Doklam resolution: Diplomacy as strategy
The verbal construct, PRC stoutly stands for People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the short form rip-off, IRP, stands for Islamic Republic of Pakistan; and both are the perennial bugbears and bête noirs for the Indian Republic. It is a quintessential generalisation which happens to be the often administered truth of the regional realpolitik in South Asia. Since the times India decided to stay away from the rotund rigmarole of Non-Aligned doublespeak with Indonesia, Egypt and PRC, it had to fight its wars and engage antagonists in a sequestered manner in the larger South Asian region. The Chinese expansive and hegemonic foreign policy is a hallmark of the Han nation.
As PRC emerged from the era of failed treaties along with the idiom of the western nations parching dry the Chinese seaside ways through Opium Wars, China under Mao-Tse-Tung choose to follow the way of the warlord and power aggrandisement. The line diplomacy thought of China targetted the western nations, along with balancing out the smaller South Asian nations. China, as the mainland nation and as the focus of the realpolitik, rushed to individual nations. They attempted to champion the global striving to coin themselves as the global champion of Communism along with attempting to browbeat nations around the Indian Union.
The question of border troubles has largely ruled the roost in the larger framework of the “bilateral” relations between New Delhi and Beijing. It was initially the Sikhs who captured Tibet and some land in the Ladakh-Aksai Chin region and entered into a border delineation with the Chinese, then it was the British who took over; and now China controls the “large length” of land boundary with India and repeatedly cites the historicity of their claims over disputed territory in the twilight zone between India and China. The twilight surrounding the dark shadows of Indian and Chinese soldiers as they pelted stones at each other and engaged in fisticuffs was captured in a video posted by Lieutenant General Prakash as shedding light to the dark and cold confrontation grounds of Doklam. Apart from the doughty Indian Army moving close to the Doklam checkpoint, it was the staple tea and wine shop near Doklam in the nearby village, which, too, fell within the range of the Chinese stopovers at Doklam. The shop owner was least troubled and largely unperturbed by the threat of a Chinese military incursion near Doklam as with Indian forces being at an advantageous perch in Doklam, a Chinese onslaught was least expected from the point of contention.
The Chinese often cite the Simla Conference of early 20th century when the Chinese delegation was kept out of the confabulation in the conference room and the treaty of border delineation was largely decided between the British and the Tibetan delegate. Thus, on this premise, China does away with the outcome of the Simla Treaty and indulges repeatedly in a cartographic expansion and usurpation of territory causing consternation in India. And with the coming in of air warfare, the Himalayas, standing tall as the perennial saviours of the Indian Union, too does not stand true as the working maxim for New Delhi after the great Chinese betrayal of 1962.
There is a lot to be observed about Chinese incursions on the Indian borders. On April 5, 2013, a platoon-sized Chinese contingent set up a shop in Raki Nula near the Aksai Chin-Ladakh Line of Actual Control (LAC). It is a common occurrence that both the Indian and Han troops patrol the region but they both desist from establishing pickets and fortifications in the region. The Indian side agreed to remove some structures in the Chumar sector, which the Chinese command and control perceived as being threatening. Bloomberg reported, “The Chinese responded by publicly denying that there was any border issue, stating that their forces did not cross what they perceived the LAC to be. India opted not to take military action and pressed on with a long-planned visit to China by then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.” The Telegraph termed it as the battle of tents and banners at the border. In one of its reports, the national daily contended, “The Indian Army chief, General Bikram Singh, who returned from Jammu & Kashmir, told a group of military veterans in a closed-door meeting today that the Army has pitched eight tents in response to four pitched by the Chinese between the “Lines of Perception” on a dry bed of a rivulet called Raki Nala.”
Another incident occurred in 1986 in Sumdorong Chu, which ended as a loudspeaker war between the twin forces. The Telegraph reported in 2013, “In 1986, after the Chinese had moved into Sumdorong Chhu, a valley in Arunachal Pradesh, then Army chief General Sundarji ordered Operation Falcon with the Government’s nod. Two divisions of the Army were airlifted and they occupied high points around Sumdorong Chhu, threatening the Chinese. That led to a ‘loudspeaker war’ — each side warning the other over loudspeaker announcements — that ended in 1987. But it was not till 1995 that the Chinese vacated Sumdorong Chhu.”
Thus, both the nations in a manner have stayed away from real war despite indulging in war-time antics. This time around, the bombast and the ruckus causing rhetoric nearly brought both the estranged nations to the brink of exchanging military blows. But, it was the successful, street smart, astute and ground-based diplomatic brinkmanship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his diplomatic corps, which prevailed as an effective and timely reflection of crisis diplomacy, akin to what Jaswant Singh carried on in the heydays of the Kargil War. India is generally known to relent when a novae Chinese incursion takes place, but this time around Modi created a new border and diplomatic homology by playing hard ball with the expansionist China. The arcane Indian approach for a few years during the UPA regime had been to make an attempt to keep the Chinese incursions localised thus turning away from any circumstance of an imminent and grandiloquent Himalayan face-off. Still, what Modi has achieved as a “change we can dictum” is the stance and the standpoint that India will no longer falter and fear a territory-hungry foe, despite the convergence ordained figure of bilateral trade crossing $70 billion. With the Chinese intent clear on being a “force on” in South Asia, India can as well carry on with its own containment strategy in a volatile South-East Asia dictated by rapturous democracy movements and the debilitating aftershocks of Chinese hegemonic designs in the South China Sea, which PRC avowedly treats as its own backwaters contrary to the “Freedom of Navigation” as practiced by the American fleets in the regional seas. India too embarked on its own “Belt and Road Initiative” by attempting an India-Thailand-Myanmar Trilateral Highway and a highway from Imphal to the interior South-East-Asian confines. Still, the targets of completion akin to acquisition of armaments have not been met and the Chinese challenge remains there for all to be seen and witnessed as an out-flowing trending. Also, as an attendant fact, the Chinese clarion call in May 2017 as part of its “One Road and one Belt initiative”, which was hosted by China, brought together 29 heads of states and 1,600 representatives from 80 odd international organisations and 140 odd nations. The Chinese claim that there is an idiom of constructive and substantial economic engagement behind this global Chinese paradigm and it would be a misreading by nations such as India if a geopolitical oeuvre is attached to the larger concern of the One Belt and One Road initiative.
China cannily and surreptitiously couches its militarist and expansionist Chinese dream in the ambit of the “Sustainable Development Goals” which have a target to be attained by 2030.
Thus, the old Chinese adage of “perpetually preparing for a war and striking when the enemy is lying low and is unprepared” still poignantly persists as the driving dictum of the Han strategic thought and the larger diplomatic practice. Akin to the “Kut Yudh,” the Chinese and Indian juggernauts have been launched and they make noise now and then in order to clank with the clutter of confrontation. The Doklam standoff was also part of the larger Chinese designs to harass New Delhi but the strong arm modicum employed through the muscular arm of diplomacy communicated a strong message and motif that the “New India” is well prepared and does take lessons from the 1962 debacle. It was the Nehru denomination which had to seek American help in the form of radars and star-fighters in an epistle which Jawaharlal Nehru wrote as an urgent epistle to US President JFK. The “New India” evades all this self-defeating sojourn as US is already an ally and a good friend. One might as well venture out into a leisurely conjecture that India is too intelligent to be used by the US as a bulwark against Beijing but can India embark on a “bold line strategy” vis-à-vis China with a clever Washington acting as a surfing board support for New Delhi?
(The writer teaches International Relations at Indian Institute of Public Administration, Delhi)
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