The 72-day long face-off between Chinese and Indian border personnel in the Doklam plateau of Bhutan was quietly, albeit opaquely, resolved on August 28, with New Delhi and Beijing arriving at a low-key modus-vivendi. The original trigger for this tense face-off was the road construction activity of the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) in an area deemed to be disputed between Bhutan and China. Since Thimphu was unable to prevail upon Beijing to desist, India, as per its treaty obligations with Bhutan and related security concerns apropos the Siliguri corridor, moved its troops to buttress the Thimphu claim.
To the credit of negotiators from all sides, the Doklam face-off has been resolved for now, with Chinese road construction equipment being moved away and Indian troops withdrawing in a mutually agreed manner.
Bhutan, the directly affected party, has welcomed this diplomatic closure to what could have been a costly conclusion, had it escalated to a military skirmish or limited exchange of ordnance. PM Narendra Modi is also preparing for the BRICS Summit to be hosted by President Xi Jinping in Xiamen (from September 3-5) and this is a positive signal.
What made the two sides ‘disengage’ from Doklam, given that over the last three months both had adopted a tough stand, wherein any kind of accommodation looked difficult? A combination of reasons may be advanced, but keeping the diplomatic window open, despite the shrill and fiercely nationalistic claims and allegations that emanated from Beijing (not all of it from ‘official’ China) was a critical factor.
Doklam was distinctive, for it involved a third nation—Bhutan—and hence different from earlier purely bilateral ‘incidents’, such as Depsang (April 2013), between China and India. An angry Chinese dragon swatting a tiny, gentle lamb like Bhutan had severe perception connotations that Beijing could hardly ignore.
Among the many factors that enabled the mutual disengagement are a degree of political prudence and perspicacity on both sides, wherein the big picture of what is at stake for the two Asian giants over the next decades trumped more emotive tactical compulsions. Outlets such as the Global Times in China and their TV counterparts in India were baying for blood. A recall of the October 1962 war in some Chinese platforms was unfortunate and social media attempts to ridicule the Indian turban were clumsy.
Indian resolve and restraint were on display from end June and it is understood that a considerable amount of quiet diplomacy was at play, involving the PMO, MEA and the Army, so that the appropriate signals and messages were conveyed to Beijing. From a purely military perspective, it was evident that the Doklam region and the tri-junction between China, Bhutan and India did not favour the PLA and the tactical/terrain advantage lay with the Indian Army. Thus any imprudent action by China would have led to a high-visibility setback that would have been politically suicidal for President Xi.
The fact that China is hosting the BRICS summit in early September and that the 19th Party Congress will be held later in the year means this is a high-stakes period for the credibility and future of President Xi. Any discord with India that had an unpredictable military escalation index would have been a serious setback when Beijing has its hand more than full with the North Korean imbroglio and a simmering uncertainty with US President Donald Trump. And a cautiously assertive Japan that did not hesitate to support the Indian position on Doklam only compounded the situation for China.
Against this backdrop, the Indian signal that a modus vivendi could be arrived at, wherein neither side would ‘lose face’ and yet claim that their stand had been vindicated was an adroit move. To assuage domestic sensitivities, neither New Delhi nor Beijing challenged or questioned the ‘narrative’ of the ‘other’—reiterating the conflict resolution adage that some gains are better realised through opacity and silence!
THE WAY AHEAD
Doklam, to my mind, will be the new normal as far as India-China bilateral ties are concerned and though hopefully it will remain a stand-alone incident, the reality is that their complex territorial cum border dispute remains trapped in much the same unresolved and bitterly contested contour that was discernible in October 1962.
The Doklam experience will be the filter through which both India and China will manage their engagement of the nearly 4,000 km long LoAC (line of actual control), from the western sector proximate to Pakistan, through the central to the eastern sector that includes Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang.
It may be averred that the PLA will be internalising the lessons learnt from Doklam and like any professional military—they will be determined not to be caught in a similar disadvantageous situation. The LoAC is varied in its topography and terrain and both armies have an acute appreciation of sectors where the tactical challenge/threat varies from low to high.
The military maxim that you must consolidate and improve your own advantage and deny it to the adversary is time-tested and what China has done over the years is to improve its logistics and connectivity infrastructure in areas it deems strategically relevant or significant. Thus, the PLA’s access to the LoAC is far more enabled than that of India, and border personnel on both sides have been regularly patrolling—at times aggressively—to stake their respective claims along a line that is notional.
India, in contrast, has not been able to match the Chinese investment and connectivity remains rudimentary. As Lt. Gen Vinod Bhatia, a former DGMO (who dealt with the Depsang incident) notes: “The contrast between China and India is stark—as regards connectivity links (roads) and related infrastructure including helipads to access the LoAC. One statistic is revealing. India had sanctioned 73 border roads leading towards the LoAC in 2005. And 12 years later, only 29 have been completed and 44 are in different stages of completion.”
I think once President Xi consolidates his internal position in end 2017, the probability of more Depsangs will increase. Concurrently, a concerted attempt to woo India’s neighbours like Bhutan and Nepal will also be pursued.
Thus, India will have to evolve more effective LoAC management protocols and this will have to be over and above the existing tactical army-to-army protocols and the framework for crisis management between the two foreign ministries.
The use of surveillance technology, including all-weather satellites with synthetic apertures (SAR), unmanned drones and HALE (high altitude-long endurance) platforms, needs to be explored by both sides.
In the Cold War period, the US and the former USSR had arrived at a crisis avoidance protocol to avoid untoward incidents on the high seas. This 1972 agreement (INCSEA) is a useful template and both India and China could consider a variant of this for better managing their respective military presence along the LoAC.
If the texture of the political relationship improves and the Modi-Xi combine is committed to realising the potential of the Asian century—perhaps ‘kabbadi’ fixtures can substitute for the unseemly physical jostling on display during the Doklam face-off. And the LoAC will no longer be patrolled in such a sullen and intimidating manner!
(The author is a leading security and strategic affairs expert)