Saturday, September 2, 2017

Assessing Doklam

Whatever spin and interpretation is given, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the end to the Doklam stand-off between China and India has been a victory for India on points

At the least, it has successfully thwarted China's efforts to build a strategic transportation link that would have exposed India's "chicken neck" border area. Further, it has also signalled to China that India will not hesitate to intervene on behalf of smaller countries in its neighbourhood in case of their disputes with China. The framing of the negotiations between the two countries was unmistakably one of a bilateral dispute when the fact remained that India was negotiating on behalf of Bhutan. More importantly, it has clearly sent out message to China that India has the appetite to confront China and engage in a military stand-off. 

To this extent, unlike India's no trade-off feel-good foreign policy of the past three years, this episode should count as among the very rare genuine successes of Indian foreign policy not just of this government but also over the past couple of decades. In fact, it is arguable that, for those conversant in the nuances of foreign policy, this may be one of the very few occasions in recent memory of  China leaving a confrontation with another country as the second-best. Coming on the back of India's refusal to endorse and participate in Xi Jinping's high stakes OBOR launch, it does clearly signal a very combative stance by India with respect to China. This is all the more important since none of the others including Japan and S Korea have been willing to go this far.  

The best analysis of the border stand-off comes from a Stimson Centre article by Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore. Their assessment,
Monday’s agreement to end the standoff returns to the situation to the status quo ante, exactly as India and Bhutan demanded. Troops from both sides have disengaged, and China claims it will continue patrolling and asserting its sovereignty claims. The official statements are vague on some details, presumably to save face among their respective publics. Most importantly, the statements only imply — rather than saying outright — that China will abandon the road construction that triggered the crisis. Beijing seems to have blinked.
They describe a classic four-stage playbook of Chinese diplomacy in such border disputes - use its military strength to gradually develop a larger or more permanent physical presence in areas where it already has a degree of de-facto control; coercive diplomacy to get the target state to change its policies or behaviour and engage them in bilateral negotiations; use legal rhetoric and principles to present its position as legitimate and lawful; use media to highlight its narrative and issue threats. The same playbook was used in Doklam. But the difference was that India instead of protesting actually entered the field and physically stopped the encroachment. 

Their takeaways from the episode, 
Chinese behavior in territorial disputes is more likely to be deterred by denial than by threats of punishment. China will continue the combination of consolidating its physical presence and engaging in coercive diplomacy, lawfare, and media campaigns unless it is stopped directly. This is what India did at Doklam — it directly blocked Chinese efforts to change the status quo... the agreement to disengage suggests that Beijing’s position in crises can be flexible, and perhaps responsive to assertive counter-coercion... Finally, the Doklam agreement, even if it is temporary, tells us that when China confronts a significantly weaker target, such as Bhutan, it will only be deterred by the actions of a stronger third party — in this case, India. Had India not acted, China would likely have been successful in consolidating its control and extracting territorial concessions from Bhutan... The lesson of Doklam for the United States is that arming small states and imposing incremental costs may not be enough. Washington may have to accept the greater risks associated with intervening more directly if it hopes to counter Chinese expansion in East Asia.
And one cannot also but not get the impression that the episode has stung the Chinese. This reaction by the Foreign Ministry spokesperson advising the Prime Minister of India to not raise Pakistan's support for terrorism during the forthcoming BRICS summit in China was baffling and ill-advised. It gives the impression of a side which has been rattled. It was inexplicable that such advise be given in a press conference. It is only common sense that such messages are best conveyed in private. 

In fact, instead of deterring India from raising Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism, the spokesperson's advice is most certain to have ensured that India will raise Pakistan, if only to counter the remarks. And once that happens, it is likely to leave the Chinese even more on the defensive.  

For others reading the tea-leaves on how to deal with China, this would be more encouragement to take a leaf out of India's playbook. Talk about self-goals!

India should be grateful that Bhutan at very high risk and future consequences to itself stood by India.  It is unlikely that any other country would have allowed India to engage on their behalf. Also China is unlikely to forget this in a hurry and one can expect something over the coming months, if only to wrest back some of the psychological initiative.

One swallow does not make a summer. Whether we like it or not, the region and the Indian Ocean-Arabian Sea-Bay of Bengal areas will most likely be terrains for great power politics, often bordering on the violent, in the decades ahead. This momentum should be leveraged to take action on at least the following four fronts

1. Develop long-term defence capabilities including modernising and expanding India military capabilities.

2. Continue to deepen partnerships with neighbours, regional powers, and the US, with a clear strategic dimension in each relationship, using the country's growing economic importance as a leverage.

3. Develop and strengthen naval facilities in its seas, including in the strategically located Andamans in order to be able to exercise some control over the adjoining maritime routes or at the least deter alien powers in the sub-continental waters.

4. The maritime strategy should be supplemented with opening up transportation corridors connecting India's vulnerable northeast with the Far East so as to forge economic links that can mitigate the risks arising from the creeping Chinese influence over countries like Myanmar.

All this will of course not come cheap or without trade-offs.

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