There is a pattern to Chinese expansionism that we saw in Doklam: Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran

The Doklam standoff is resolved for now. However, how long the understanding between the two countries will sustain would depend on how Beijing perceives the India-China relationship going forward, feels former foreign secretary Shyam Saran.

China’s Doklam adventure, like in the South China Sea or Senkaku Islands, is part of a massive Chinese effort to rewrite their own history, he says, adding, “there is a pattern to Chinese expansionism that we saw in Doklam this summer.”

“By themselves, each action is not large enough to invite retribution. But taken together, they end up changing the reality on the ground. We saw this in the South China Sea, now we’re seeing it here,” the former foreign secretary said.

Until 1983, China had no presence in the Doklam plateau, said Shyam Saran. “Only their graziers came there seasonally, as did the Bhutanese. But soon after, China started objecting to Bhutanese shepherds, then they started sending patrols to the area, slowly moving towards building a dirt track, then upgrading to a jeep track. Finally, they sought to change the reality on the ground this summer by building a proper road all the way to the Jampheri ridge,” he said.

Saran said Bhutan is appreciative of India’s actions over the past couple of months. Bhutan believes the Chinese escalation was directed less against India than Bhutan, forcing the issue with Thimphu and pushing it to make a decision on the Chinese swap offer. China has offered to give Bhutan some areas in the north in return for Thimphu relinquishing claim to Doklam.

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As a result of the crisis where India stepped out to protect both Bhutanese and Indian security interests, this has been staved off for the time being. The Chinese decision to agree to stepping back, Saran says, is largely due to the fact that Beijing did not want to put the BRICS summit at risk.

The recent standoff convinces Saran that a China-centric world is not inevitable for the world. In a forthcoming book, “How India sees the World”, Saran argues China’s rise will not be uncontested. “There will always be a coalition of powers who will not readily accept that there is something natural about China becoming a dominant power. It is important to get this alternative narrative out, otherwise the Chinese narrative becomes uncontested.”

China does not have the “cosmopolitan spirit” necessary to become a leading power in a globalised and inter-connected world.Through most of its history, Saran says, China has been a rather insular power. “China seems to be suggesting that its emergence as a major power is nothing more than a reversion to its historical place as the dominant power in Asia. I have tried to point out that is not quite the case. There were phases when China was itself invaded and ruled. So, the Chinese version of its history needs to be re-examined.”

In fact, he goes on to say, “Chinese have neglected to mention that there were several period in history when they themselves were tributary to others, specially those that had sacked their capital, like the Tibetans for example, or some of the tribes living on the borders of China. Therefore it is a selective history and we should not take all Chinese assertions of their history as a given, but what is surprising is how much of that narrative has taken root.”

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Seen in this context, China’s extreme reaction to India’s reaction to its road-building he said, is because “they had not expected that there would be this move by India to confront and that too in a third country.”

“Whereas a decade ago, China agreed it was an emerging country and had more in common with countries like India … today it believes it has already a developed power – hence the harping, that “we’re five times your size”.






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