Doklam: Diplomacy by other means

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The just concluded India-China stand-off at Doklam has called upon the Governments of both countries to engage in greater confidence building measures. Both, Beijing and New Delhi must avoid any misunderstandings about each other's intentions

A Press statement was issued on the Ministry of External Affairs’  (MEA) twitter handle titled, ‘Doklam disengagement understanding’, and just like that, the tense two month stand-off between India and China came to an end. In fact, the stand-off came to light when the MEA tweeted that there were “issues” with pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar via Nathu La, which is close to Doklam.

The use of twitter to announce the end of the stand-off and the wordings shows that the Government underplayed the seriousness of the stand-off and the maturity with which it handled it, even as China was waging a psychological war via its state-controlled media, telling that India will be taught a lesson better than 1962. It even went to the extent of making videos with racial connotations.

India provided China with a face saver which boxed itself with very little maneuvering space with its belligerent statements over the preceding two months. New Delhi had a clear stated objective of restoration of pre-June 16 status quo and stopping Chinese road construction. Once that was agreed to, India gave China the face saver they needed by moving out the troops first.

The low key manner in which the disengagement was announced and the absence of any chest thumping by the Government or the media, showed that India was sensitive to Chinese concerns of its prestige for its domestic audience, unlike what happened after the surgical strikes against Pakistan. The Government did not create a difficult situation for China by claiming victory after its stated objective was achieved.

In the commentaries that have appeared since the stand-off ended, many have counseled that India should not learn the wrong lessons and take the Doklam resolution as template for future crises which is bound to take place due to both the slight the Chinese would be feeling about India and also the long unresolved boundary.

But it will not be in India’s interests to learn the wrong, wrong lessons. India used diplomacy to resolve the Doklam crises backed by strong military posture by mobilising a large number of troops. More importantly, it put on alert both its conventional cruise missiles and strategic assets as stated by Lt Gen HS Panag, the former northern Army Commander, in his column recently. India showed the intent to fight if its strategic interests were hurt.

India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, visited Beijing while the stand-off was on, to participate in the Brics summit and met with Chinese officials to discuss the stand-off. Doval would have conveyed that India will not compromise on its security which was threatened by China’s land grab in Bhutan. Doval was portrayed in the Chinese state media as the “main schemer” of the Doklam stand-off. 

India’s experience of losing its territory of Aksai Chin to China is a lesson it cannot forget. India was oblivious to the fact that China was building its national highway 219 connecting Tibet with Xinjiang through Aksai Chin during the 1950s which opened officially in 1958. By the time India protested the highway, it was too late.

Beijing told New Delhi that Aksai Chin was its territory and that any further negotiation will have to consider the facts on the ground. The same was attempted in Doklam which India was quick to stop, although this was in Bhutan’s territory but with a bearing on India’s security. This template of building infrastructure and grabbing land has been used by China in the seas of South China Sea as well.

China claims the entire South China Sea and undertook massive land reclamation on various islands which went unopposed by other nations claiming them. China militarised the reclaimed land by installing air defence system, making 10,000 feet runways and ports that can handle large jets and warships. China exercises de facto control over these islands and the ability to control the entire South China Sea. The US has conducted numerous freedom of navigation operations using its warships close to these islands but it doesn’t change the ground reality.

The nations of Indo-Pacific, reeling under China’s land and water grab, will have watched the resolution of the stand-off closely. Rory Medcalf of Lowy Institute opined in his column that “the firmness on the ground, combined with the patient and low-key nature of India’s diplomatic negotiations may provide a new template for handling Chinese coercion and that Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia, will be watching with more than academic interest.”

The stand-off, however, throws up the need for India and China to engage in creating larger confidence building measures from the existing an agreement for border management. Both, China and India are nuclear armed countries with missiles capable of reaching every major city. China’s second artillery corps has in its inventory, thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles. India has deployed cruise missiles on the border with China and has ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. India also has operationalised its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine, INS Arihant, with and launched its second in class submarine the INS Aridhaman with plans to add more and increasingly capable nuclear submarines that will be armed with long range ballistic missiles.

China refuses to recognise India as a nuclear weapons power and discuss any nuclear confidence building measures. It is also the reason why it blocks India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India has the opportunity to propose new confidence building measures which gets China to recognise India as a nuclear weapons state and discuss ways to avoid any misunderstandings about each other’s intentions.

Prime Minister Modi, in his meeting with President Xi during the recent Brics summit discussed the need to build trust. If India convinces China to discuss nuclear confidence building measures, it will be a positive outcome from the Doklam stand-off.

(The writer is editor, Defence Forum India)

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