The damage the 10-week troop Doklam standoff inflicted on the already frayed India-China relationship will not be easy to repair. Indeed, the China-India divide over the border, water, trade, maritime and other issues, including transportation and economic corridors, may only widen. There is also the risk that the end of the face off could prove just a temporary respite from border tensions before confrontation flares anew.
China’s record under communist rule shows that it has at times retreated only to open a new front in the same area or elsewhere. Still, India — like Japan before it — has shown that if a neighbour is willing to stand up to China, it can be made to back away. Doklam is a defining event: For the first time since China’s success in expanding its control in the South China Sea, a rival power has stalled Chinese construction activity to change the status quo on a disputed territory.
Beijing was left with little choice but to negotiate a deal after India showed that it would not be cowed. Repeated Chinese warnings to India to back down or face dire consequences fell on deaf ears. Eventually, Beijing was forced to eat crow when it agreed to terminate the face-off through mutual disengagement of troops. Two factors forced Beijing’s hand. It wished to save the September 3-5 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China. More importantly, it wanted to safeguard President Xi Jinping’s reputation in the run-up to the critical party congress this autumn. Had the standoff with India dragged on, it could potentially have taken a toll on Xi’s standing.
Despite China’s overall military superiority, India, with its terrain and tactical advantages, was in a stronger position in the tri-junction area. It could have prolonged the face-off until the onset of the harsh Himalayan winter, thus casting a cloud over the Chinese party congress. A protracted standoff would have exacted increasing diplomatic costs for Beijing, given that India had dared to stand up to it, thus denting China’s reputed pre-eminence in Asia.
By reaching the deal, India effectively let China off the hook and did Xi an important favour at a time when he is focused on the party congress, which is expected to see him emerge as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. For New Delhi, salvaging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China visit for the BRICS summit, unfortunately, became an important consideration, although that grouping has increasingly come under Chinese sway. But Beijing is unlikely to return the favour, and India’s decision to let China escape a strategic predicament of its own making could come back to haunt it.
China has tactically retreated because, beyond declaring war on India, it was running out of options. But without the distraction of a looming party congress, China could seek revenge for Doklam at a time and place of its choosing. Next time, the PLA is unlikely to make the mistake of encroaching onto an area where India enjoys the military advantage. It will choose a place where it can spring a nasty surprise and dictate terms to the Indian army.
With India already facing increasingly persistent PLA efforts to intrude into its borderlands, eternal vigilance holds the key to Himalayan peace. Army chief General Bipin Rawat has cautioned that the country cannot be complacent because Doklam-style encroachments are likely to “increase in the future”. But while China uses the disputed long border with India as a justification to probe Indian defences and intrude where possible, India remains perennially in a reactive mode.
A grim reminder of the larger challenges in the bilateral relationship is China’s breach of legally binding obligations to supply India with hydrological data on upstream river flows in Tibet in order to facilitate flood forecasting and warnings. Beijing has offered no explanation for its failure this year to honour bilateral accords that require it to transfer data on specific rivers to India annually from May 15 to October 15. Had China been in India’s place, it would have linked the breach of commitment to the downstream floods and deaths. But India has been quiet.
Timely transmission of data would have helped generate flood warnings, thus saving lives and reducing material losses in the Northeast. The data denial apparently is designed to punish India for boycotting Xi’s May 14-15 “one belt, one road” summit in Beijing. When Beijing fails to honour formal bilateral agreements, will it stick to the Doklam deal? In 2012, China and the Philippines agreed to a deal to withdraw naval vessels from around the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China gave the impression it was withdrawing its ships, only to return and capture the shoal.
The Doklam affair illustrated China’s proclivity to miscalculate and overreach. India’s refusal to bend while talking peace offers China’s other neighbours an example of how to manage Chinese coercion. Doklam also raises a broader question: Had the US stood up to China in the South China Sea, would the seven artificial and now-militarised islands have been created? It is China’s success in altering the status quo there — without incurring any international costs — that has emboldened its territorial revisionism in the East China Sea and the Himalayas.