything dealing with India. New Delhi, on the other hand, has been quietly forging linkages with the likes of Japan and, more nascently, Germany to counter Chinese grand strategy. While everyone pops a blood vessel about carriers and defence budgets, the real weapons in all this is finance, infrastructure building and the diplomatic equivalent of baby-kissing and glad-handing. If one thinks Modi travels a lot, Xi Jinping began travelling a week after assuming the Chinese presidency and spent the equivalent of five months of his first four years overseas.
The Doklam stand-off is now into its fourth week. Perhaps just to fill the time, the Chinese government has grumbled about India helping Bhutan and the Dalai Lama visiting Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese media has vented on every outstanding source of friction from India’s opposition the Belt-Road Initiative to India’s defence ties with the United States. The 1962 war has inevitably been raised. Presumable, if Dokolam drags on into the winter, the invasion of north Bihar by a Tang dynasty expeditionary force may also come up.
What is really happening here is that two large nations, thanks to expanding chests, are changing the size and cut of their suits every few years. China, already the world’s number two economy, still cannot fully make up its mind how to function, talking about a “pacific” rise to power one day and then being short-sightedly aggressive with all its neighbours the next. India is much further down the power curve but has done a better job in leveraging relations with the existing global rulers.
Curiously, the two seem to be rubbing up against each other more over third countries than they are against each other directly.
Pakistan is becoming both a source of strength and weakness as China shifts from being that troubled country’s friendly neighbour to its legal guardian. Bhutan is probably more than surprised to find thousands of Indian troops arriving to support territorial claims most of its citizens are barely aware of. New Delhi and Beijing need to recognise that they are both different countries today from what they were even five years ago, let alone 1962, and will be different countries again five years hence. Assuming neither really wants a genuine dust-up, then a franker, more frequent and deeper sharing of minds about the world is needed to keep the worst of the relationship to pushing, shoving and wild-eyed news anchors.